From April 2017 to March 2018, HOME’s shelter recorded 827 domestic workers who sought protection from abuse—an average of 17 cases a week. With rising reports of runaway foreign domestic workers due to overwork, violation, and abuse, particularly during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to ignore the sheer imbalance of power between employers and FDWs here in Singapore.
Alarming abuses against domestic workers have emerged in emotional, physical, and sexual forms—and it seems unlikely to decline. In 2019, IT manager Tay Wee Kiat and his wife were charged with inflicting physical and emotional pain towards domestic workers Moe Moe Than and Fitriyah, such as forcing them to slap each other and bow before an altar of a different religion. More recently, in late September 2020 a woman, Nuur Audadi Yusoff, admitted to repeatedly abusing domestic worker Sulis Setyowati, causing her to climb 15 floors down to escape.
However, many forms of abuse continue to go unreported, especially for survivors of emotional and psychological harm. In 2017, six out of ten FDWs surveyed in Singapore reported that they had been exploited by their employers; one-third of them did not report their exploitation. Although MOM has issued a statement disapproving this survey for not considering factors related to the unique nature of domestic work, the survey nonetheless raises important points on the maltreatment and power dynamics FDWs face, as well as the potential for improving their working conditions.
In serious cases, domestic workers face horrific abuse both physical and psychological—and these same power imbalances and structural barriers hinder them from disclosure, help, and justice. While some believe they can seek help from their respective embassies and local authorities, many are unfamiliar with Singapore’s justice system, resources, and channels for pursuing justice should they be accused of a crime in turn. In fact, migrant workers in general are particularly vulnerable to this, and many struggle to access pro bono legal representation in the face of an employer lawsuit.
Even if FDWs access pro bono legal representation, language barriers often hinder their understanding of legal systems that operate in English or Malay instead of familiar languages such as Bahasa Indonesia. This causes some discrepancies and misrepresentations in the workers’ statements even before cases are due for court proceedings, and lawyers must work to correct mistranslations of their clients’ statements.
Adjudications and legal proceedings can take a long time, and FDWs are banned from working for other households—or earning any form of income—until they conclude. FDWs can face financial risk and even a complete loss of income during the trial period. Such cases may take several years, leaving domestic workers in further debt and their families at risk.
Even when domestic workers successfully charge their abusive employers, many will attempt to withdraw their cases between their police report and the trial’s conclusion, hoping to simply escape their place of trauma and avoid being embroiled in a case that could take months or years.
Improving FDW rights in Singapore
Today, Singapore is seeing rising awareness about foreign domestic workers’ challenges. Recently, Parti Liyani’s acquittal from her former employer’s false accusations made national news and sparked conversations—as well as optimism—about whether the law penalises errant employers and how it can better protect domestic workers.
Though they are cause for celebration, such successes are rare and only possible with the help of dedicated individuals like lawyer Anil Balchandani and committed NGOs. Organisations such as Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) assist migrant workers in securing legal representation and financial assistance, largely supported by charitable donations and volunteers.
As Singapore’s population ages, the caregiving industry continues to expand and employ more foreign domestic workers to help us with the demands of urban life. We have a collective duty to become more aware of domestic workers in Singapore and their sacrifices for families and economies, both at home and abroad. While legal and structural changes are essential, standing in solidarity and compassion with the efforts and plights of the foreign domestic workers among us remains a crucial first step.