Discussion Forum: She isn’t just YOUR maid


SMU Library hosted a discussion forum and exhibition on foreign domestic workers rights organised by NUS CARE (Center for Cultured-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation). The forum was moderated by Professor Nicholas Harrigan and featured three guests from various backgrounds:

  • Mohan J. Dutta (Professor in NUS; founding director of NUS CARE)
  • Jolovan Wham (Executive Director of HOME – NGO for migrant workers’ rights)
  • Robina Navato (domestic worker; volunteer at HOME’s helpdesk)

Respect Our Rights is a campaign started in 2014 to raise awareness about foreign domestic workers rights in Singapore. The project was jointly developed by the domestic workers themselves, HOME and researchers from NUS CARE. Learn more about the campaign and how it was pieced all together here! Watch their documentary here.

  • Professor Mohan: Policymaking through the lens of the affected

Prof Mohan proposed that the policymaking process ought to make a paradigm change by looking at the needs of the affected ones through their lens. It is paradoxical when policymakers seek the opinion of academics and so-called experts while the main stakeholder whose policies are intended for is neglected. This calls for the purpose of a mixed panel discussion like this one to listen to the perspectives of different affected parties.

Respect Our Rights introduces the fundamental principle of rights (i.e. fulfilling employment terms). It may come off as absurd to speak of rights being deprived in today’s context. Yet, more often than not, such initiatives remind us that the rights of this particular group of people are often forgotten about by the masses. The main issues that arise among foreign domestic workers employed in Singapore are salary and meals, which are also terms listed in the contract but occasionally not or partially met.

Jolovan added that some domestic workers risk the threat of repatriation when they assert to have their days off or/and their contract-stated salaries. In a recent study conducted by Prof Harrigan on the mental health of migrant workers, threat of repatriation topped the many issues affecting their mental health. To seek redress (from the violation of these terms) is usually not an option for the foreign domestic workers as the cost of doing so would outweigh the benefits from the justice sought. Check out an interesting thread of responses for a Straits Time’s article on domestic worker’s day off (“Rare instances of Domestic Workers getting pregnant is no reason to deny their day off -John Gee“).

  • Robina Navato: Domestic workers are human beings too

Robina has been working in Singapore for the past 20 years and her experience with employers were generally positive. She loves Singapore and would love to stay here 20 or 60 more years if she could. Her past employers have been very patient as they taught her and allowed her time to learn the chores and assimilate into the household. She asked for the understanding of employers when domestic workers are still learning. They are human beings just like you and me. Over time, they might feel that they have become part of the family and stay here for reasons beyond their financial needs.

Foreign domestic workers often get asked “who ask you to come here?” when they experience issues with employers and this question denotes with an accusatory tone that it is the domestic worker’s choice to be here so she should accept the consequences that arise. What’s not realized is that the demand would have to be present to be met by the supply (of foreign domestic workers).

Communication is important and it is harmful to hold stereotypes. Later in the Q&A session, Jolovan shared his personal experience about employers who assume that maids stray and get pregnant/boyfriend once they’re given the day-off to roam and this behavior perpetuates itself to other maids in the neighbourhood.

  • Jolovan Wham: Legislation and public education needed

Jolovan mainly focused on the role of government and civil society in the area of foreign domestic workers rights. Activism in this area started as early in the 1980s by Geylang Methodist Centre which provided similar services to what HOME does today (shelters, food, legal advice, etc.). However, volunteers at the centre were later arrested under the Internal Security Act for alleged involvement in the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’. Civil society was later revived in the 1990s by some Catholic churches and in the early-2000s, HOME and TWC2 were established.

Source: AWARE Singapore

Even up to today, there are still remains of resistance from the Singapore society. When the Day Off campaign was conceived, Jolovan spoke of occasions where agencies and employers complained of HOME and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for being “pro-maid”. Legislation and increased public awareness influence, and are influenced by one another. Both are equally important factors that can lead to change. The Employment Act still does not cover domestic workers. Laws that pertain to their employment remain difficult to legislate as they are seen as “private household matters” challenging for the law to intervene. Justification is that: “Afterall, different households have different needs so what’s the point of mandating standards?“.

It could work both ways. Law has the potential to change norms, serving as a reference point. At the same time, society can influence a change in law by sending the public message that rights of foreign domestic workers deserve respect like any member in the society. Jolovan posits international mechanisms as a useful means to advocate for local laws. He raised an example where U.S. campaign to end human trafficking did exert global influence and pressure on the rest of the world to do the same.


Food for Thought

  • Loopholes in policies:

The discussion raised the concern of whether domestic workers are given a reasonable amount time to look for employment when they request for transfer or when their contract is terminated. The notice period mentioned was 2 weeks. Provided that the domestic worker only gets a day off per week, this means she’s only given 2 days to look for alternative employment or she will get repatriated. Should this be reviewed?

When MOM invited the public to suggest improvements to the reamendment of the Employment Act, TWC2 proposed a number of suggestions for workers, particularly for migrant workers. You can check out their proposal here.

  • Pregnancy on the job and Hong Kong as a case study:

During the Q&A session, an audience member mentioned that pregnancy is a human right and was astounded by the legally-imposed contractual term of repatriating the foreign domestic worker if she is found pregnant.

On a biyearly basis, they are required to go for a health check-up to test for HIV and pregnancy. According to an article here, some take prescribed birth-control drugs when they start working as domestic workers; or get their friends/relatives back home to send them abortion-inducing drugs before their check-ups; or undergo illegal abortions once they find themselves pregnant. Sometimes, there’re even cases where employers engage in private arrangements with the domestic worker to go for abortions behind the eyes of the law. If they are found pregnant and are repatriated, they may be blacklisted to reenter Singapore for work the next time.

While it would be alright for female workers in most jobs to be pregnant AND working, many might say that this term is perfectly reasonable for domestic workers since pregnancy affects the nature of their work (i.e. concern of safety when engaging in chores). Ethical concerns and work nature are at odds. Is it really not possible for domestic workers to still be on their job while they’re pregnant?

Hong Kong presents us an interesting case study on this. Foreign domestic workers are included in the scope of their labor laws. This means that they are covered in terms of minimum wage, maternity leave, annual leave, weekly day-off, etc. It’s IN the books. However, the ambiguity in the specifics of the law can make it difficult for enforcers to pass the legislative action in an effective and efficient manner (see videos below). Laws would be taken seriously by the society when they are clear in specifics and strictly enforced with little-no exceptions.

However, the situation of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong still remains rather tricky. Check out two clips from the Hong Kong’s local news:

  1. Foreign Domestic Workers and Pregnancy – Part I (2:46 minutes)
  2. Foreign Domestic Workers and Pregnancy – Part II (2:59 minutes)

Is domestic work not work? Or rather, it’s not about the value of work. Could it be the case of foreign workers in general being unfairly treated in these cities? The superiority mindsets embedded in us city-dwellers?

dividerUseful Resources

Human Rights Watch (an international NGO) published a research journal in 2006 titled “Swept Under the Rug: Abuses against Domestic Workers Around the World“. You can find the report free on their website here. It provided many insights into the lives of foreign domestic workers in different parts of the world and policies and laws implemented. (it is seriously good and easy to read, what else?)

Here’s a video by NOC to end this post on a light mood 🙂


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