Around 60 percent of foreign domestic workers in Singapore are exploited by their employers, according to a 2017 survey. The study said the abuse comes in various forms ranging from verbal threats and being overworked to being beaten or deprived of food.
This is aligned to a recent 2019 survey by YouGov which found that one in seven Singaporeans reported personally witnessing a domestic worker being abused.
The number of reported abuse cases in Singapore has indeed been increasing rapidly. There were a total of 26 maid abuse cases filed in 2015. This is nearly double the 14 filed in 2012. You can read some of the horrible stories here.
One of the most serious case of abuse would be that of Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan from the Philippines in 2015.
Her Singaporean employers – Lim Choon Hong and his wife Chong Sui Foon – deprived her of food. The only food they provided for her was instant noodles and plain bread twice a day. As a result, her weight dropped dramatically from 49kg to 29kg!
Many Singaporeans were enraged that the couple would at most be charged with a fine of $10,000 and one year of jail. Quoting Terry Xu from The Online Citizen:
The fact that the couple is merely charged under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, shows the kind of rights that domestic workers have. The proceedings also show how much rights the domestic workers know of their rights or where to seek help.
What the domestic worker has gone through, should amount no less than torture and illegal imprisonment or even attempted murder.
What people should be doing if they are really enraged by this incident, is not to call for the couple to be killed or a heavy punishment but for migrant workers to be given the same rights as local workers under the employment act. Are they doing any less than what locals are doing, if not more. Then why give them less rights as workers?
Some of my friends from other countries who learnt about these case through the news have asked me about this trend.
As such, I’ve decided to write this entry regarding my personal views on why maid abuse is so prevalent in Singapore.
1. Many Singaporeans judge a person’s worth based on how much they earn
One of the sad realities in Singapore is that your value as a person in the eyes of other people is often based on how much you earn and your rank in society.
For instance, people would treat a lawyer, pilot, doctor or CEO with a lot more respect than how they would treat a security guard or road sweeper.
I am not saying that every single person in Singapore judges others this way. However, a lot of people do.
According to psychologists, the beliefs and ideals of a society may influence bullying behaviour. For instance, if a “school really upholds sports, kids who are not good at sport are going to be victimized because they are not living up to the expectations of others”. Similarly, maids are not wealthy which is a value which many Singaporeans value.
Beside judging people’s worth based on the amount of money they have, people also seem to believe that if you are poor, it is all your fault. This perspective is ingrained into us since we are young when our parents and teachers at school will tell us “if you don’t work hard, you will become a cleaner.”
Of course, that is obviously not true. Many of the pioneer generation members worked very hard but ended up as cleaners but this isn’t their fault but due to many issues in our system that placed them at an immense disadvantage.
It doesn’t help that Singaporeans are constantly reminded about how we are the wealthiest country in Asia and in a much better position than our Southeast Asian neighbours like Indonesia and Philippines. (Though I disagree very much with this as Singapore’s income gap is one of the widest among developed countries at 0.478)
I guess this causes many Singaporeans to look down on these foreign workers to the point that they dehumanize them. As District Judge Christopher Goh had harsh words for Suganthi “You treated the victim as chattel rather than a fellow human being,”
2. Many perceive ‘the boss’ to be superior to ‘the worker’
Singapore is a country which generally has high power distance. Boss are put on a pedestal and can do whatever they want. Speaking up or challenging their views is frowned upon. Expecting him to have civil and respectful behaviour is sometimes even perceived as having a “sense of entitlement”.
Thus, it is no surprise that workplace abuse in Singapore is one of the highest in the world.
If you look at the top few countries where maid abuse occurs frequently, there is high power distance. These countries scored highly on the Power Distance Index.
- Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (80)
- Singapore (74)
- Hong Kong (68)
Given that bosses are considered to be much more superior here in many companies, some employers feel that they have the right to do anything they want to their helpers as well.
In a recent maid abuse case by couple Khairani Abdul Rahman and Rosman Anwar, they slapped their domestic helper whenever she made a mistake. They actually told their employee that
“They have the right to slap my face, to push my head and to scold me, because they are paying my salary”.
Many of the maids were not prepared for such a treatment.
“I thought they would be like my family here in Singapore… Instead, they treated me as less than human,”40 year-old Filipina Travis (*not her real name) when talking about her employers.
3. Many Singaporeans are unhappy and choose to take it out on an easy target
Singapore is one of the most stressful and unhappy countries globally. Based on a survey by STJobs.sg, only one out of 10 people claimed they are not stressed.
This is supported by a newly released study by Ipsos APAC and Toluna which found that Singapore is the second least happy country in Asia Pacific, with 24% of respondents indicating they were either “not happy” or “not happy at all”.
Psychologist have found that abusers tend to be unhappy and insecure people. Given that many Singaporeans are going through negative emotions, it is no surprise that some would end up taking their frustrations out through abusive behaviour.
Maids at home would then be a convenient punching bag given the fact that
- Their employers consider them to be inferior
- Many truly need their jobs for their families and are not likely to leave
- They do not have much friends or relatives who they can turn to for help
- Many of these women are afraid to report the abuse. They are worried about their families, the recriminations and that they will be outcasted if word gets out that they’ve been abused
The recorded cases of abuse we are seeing in the news is really just the tip of the iceberg.
According to Tam Peck Hoon, an advocacy head at the protection group Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME), “Not all abuse is tangible. We’re talking about psychological abuse, coercion, threat of sending them home.”.
In fact, a 2015 study by HOME shown that more than half experience verbal abuse, and 25 percent experienced poor mental health.
The issue of maid abuse in Singapore could worsen if left unchecked as the number of families who employ domestic helpers is increasing.
One out of five Singaporean household hires a maid, as of 2019. In 1990, the ratio was about one in 13, with about 50,000 maids here then.
How can you help?
I would think that domestic helpers have contributed immensely to our Singapore economy. They freed caregivers from some of their duties for a very low cost, giving their employers more time to join the workforce.
I don’t see why people should feel superior to those who are poorer or come from less privileged countries. The only difference between you and them is where you were born which determined the opportunities you have access to in life.
Should you have been born into such circumstances, you would probably have to leave your own kid behind and work for someone else for such little pay. Would you want to be treated like this too?
If you would like to do your part to make a positive change, do volunteer with some charities in Singapore doing great work to help domestic helpers and other migrant workers in Singapore.
One of them is HOME Singapore. They assist migrant workers who suffer abuse and exploitation. Unpaid salaries, excessive working hours, work injuries, physical and psychological abuse are some of the common problems these workers face. Some of them may also be victims of human trafficking.
They run a shelter for domestic workers, helpdesks for domestic workers and male migrant workers. They also offer legal assistance, health education and vocational training to the workers. To donate or volunteer, do reach out to them via their Giving.sg page!
Another organization that is doing great work is Transient Workers Count 2. They help low-wage migrant workers who have been injured, unpaid, or abused by employers. In some cases, salaries are not paid and rest days are denied. Some workers are also housed in unsafe and unhygienic places, physically and psychologically abused, and when injured, abandoned without adequate medical treatment or left with no income. To help them, you can donate or volunteer here.