Singapore. - In the Southeast Asian city-state foreign low-skilled domestic workers are known as the "silent army", supporting the economically stable in Singapore. About 220.000 women left their own families behind to cook, clean and care for other people´s children and elderly. The workers contribute greatly to Singapore society and economy, yet they often suffer excessive exploitation and abuse. There are organization such as the Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) dedicated to helping migrant workers, with legal aid and shelters in case of abuse. And the campaign A Home Away from Home Singapore seeks to engage Singaporeans into support and solidarity with domestic workers.

The campaign aims to raise awareness of violence and other issues that domestic workers in Singapore are facing. "Through this project, we wanted to increase visibility and, in the long run, inclusivity through a day of appreciation for the domestic workers themselves and to try to effect attitudinal change in the minds of the general public."

According to Yen Ping Chng domestic workers are the "unsung heroes", treated as an invisible group and as outsiders. "We hope to raise the visibility of this particular social group within our society, with the intentions of shedding light on their plights of both domestic abuse and exclusion from society. This is also such an important cause to raise gender violence awareness of oppressed women in Asia and especially Singapore."

Personally, Chng being raised in a household with a domestic worker, understands very well how hard it was for the workers to leave their family and country to work for another one. Arlie Hochschild named this concept the global care chain "a series of personal links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring". In this case a Singaporean family is hiring a migrant from e.g. the Philippines and these women hire poorer women in the Philippines to perform the reproductive labor that they are performing for wealthier families in receiving nations.

According to TWC2  domestic workers are most vulnerable through their legal status, which can be revoked at any time by their employers. The total dependence on their employers leaves them to work in dangerous conditions, working long hours and lacking control over their lives.

"I would say that the biggest challenge overall is getting a regular day off for all domestic workers. Because it is hard to reach them, it is difficult to calculate how many workers still don't get days off, but I suspect it is close to 40 per cent," said John Gee from Transient Workers Count Too.

Although government legislation has improved foreign domestic workers’ access to compensation for a day off, according to a survey by TWC2 59% of foreign domestic workers still do not get a weekly day off. Ten percent of the questioned workers said that they do not have a day off at all.

Employers say things like "She might get a boyfriend and become pregnant" or "She doesn't want a day off because that means spending money". "Actually, domestic workers are adults and should be treated as such; their personal behavior is not the responsibility or the business of their employers.A day off is a right; a day off is necessary for mental and physical health; a day off provides some protection against abuse, because it gives a worker the chance to seek advice and, if necessary, to make complaints against bad treatment."

In TWC2's view, the current mandatory day off policy, which allows workers and employers to negotiate away days off in return for payment, fails to acknowledge the imbalance in the relationship between the two and the undue pressure a worker can face. "We think the rules should be amended so that at least half the due days off each month must be taken and cannot be given up."

In a survey carried out by HOME 670 domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar revealed the excessive control Singapore’s employers have over their workers. Almost 70 percent of women had their passports confiscated. Another ten percent reported about substandard accommodation, such as having to sleep in kitchens or storage cupboards. Additionally the survey revealed that the workers face excessive restrictions on communication and mobility with many not being allowed to make private phone calls.

TWC2´s description of the situation is very similar, John Gee explains: "Domestic workers are typically working or on call to work for 14 1/2 to 15 1/2 hours a day. It is tiring. Some employers invent work for them to do that they would not do if they had to do it themselves such as daily car washing, vacuuming a house twice a day, hand washing clothes instead of using a machine, these sort of things. Working hours should be more restricted, as they are in other occupations."

"If a worker wants help, she faces difficulties. Those whose access to the outside world is restricted by their employers and who may be the most abused and exploited find it difficult to reach out to people who can help, they don't know who to approach, they are locked in flats, and their 'phones are confiscated by their employers. In addition, any worker who is unhappy and complains knows that her employer can send her home at will, and this is a serious threat that intimidates many."

A big problem, Gee mentioned as well, is the cost of getting a job. The normal practice in Singapore is for workers to be placed by an agency. They are usually recruited in their home country, go through training, and then come to Singapore. The country of origin agency bills its Singapore partner for its charges and costs, and then the Singapore agency adds on its own charges. Employers have to pay that, but then the great majority gets it back by deductions from the workers' salaries, explained Gee. "This normally means that, for between six and nine months, all a worker's earnings except for $20 for personal expenses are kept by the employer, and the worker only starts to get paid after that."

"When a worker does reach out to us, it is often because her relationship with her employer has already become very bad and she feels she has little to lose. She may not have been paid, her employer might have made undue deductions from her salary, she might feel overworked or underfed, she might be unhappy and wants a transfer, but her employer won't sign a letter of release to let her go."

In case TWC2 hears about a worker who needs to escape from an abusive employer and they help her to leave. "We speak with the workers who come to us, find out the details of their complaint and advise them on their courses of action. In most cases, they need to lodge complaints with the Ministry of Manpower, so that their case is considered and they have some protection against being sent home by their employers or risking staying on illegally. Sometimes a worker needs a certain amount of emotional support. We give her back up in her case, advising her not to exaggerate but to be truthful, and we explain what is going on as her case progresses. If she needs legal advice or medical assistance, we help with that too."

In order to show appreciation to domestic workers the campaign A Home Away From Home Shermain and Ping handed out bookmarks saying “thank you” to domestic workers. “And at the same time, we try to get Singaporeans to show that they support us by taking a photo with our frame, effecting attitudinal change and action. Hopefully, future plans may include organizing events for domestic workers.” Additionally the two recent graduates from SIM- University also use social media to raise awareness.  

Rights-education, access to justice and in the worst case providing shelter for foreign domestic workers is one piece of the struggle. But educating the other side, encouraging change of attitudes and making employers realize that domestic workers deserve more being treated as second class citizens is equally important.

Ping adds: "It actually takes a lot of effort to raise awareness because of how people react to strangers approaching them for a photo on the streets. People are generally apprehensive or they will not bother to stop to listen. So we’re really thankful there are people who are not just willing to take a photo for us, they’re actually interested to find out what we actually do."

Sources: / / A Home Away From Home

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