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Maid to Order Ending Abuses Against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore




Human Rights Watch


I was not allowed to go outside.I never went outside, not even to dump the garbage.I was always inside, I didn't even go to the market.I felt like I was in jail.It was truly imprisonment.I was not allowed to turn the radio on either.I could only see the outside world when I hung clothes to dry.

- Sri Mulyani (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty, Singapore, February 19, 2005

I was afraid if I ran away, I would be caught by the police. Madam often got angry with me, complained to the agency, and the agency also got angry with me.The agent asked, "What do you want?" I said, "I want to die, ma'am, because the people here are cruel, everything I do is wrong, I'm always called idiot and stupid."

[It got so bad,] I really didn't know what to do, so I drank poison for rats and cockroaches.I lost consciousness, and Madam brought me to the hospital.

The police told me it was wrong to try suicide. When the incident happened, I had been working exactly seven months.I had earned S$90 [U.S.$53].

-Muriyani Suharti (not her real name), domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, March 8, 2005

Between 1999 and 2005, at least 147 migrant domestic workers died from workplace accidents or suicide, most by jumping or falling from residential buildings. There is no single reason why domestic workers resort to suicide, but research by Human Rights Watch suggests that many women are made despondent by poor working conditions, anxiety about debts owed to employment agencies, social isolation, and prolonged confinement indoors, sometimes for weeks at a time.

As authorities have acknowledged, many of the deaths are also due to workplace accidents. Several of the workers fell to their deaths after their employers forced them to balance precariously, despite being many stories up, to clean windows from the outside or to hang clothes to dry on bamboo poles suspended from window sills.

While the deaths of migrant workers described above have received increasing attention in the media and from policymakers, the context in which they occur too often is overlooked. This report, which draws on extensive research and more than one hundred interviews, surveys the abusive conditions facing many domestic workers in Singapore today.

Many migrant domestic workers in Singapore face abysmally long working hours, no weekly rest days, and low wages, areas neglected by Singapore's laws and addressed primarily through non-binding information guides. In many cases, migrant domestic workers in Singapore work thirteen to nineteen hours a day, seven days a week, and are restricted from leaving the workplace. They typically earn less than half the pay that workers earn in similar occupations in Singapore-such as gardening and cleaning-and are forced to relinquish the first four to ten months of their salaries to repay employment agency fees. In the worst cases, manipulated by agents or employers or both, migrant domestic workers suffer under conditions amounting to forced labor.

Singaporean officials are now beginning to give these problems serious attention. Authorities have imposed tough punishments on employers who physically abuse or fail to pay their domestic workers. Although increasing numbers of officials are turning their attention toward domestic workers, the problems persist. And while Singapore's applicable laws and regulations offer stronger protections than do those of neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore is still far behind Hong Kong, which includes domestic workers in its main labor laws, protecting their rights to a weekly rest day, a minimum wage, maternity leave, and public holidays. Employers in Hong Kong must also bear most recruitment and placement fees, including the cost of visas, insurance, required medical exams, and round-trip transportation from the worker's hometown.

The Singapore government to date has preferred to rely on market forces rather than laws to regulate key labor issues for domestic workers such as charges imposed by employment agencies, wages, and weekly rest days. As a result, a migrant domestic worker's fate in Singapore is highly variable. She may secure a good employer and labor agent, enjoy favorable working conditions, and earn wages that she saves or regularly sends home. Or she may work for months without pay to settle debts incurred from exorbitant recruitment fees, labor for long hours seven days a week, and confront prohibitions from leaving the workplace. Singaporean authorities need to do more-through legal reform, enhanced public awareness campaigns, and more consistent law enforcement-to ensure all workers are protected against abuses and can readily seek redress when necessary.


Singapore, a prosperous city-state in Southeast Asia, attracts women migrant domestic workers from around the region. Approximately 150,000 women, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, hold work permits for two-year employment stints in Singapore. Approximately one in every seven Singaporean households employs a "live-in" migrant domestic worker. The child care, domestic duties, and elder care these women perform help free up Singaporean men and women to work outside of their homes. The Singapore government also views employment of foreign domestic workers as a strategy to boost a below-replacement birthrate-domestic services ease the burden on working women and Singaporean families who decide to rear children.

No data exists to calculate accurately the number of women migrant domestic workers who confront labor rights and other human rights violations. Many migrant domestic workers have positive experiences. Human Rights Watch interviewed domestic workers who received wages and rest days regularly, enjoyed proper living accommodation, and developed close personal ties with their employers. The Ministry of Manpower estimates that one in three domestic workers renew their two-year contracts and continue to work under the same employer.

A significant number of migrant domestic workers are not so fortunate. Given their isolation in private homes, it is difficult to ascertain the exact proportion of migrant domestic workers who face abuse. However, domestic workers make thousands of complaints to their embassies, employment agents, private service organizations, the Singapore Police, and the Ministry of Manpower each year. The Indonesian embassy alone estimates that it receives fifty complaints per day, mostly from domestic workers. The Philippines embassy and the Sri Lanka High Commission estimate receiving between forty to eighty complaints from domestic workers per month. Many abuses likely never are reported, especially if an employer repatriates a domestic worker before she has a chance to seek help.

The abuse often begins in domestic workers' home countries. Recruitment practices and legislation vary greatly by country. The Philippines has clearly defined policies on standard employment contracts and recruitment fees. The employment contract provides for a day off each week and a monthly minimum wage of S$350 [U.S.$206]. But many Filipinas come through unlicensed agents or on tourist visas, making them subject to overcharging, poor working conditions, and less access to redress. In Indonesia, domestic workers face high fees from local labor agents, and are often confined in overcrowded, locked training facilities for up to six months while waiting for placement abroad. Many domestic workers report inadequate food and some confront physical violence.

The different routes workers take in getting to Singapore correlate with the conditions they are likely to face upon arrival. According to embassy officials and Human Rights Watch's own research, workers placed through unlicensed agents are more likely to have lower wages, no days off, and illegal deployments to multiple homes. Several domestic workers from Indonesia, for example, told us they were threatened with retaliation by employment agents who told them they would be trafficked into forced prostitution or would have to pay substantial fines if they did not complete their debt payments. Other domestic workers reported that employment agents confiscated their passports and any contact information in their possession, making it difficult to seek help.

In Singapore, the government does not adequately regulate the fees, "private loans," and salary deduction arrangements imposed by employment agencies on migrant domestic workers. Intense competition among the more than six hundred employment agencies has led them to reduce fees charged to employers, and to shift the cost of recruitment, transportation, training, and placement to domestic workers. Domestic workers who change employers pay extra fees for transfer costs, sometimes extending their debts by months. Seeking employment in Singapore precisely because they are escaping poverty in their own countries, many women must take on large debts which they settle by working for four to ten months with little or no pay.

The Employment Agencies Act stipulates that employment agencies cannot charge job seekers more than 10 percent of their first month's earnings. Singapore's Ministry of Manpower has argued that the charges to domestic workers are not agency fees, but instead private loans that fall outside of the law's parameters. This distinction for costs associated with recruitment, processing, and placement with employers is arbitrary and unfairly strips migrant domestic workers of important protections.Human Rights Watch interviewed domestic workers who said they stayed in situations of abuse because of their debt obligations.

The Singapore government has instituted several policies that exacerbate domestic workers' isolation in homes and their risk of abuse. One is a S$5,000 [U.S.$2,950] security bond imposed on employers who hire domestic workers. Employers forfeit the bond if their domestic worker runs away or if they fail to pay for the domestic worker's repatriation costs. The Singapore government enacted this policy in an attempt to control illegal immigration and to ensure employers have adequate funds to repatriate the workers on completion of their contracts. Instead, the bond has become an incentive to employers to tightly restrict their domestic workers' movements, prevent them from giving workers weekly rest days, and sometimes to lock them in the workplace. Another policy ties migrant domestic workers' work permits to particular families, giving employers inordinate power. Under the existing system, employers may repatriate domestic workers at will, even if they have not paid off their debts or earned any income.

Singapore's work permit regulations forbid migrant domestic workers from becoming pregnant, restrict their marriage and reproductive rights, and provide further incentives for employers to confine domestic workers to the workplace to prevent them from "running away" or "having boyfriends." The prohibition on becoming pregnant has also led to unequal access to health care services, including voluntary abortions, as some employers, agents, and domestic workers believe that seeking an abortion will result in automatic deportation.

Singapore, in a stated attempt to regulate unskilled labor migration, also imposes a monthly levy on employers of work permit holders-employers of domestic workers must pay S$200-295 [U.S.$118-174] to a central government fund each month. This amount is more than many employers pay to the domestic workers themselves. Given 150,000 workers, this translates to roughly S$360-531 million (U.S.$212-313 million) annually. None of these funds are earmarked for services geared toward migrant workers.

In response to growing publicity and alarm over abuses against migrant domestic workers, Singapore's Ministry of Manpower has instituted some encouraging reforms in the past two years. These include mandatory orientation programs for new employees and new employers, increased commitment to prosecuting cases of unpaid wages and physical abuse, and the introduction of an accreditation program for employment agencies. The ministry also has published an information guide advising employers on proper treatment of domestic workers and informing them of the penalties for physical assault and forced confinement.

These initiatives, though important, do not go far enough. Singapore needs to do more to address the underlying inequities and lack of protection that result in widespread abuse. Singapore's Employment Act and Workmen's Compensation Act should be amended to include domestic workers. These laws guarantee weekly rest days, limitations on work hours, and regular payment of wages and overtime. They also regulate salary deductions for debt payments and address compensation for workplace injuries. Singapore also should institute stronger mechanisms for inspecting workplaces and employment agencies. The accreditation program, though a positive step, needs improved protections for domestic workers' rights, including greater transparency about recruitment and placement charges, and detailed provisions on working conditions such as weekly rest days.

In a country well-known for strictly enforcing laws to promote order and efficiency, the failure to provide adequate and equal protection to an entire class of workers is an anomaly and undermines the rule of law.

In cooperation with labor-sending countries and international bodies such as the International Labor Organization, Singapore should undertake immediate and effective reforms to end these abuses. Singapore has a choice. It can become a standard-setter in the region for labor-receiving countries. Or it can settle for second-best solutions that fail to address the roots of abuses against migrant domestic workers.

This report is based on several months of research including field research in Singapore in February, March, and November 2005. Human Rights Watch conducted sixty-five in-depth interviews with migrant domestic workers, reviewed the case files of twenty-five migrant domestic workers, and held focus groups and informal interviews with dozens more. These interviews took place at shelters and skills-training programs; in parks, shopping centers, and places of worship on domestic workers' days off; and at employment agencies. We also interviewed more than fifty representatives from Singapore's Ministry of Manpower, employment agents, employers, and private nongovernmental and faith-based organizations. All names of domestic workers cited in this report have been changed to protect their identity. Many employment agents and service providers also spoke with us on condition of anonymity, and their names have also been withheld.

This is Human Rights Watch's ninth report on abuses against domestic workers, including both children and adults. We have also documented abuses in El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United States.
Key Recommendations

Human Rights Watch urges the Singapore government to:

Provide equal and comprehensive legal protection to migrant domestic workers by:

Amending the Employment Act and Workmen's Compensation Act to provide equal protection to domestic workers.
Establishing and periodically reviewing a national minimum wage to address domestic workers' vulnerability to wage exploitation. The National Wages Council should also investigate and recommend policies that promote equal pay for equal work in the domestic work sector.
Creating a standard contract that protects migrant domestic workers' rights in accordance with national provisions in the Employment Act and international labor standards.

Enforce policies that help prevent abusive practices such as exorbitant debt payments to employment agencies, forced labor, and forced confinement by:

Increasing enforcement of the Employment Agencies Act to ensure compliance with caps on agency fees.
Implementing policies so that migrant domestic workers do not spend several months working off their debts with little or no pay, a situation that fosters a range of human rights abuses. The government should look to the Philippines and Hong Kong, who require employers to pay for round-trip airfare and most expenses associated with recruitment and placement, including those now covered by private loans in Singapore. The government should consider adjusting the monthly levy to offset the cost to employers.

Abolishing the S$5,000 [U.S.$2,950] security bond.
Prosecuting employers who confine domestic workers to the workplace.
Permitting migrant domestic workers to reside in independent living quarters.

Create and improve mechanisms to prevent, monitor, and respond to abuse of migrant domestic workers by:

Inspecting workplace conditions and employment agencies regularly.
Withdrawing accreditation powers from the Association of Employment Agencies in Singapore (AEAS) and CaseTrust and creating a new accreditation body for employment agencies with more comprehensive standards. The body should include representatives from employment agencies, consumer rights organizations, domestic workers' rights organizations, the Ministry of Manpower, and labor-sending countries.
Creating helpdesks at the airport and main police stations with staff fluent in the primary languages spoken by migrant workers. Improving training for the police and immigration authorities to respond to abuse of migrant domestic workers.
Conducting exit interviews with domestic workers when they are returning home to ensure they have been paid and to provide an opportunity to report any abuse.

Sign and ratify the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers Convention).

The governments of Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, and other sending countries should:

Improve protections for citizens working in Singapore by:

Improving victim services at embassies and diplomatic missions in Singapore and providing resources including adequate staffing, access to legal aid, health care, trauma counseling, and shelter.
Keeping a section of embassies and diplomatic missions open on Sunday, the day many migrant workers have off, and supporting skills training programs, and recreation and cultural centers for domestic workers.

Regulate and monitor labor recruitment agencies and migrant worker training centers in their countries by:

Regulating labor agencies and migrant worker training centers, and more clearly defining standards for fees, minimum health and safety conditions, and workers' freedom of movement. Labor agencies and agents who violate these regulations should face substantial penalties.
Establishing mechanisms for regular and independent monitoring of labor agencies, including unannounced inspections.

Accreditation bodies and employment agencies should:

Contribute to the creation of safe and just working conditions for migrant domestic workers by:

Implementing a standard employment contract that establishes detailed protections on wages, hours of work, weekly rest days, salary deductions, and other terms of employment according to national provisions in the Employment Act and international labor standards.
Creating recommended pay scales according to work experience and other qualifications, such as education. Abolish discriminatory policies that determine entry-level wages according to nationality rather than work experience, education, or other relevant criteria.

Reporting cases of employer abuse to the Ministry of Manpower, the police, embassies, and accreditation bodies. Before placing a replacement domestic worker with an employer accused of abuse, agencies should exercise due diligence.


Human Rights Watch

File Attachments



Singapore, Abuse, Domestic migrant workers

Economic sectors

Occupations in services - Domestic work

Content types

Policy analysis, Documented cases of abuse, and Support initiatives

Target groups

Policymakers, Researchers, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

Regional relevance

Spheres of activity

Social work