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story | Dion Ho, Senior Writer
photo | Roosevelt Institute
Editor’s note: Previously we mistakenly listed a past advocacy project of CDE as one of their current projects. We have clarified CDE’s current advocacy projects.
While Singaporean laws to protect foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are improving, employer mindsets remain concerning and many of the problems faced by FDWs cannot be addressed by Singaporean legislation alone. These were some of the sentiments expressed at the panel discussion organized by the Equal Justice & Human Rights Policy Centre of the Roosevelt Institute (Yale-NUS Chapter).
The Mar. 27, 2019 event in the Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Theatre started with a screening of the award-winning local film Ilo Ilo. The film chronicles the story of a Filipino foreign domestic worker, Teresa, and the Singaporean family for which she works. Teresa develops an intimate bond with the family’s son and becomes an integral part of the household. However, she is constantly reminded of her place as an outsider by her employer. The film encapsulates the intimate yet tense relationship Singapore has with FDWs.
The panel discussion started immediately after the film screening. The panelists were Dr. Don Chen, Assistant Director (Advocacy & Partnership) at the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE), a part of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC); Ms. Kellynn Wee, Research Associate at the Asia Research Institute; and Yale-NUS’ own Dr. Anju Paul, Associate Professor of Sociology.
Moderated by Annabelle Ho ’21, the panel discussed policy changes, prevailing stereotypes regarding FDWs and the transnational nature of many of the problems FDWs face. They also discussed the areas where Singaporean policymakers can do more and where policymakers are limited in their ability to effect change.
Legal Protection for FDWs
The panel lauded the 2013 legislation which entitled FDWs to a weekly rest day. Ms. Wee, however, expressed concerns that FDWs are still allowed to sign away their day-off for a higher salary. Moreover, Dr. Chen said that he would like to push for additional policy changes. He said that the current advocacy projects for CDE are to increase the coverage of medical insurance, enhance the transparency of the costs to recruit and deploy FDWs, standardize their employment contracts, and allow them to seek out new employers at the end of their contract without the explicit consent from their current employers. Last year, CDE had advocated for the e-payment of salary to FDWs and had successfully lobbied for POSB to create the POSB Payroll (FDW) account – a special account for FDWs that does not require an initial deposit during account opening and does not impose a monthly minimum sum.
Ms. Paul raised the problem that some FDWs are not accessing the full suite of rights available to them. Mr. Chen acknowledged the same problem and asked, “Do they know where they can seek help? Do they have the ability to reach out?”.
In addition, Ms. Wee expressed concerns about the fact that many matters regarding the wellbeing of FDWs, such as what they are fed and the privacy they are given, are not enshrined in law. “It is hard to enshrine [every aspect of a FDW’s wellbeing] in law,” she said. Ms. Wee also said that existing laws are difficult to enforce as FDWs stay in the house of their employer. She said that there is currently a proposal for FDWs to stay in dormitories instead of in the homes of their employers.
Nevertheless, Mr. Chen concluded his comments on the changes to policy regarding FDWs by saying that the problem is not with the institutions but with the mindset of employers, some of whom he said “think of themselves as modern slave masters”. “We need not only strong laws but also a change in mindset,” he said.
Problems Beyond the Law
The panel discussed the prevailing stereotypes that adversely impacted FDWs. They observed that FDWs, who are almost all female, faced very gendered problems. Ms. Wee said that the abuse of FDWs often took the form of indignities to their body, such as being struck by household items, or at the most extreme, sexual assault.
Moreover, it was observed that while male foreign workers, many of whom stay in dormitories, have the space and time for recreation after work, FDWs are often expected to work throughout the day in their employer’s home. Many are even monitored through CCTVs.
Furthermore, Ms. Paul criticized the social pressures on FDWs as sexist. She said: “There are red-light districts for the sexual needs of the migrant workers. But female FDWs are expected to remain celibate”. Mr. Chen added that some FDWs have their appearance, hair, and clothing policed by their employers.
Noting that Singapore’s Employment Act does not cover FDWs, Ms. Paul said: “This is not unique to Singapore. Many countries have the sexist belief that domestic work is not true work”.
In the final part of their discussion, the panel expressed sentiments that the transnational nature of the foreign labor industry and the numerous stakeholders involved made it difficult for Singapore alone to address problems like the debt accrued by foreign workers.
Mr. Chen said that as much as Singapore can legislate, many problems can only be addressed at the countries where FDWs originate. Moreover, he said that “a lot of political will [is needed] to push many of these changes”.
Nonetheless, Ms. Paul said that she believed Singapore can do more. “Singapore is not the only destination, but it should study how it stands as a market in relation to other markets and there will be cross-influence between significant markets,” she said.
This event was the first of a number of events organized by the different Policy Centres of the Roosevelt Institute (Yale-NUS Chapter). Through the week, there were two mini-seminars: “Lab-grown Meat & Food Sustainability” and “Inequality in Education”. In addition, the Economic Development and Inclusion Policy Centre presented their essay which won the U@Live essay competition at the National University of Singapore’s U@Live forum: “Education – Still a Social Leveller?”.