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Helping the helpers: Striving to end the exploitation of domestic workers in Singapore

By: Anne-Marie Cook

Painting the house, cutting the lawn with scissors and cleaning the outside windows perched on a ledge; I’ve witnessed domestic helpers doing all of the above, but the reality of their lives really hit home when chatting at length to a helper on a recent coach trip.

It's said that only 12 percent of helpers are given a day off in Singapore 

Articulate and intelligent Juliana (not her real name) worked for a kind family in Singapore. Four doors down was another Filipino helper, only her domestic situation was completely different. Having no money of her own, the use of her phone restricted and no day off at all, she would write Juliana notes and put them in her post box when she got the opportunity to leave her employer’s house. She particularly needed sanitary towels and Juliana would buy these for her and hide them for her to collect. The woman also had no idea how much she was being paid; her money was sent directly to her family in the Philippines. She later learnt her salary equated to around S$200 a month.

Juliana says she did what she could to help her compatriot, but she would sneak past her house on Sunday mornings for fear of upsetting her as she went to enjoy her day off. Fortunately, this domestic worker has now left this household and returned to the Philippines. After her departure, Juliana collected up all the notes she had sent pleading for help and posted them with an anonymous letter to the Ministry of Manpower. I commend and admire her for this, and we can only hope the MOM has investigated the case.

According to the Singapore-based organisation, Transient Workers Count Too, around 200,000 domestic workers live in Singapore and only about 12 percent of them regularly have a weekly day off. This figure made headlines in The Straits Times in June 2011. Transient Workers Count Too is a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping low-paid migrant workers when they are in trouble.

On 1 January 2013, the rules regarding days off for foreign domestic workers changed and work permits for domestic helpers issued or renewed from that date now entitle the FDWs to one rest day per week or compensation paid in lieu if they agree to work on that day. Yet there is still no official minimum wage and no holiday guidance, and the day-off rule does not apply to those workers who renewed their contract just before the rule came into force.

Exploitation can happen anywhere in the world, and organisations do exist to help deal with it in Singapore – Transient Workers Count Too can be contacted on info@twc@.org.sg or 6247 7001, or you can call the Ministry of Manpower Distressed FDWs Helpline on 1800 339 5505, or see more information on their website.

The more we report, talk, blog and object to the mistreatment of others, the more it becomes totally unacceptable in any circumstance.