This report examines the issue of forced labour (FL) among Singapore’s migrant domestic worker (MDW) population. Engaged in essential care and household work, live-in domestic workers are recognized as particularly vulnerable to labour and human rights violations. As a community, domestic workers are highly susceptible to forced labour due to the isolated nature of their work and workplaces (private homes), the lack of legal protections in Singapore, as well as the difficulties of—and reluctance associated with—regulating domestic work, even when policies aimed at so doing already exist.
In the last year, HOME provided shelter to over 800 MDWs. The five most common complaints leading these women to seek shelter were: overwork, emotional abuse (including verbal insults, intimidation and threats), salary-related claims, illegal deployment and inadequate provision of food. Other issues reported included a lack or denial of rest days, unreasonable restrictions on communication (including the confiscation of mobile phones), the denial of sick leave and/or medical treatment, and poor living conditions. There were also reports of physical and sexual abuse or harassment. While not the primary trigger for leaving employment, almost all the domestic workers who seek help from HOME have their identity documents (most notably passports) withheld by their employers. Meanwhile, recruitment regimes continue to subject MDWs in Singapore to several months of salary deductions in order to repay recruitment fees, leaving them with low to no salary for an average of four to eight months. Pursuant to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) frameworks for forced labour, many of these practices are recognized as strong indicators of forced labour.
The key tenets of forced labour are deception, coercion and exploitation. These mark and shape the daily lives of MDWs in Singapore in several ways. They manifest themselves in the practices cited above and they configure relations between domestic workers, employers and recruiters. Such relations and practices, in turn, influence decision-making by further narrowing the already constrained options available to domestic workers. First and foremost forced labour must be recognized as a process: a person may consent to migrate for work but nonetheless become trapped in a situation of forced labour through deception, the use or menace of force and penalty, or other forms of coercion. Persons could remain in such situations for longer than they are willing due to coercive mechanisms, some of which are not easily detectable by external observers. In any analysis of forced labour, it is vital to explicitly acknowledge the acute power asymmetries that exist between employers/agents and employees which not only allow for such practices to occur and persist, but which make it extremely difficult for MDWs to escape such conditions.
In detailing particular case studies, this report offers insights into the conditions and contexts that enable and lead to forced labour situations. While individual actors facilitate systems of forced labour, it is often the collective impact of multiple actors—including a lack of action and intervention—that maintain and sustain such systems. The case studies also highlight the risk factors that need to be strictly managed in order to deal with forced labour.
Ultimately we strive to achieve the prevention of forced labour through the existence of a robust legal framework supported by a well-trained body of professionals capable of recognizing and taking action to reduce the vulnerabilities of MDWs to practices that could result, over time, in a forced labour situation. Practices that are recognized as strong indicators of forced labour must be strongly dealt with as a critical component of risk management. Allowing exploitative recruitment and labour practices to become entrenched risks eroding and undermining the general conditions for decent work, hence creating an enabling environment for more extreme forms of abuse to occur and flourish.
The recommendations set out in Chapter 5 are premised around strengthening legislative protection, which includes guaranteeing basic employment rights for MDWs as well as greater specificity in law on particular practices and forms of abuse. Domestic workers are currently excluded from the Employment Act, which means basic labour standards, such as their working hours, are not adequately regulated. Though MDWs are covered by the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, the ambiguous language of its provisions leaves MDWs vulnerable to abuse. Greater clarity is also required in defining key terms. In the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, core concepts, including forced labour and exploitation, are not defined and aligned with international standards, thus inhibiting victim identification and the provision of holistic support for survivors of forced labour and trafficking. In order to ensure that any progress made towards the prevention and eradication of forced labour is aligned with international benchmarks, we urge the Singapore government to ratify the 2014 Protocol on Forced Labour and adopt the supplementary recommendations.
Our recommendations also focus on practical steps that can be taken to address the practices and policies that exacerbate the already uneven balance of power between MDWs and their employers/agents which have such a fundamental effect on the lives of MDWs. Some of these are related to the regulatory framework that govern Work Permit holders in Singapore, for example the security bond imposed on employers that incentivize draconian measures such as control of MDWs’ movements and the withholding of identity documents. Another key issue exacerbating the high level of dependency on employers is the lack of labour mobility for MDWs. The right to unilaterally dismiss and repatriate the MDW is reserved for the employer as is the right to withhold consent to the MDW changing employers.
The current status quo of MDWs paying large sums for their overseas placements needs to be tackled if the coercive power of debt and its inextricable link to forced labour is to be mitigated. Measures to strengthen cross-border cooperation between countries of origin and countries of destination are required to improve regulation of recruitment agencies and other intermediaries, and to ensure the portability of rights and protection mechanisms for MDWs. Regional and bilateral agreements are frequently forged when it comes to the protection of trade interests. Likewise, political will needs to be aimed towards ensuring that such agreements are also focused on aligning labour standards between countries of origin and countries of destination with a view to protecting migrant workers.
Forced labour among the MDW population in Singapore is a problem that needs to be taken seriously. Forced labour can and does occur in ‘ordinary households’; it can be perpetuated by accepted behavioural norms executed by ordinary people. Far from a covert activity, it takes place in formal economies and among documented workers with legal status who participate in highly regularized migration regimes. A more robust recognition of exploitation and coercion, and how these core concepts interact with each other and the particular vulnerabilities of MDWs is a necessary starting point for discussing and dealing decisively with forced labour.
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