Comment: Time for S'pore to allow maids to live outside employers' houses?

The recent abuse and killing of Myanmar maid Piang Ngaih Don is prompting questions about whether maids have to live with their employers, and the amount of control that employers have over their workers.

Joshua Lee | February 27, 2021, 12:25 PM

The recent case of the extreme abuse of a Myanmar maid at the hands of her Singaporean employer has rattled the nation.

What initially started as verbal abuse devolved into a litany of inhumane physical assaults — including slaps, punches, kicks, assaults with hard objects, hair ripping, and burns — which went on for nearly 10 months.

Then there was the mental abuse: Being made to shower under the watch of her employers, subsist on cold food or soggy sliced bread, and being restrained to a window grille.

The physical toll of the abuse resulted in Piang Ngaih Don losing 38 per cent of her body weight within 14 months, and ultimately her death in July 2016.

At the time of her death, Piang — a 24-year-old woman — weighed only 24kg.

The horrific abuse has been denounced by many, including Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam who called the actions of the employer, Gaiyathiri Murugayan, an "extreme abhorrence".

Safeguards in place, but are they enough?

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo also stressed that there are safeguards in place to prevent such an "appalling" and "egregious" incident from happening — and indeed there are.

In response to the prosecution of Gaiyathiri Murugayan, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) said that all foreign domestic workers have to go through a Settling-In Programme where they are informed of their rights — like a safe working environment, adequate accommodation, food, and medical care, just to name a few.

Employers too, go through an orientation programme where they are briefed about their responsibilities, which presumably includes not killing their domestic helpers.

According to MOM, foreign domestic workers are also subjected to a medical examination every six months.

"Doctors are informed to immediately refer FDWs with signs of abuse to MOM or the Police for help," said the ministry.

Piang passed her medical examination in January 2016, and went back to the same doctor in May 2016 — just about two months before her tragic death in July 2016 — sporting bruises around her eye sockets and cheeks, which were hidden away from public view by a face mask and sunglasses.

Those bruises were apparently explained away by Gaiyathiri as injuries caused by the maid's clumsiness. When the doctor suggested further tests of the victim's swollen legs, Piang's employer declined.

Nothing was flagged to the authorities.

In light of the abuse, Teo said that her ministry is reviewing the system, focusing in particular on safeguards against abusive employers, the reporting system for doctors, and involving the community in detecting signs of distress.

Limit the amount of control that employers have over foreign domestic workers

MOM's review of the system will no doubt help to improve things.

However, it would perhaps be even more effective to address the root issue: The inordinate amount of control that employers have over foreign domestic workers.

Currently, foreign domestic workers are required to live with their employers.

This means that these workers depend on their employers for basic needs: accommodation, food, and medical care.

Some workers also have their mobile phones and passports confiscated as well, leaving them completely dependent on — or completely at the mercy of — their employers.

And as we have seen on multiple occasions, some employers just cannot be trusted to handle this amount of responsibility.

One way of limiting the amount of control that employers have is to take away the requirement that foreign domestic workers live with their employers.

What a stay-out domestic work arrangement might look like

Consider this: Families engage these foreign domestic workers as employees with fixed working hours, visiting their houses to cook, clean, buy groceries, and so on, within a fixed amount of time — not unlike how some folks engage part-time cleaners.

This is likely to be an unpopular opinion, but hear us out.

The obvious benefit would be that if foreign domestic workers aren't chained — metaphorically or physically — to their employers' homes, then sustained, long term abuse is much less likely to go unreported.

Any abuse that occurs can be reported to the authorities when the workers leave their place of employment.

Another benefit is that foreign domestic workers would have clearly defined working hours — they enter the house to work, and leave when their time is over.

This would put an end to cases where they are forced to work beyond their limit.

Set working hours would also allow foreign domestic workers to work overtime or for multiple employers — but only if they so choose.

Speaking to Mothership, Alex Au, Vice President of non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count 2 (TWC2), added that foreign domestic workers could perhaps be managed by a cleaning enterprise — just like how cleaners are currently managed.

"A household can contract with the enterprise for a worker to come to the home, say, two times a week. If three households have such a contract, then one worker can very well serve in three households."

Such an arrangement also provide benefits for the employer in that they will have more privacy in their house and the additional room (assuming they do provide a proper room for their helper) can be rented out for more income.

In its statement on Piang Ngaih Don, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME) also advocated for domestic workers to be allowed to live outside their employers' houses.

"But I need my foreign domestic worker to take care of my baby/grandparents/pet round the clock!"

Needing 24-hour supervision does not require one person to work for 24 hours.

Citing the example of security guards who typically work in shifts, Au suggested that foreign domestic workers can do the same:

"We seem to think that just because a family member needs round-the-clock care, so a domestic worker should be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This expectation immediately sets up the conditions for abuse — in terms of working hours at the very least."

Shift work will also allow workers who provide caregiving to take breaks. This is especially important since it has been shown that foreign domestic workers who are hired to care for the elderly are often overworked.

For elderly folks who suffer from ailments and require constant medical supervision, home nursing services, or nursing homes exist for this very reason — meeting the need for qualified care.

"Where will foreign domestic workers live, if not with their employers?"

Housing poses a major roadblock, because current policies and infrastructure do not make it easy for foreign domestic workers to find accommodation outside their employers' house.

Au suggested having hostels for women built around town centres, or additional blocks within condominium compounds.

Past President of TWC2 John Gee, who spoke previously about allowing foreign domestic workers to live outside of their employers' house, told Mothership that they might not want to live in accommodation similar to the dormitories that male migrant workers currently live in.

"They'd want more privacy, but they'd also not want to suffer a net loss of income to cover living out. It would make sense for them to stay in places that gave them reasonably easy access to their workplaces."

Gee added that such an arrangement would have to part of an overhaul of policies which would require, among other things:

  • More social provision for elderly care.
  • Creating a new category of migrant care workers, with appropriate training and a system to evaluate their aptitude.
  • A scheme to pay for low-cost accommodation that does not dent the already-low salaries of domestic workers.

"But won't the cost of hiring a foreign domestic worker go up?"

Allowing foreign domestic workers to live away from their employers' homes would of course generate more cost. These workers would have to pay for their own lodging, food, and medical care — things that are taken care of by their employers, under the current system.

Thus, abolishing the live-in arrangement would probably drive up salaries.

Some years back when Indonesia mulled over the possibility of not sending over live-in domestic helpers, cost was the most common issue highlighted by employers.

One even told the Straits Times that he did not mind engaging live-out Indonesian helpers as long as they do not cost more than those from Myanmar and the Philippines.

Cost, though, should not be a factor when work conditions are at stake, said Au.

"Everything comes at a cost, even the food we eat and the plastics we throw away. If beef gets too expensive Singapore would think it crazy to impose price control and let beef producers become unprofitable and starve; we just eat less of it and find alternatives. Ditto with domestic work."

Of course there are many foreign domestic workers right now who enjoy live-in arrangements because their employers treat them well. In such a case, perhaps there could be an option for employers to offer their foreign domestic helpers live-in arrangements on mutually-agreed terms. The onus then would fall on the employer to make working and living conditions attractive.

At the heart of it all, though, we should ask ourselves one question: Whether we would ourselves accept the working conditions that we subject foreign domestic workers to — living with our employers, having unregulated working hours, and having our movements restricted — and the answer would become quite obvious.

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Top image via and Helping Hands for Migrant Workers, Singapore's Facebook page.