top of page
  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

The Pain Behind Singapore's Gains

Updated: May 8, 2018

Australian Financial Review, April 2010

It is Christmas Eve in Singapore, and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics – HOME – is holding a celebration at its East Coast shelter. Donors have provided a Christmas dinner, and 60 women, all of whom sleep in a single room upstairs, have organised some carols as a thankyou. These are women who have fled their jobs as foreign domestic workers, or maids, sometimes because of physical abuse, sometimes mental, sometimes simply lack of sleep; they are here because they have nowhere else to go. They strike up Amazing Grace. Everyone in the room is crying.

The 830,000 Australians who clear immigration at Singapore’s immaculate Changi airport each year won’t see this; nor will most of the 20,000 who live here. They will see Singapore’s astonishing economic success story in action: a country that started out with nothing upon independence from Britain in 1959, too small to support agriculture or resource industries, yet which has become the eighth wealthiest state on earth per capita, earning over US$50,000 per person on a purchasing power parity basis. They’ll see the brand new casino developments rising around the city centre’s Marina Bay, and the cranes above the world’s busiest container port, but they’re unlikely to glimpse the dark side of the migrant economy without whose presence this stunning achievement would have been impossible.

Nb this is the version as originally filed; click on the PDF links to see the shorter version as it ran

Singapore’s total foreign worker population is around 1.05 million people out of a total national population of 4.5 million. Of that number, about 856,000 are migrant workers such as construction staff who fall under a restricted bracket of the country’s Employment Act called the Work Permit regulations, and 196,000 of them are foreign domestic workers (the term ‘maids’ is frowned upon). They come here from Asia’s poorer countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Burma, frequently leaving young children behind to be looked after by family members, because they believe they can earn more money in Singapore, support an extended family, and perhaps build a house or pay their children’s way through higher education.

Many manage it. But others do not, and even those who do frequently tolerate conditions that are considered commonplace here but would elsewhere be unthinkable. No day off, ever. Routinely locked in to the family home when the family goes out, without the right to leave the building. Working for eight months, sometimes more, to pay off recruitment agency debts before a penny is earned for the helper herself. “Imagine the inequality of power distribution,” says Bridget Liew, a Singaporean who founded HOME as an NGO in 2004 with her retirement savings after a career as a personnel manager. “They have no-one to help them or defend them if their rights are being invaded. In such a situation they are very vulnerable to abuse: you cannot get access to recompense if you cannot get out of the house.”


The AFR is sitting with 25 young Filipina women in a smart classroom in Singapore’s Raeburn Park being educated on how not to fall out of a window. Posters on the wall remind workers of their rights to be paid on time. A spritely local teacher, affecting something of a Filipina accent, is demonstrating on a model of a window frame how to keep one’s balance while hanging out washing from a high floor. “Should I lean out of the window like this?” she asks. “No, ma’am,” comes an obedient chorus.

This is the National Safety Council, and its work is important: far too many helpers, from rural areas in which there are no high-rises, have fallen from Singapore condominium windows, although it is an open question how many are accidents and how many suicides. The course is one of several efforts made by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower to address problems in its migrant worker community and has been compulsory for new foreign domestic workers, like these women, since 2004, along with a course for first-time employers. At the end of it they’ll receive a book with advice and some emergency numbers. “A testament to Singapore’s pro-active and comprehensive efforts is that many FDWs continue to seek employment or extend their employment here,” claims Jacqueline Poh, divisional director for workplace policy and strategy at the Ministry of Manpower. She cites surveys showing that 90% of such workers are happy in Singapore, and the worst atrocities against helpers – the vicious beatings and sexual assaults – do appear to be declining, although nobody knows how much is unreported.

But the plight of the women in HOME’s East Coast shelter or those of other NGOs or embassies, women who have fled back home without reporting their treatment or those who remain undetected and unhelped in miserable conditions, is a story of falling in the gaps. It’s the gap between having legal rights and having any idea what they are or any ability to access them; the gap between the deceit of a recruiter in one country and the very different reality of a job in Singapore, with no reach to pursue that injustice across jurisdictions. It’s the gap between the right to take an employer or agency to courts, and any possibility of being able to afford to stay and contest the case when there is no income coming in and a family to support at home. And more than anything, it’s the gap between Singapore’s free markets ideology and the grim practicalities of attempting to negotiate when poor, uncertain and locked in somebody else’s home.

A good place to start to understand the complexities involved is the debate about a day off. The employment legislation that governs the bulk of Singapore’s population requires a day off per week by law, but the section relating to foreign domestic workers does not. The government does require workers be given “adequate rest,” but that’s ambiguous, and workers routinely make themselves more marketable by waiving any expectation of a day off. Roughly 90,000 work every day, sometimes for 16 hours or more.

The right to a day off has been central to the Singapore activities of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) – an organisation which, globally, received a US$17 million commitment from the Australian government last March. For them, a day off is not just about rest. “The reason I chose the issue of a day off for our public education campaign is because if a worker is abused, this is the one day she can make a report to her embassy, a helpline or the ministry,” explains Saleemah Ismail, president of Unifem in Singapore.

John Gee is president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a local society advocating better rights for migrant workers. “For workers who don’t get a day off, it definitely has an impact on their health, and it has an effect on their vulnerability to different forms of abuse,” he says. “We find workers locked in behind barred gates and blocked from using the telephone: so if you are not paid, how do you complain about not being paid? It’s too easy for an employer who is abusive to cover up.” As Liew puts it: “Things happen behind locked doors.”

Other groups see the situation quite differently. “It seems to be a common misconception that all FDWs want a day off,” says Shirley Ng, president of the Association of Employment Agencies, which represents 500 members and is one of two accreditation bodies appointed by the Ministry of Manpower to authorise employment agencies to place foreign domestic workers. “Many FDWs choose not to have a day off as long as there is monetary compensation. The reason is mainly financial as they want the additional cash and they cannot afford to spend for their meals and transportation on their day off.” Wages for domestic workers can be as low as S$300 per month; there is no minimum wage in Singapore.

Unifem’s research – it has interviewed over 3000 households to gauge fears and concerns, and will release its findings in March – appears to show some alarming attitudes in broader society. Unifem says common concerns include “If I give my maid a day off, she may have casual sex and contract sexually transmittable diseases”; “maids are here to work not to have a good time; if my maid wants to have a day off, she should go back to her country”; and “If she goes out on her day off, there will be nobody to look after my children”. It’s an attitude that troubles Ismail. “We, Singaporeans, need to ask ourselves why do we educated people, who enjoy at least a day off each week from our employers, not give the same to our domestic workers?”

Australia generally has little reason to involve itself in this debate as its citizens are not involved, but there have been instances of it demonstrating a clear position. Miles Kupa, who served as Australia’s High Commissioner to Singapore from 2005 to 2008 and is now deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, sent a memo to all his staff while here instructing them that if they employed domestic helpers, they were expected to give them a day off.

The day off issue is illustrative of a broader concern about the position of domestic workers. “This idea of isolation, and reinforcing powerlessness on workers, it runs all the way through their treatment,” Gee continues. “Agents habitually take their passports off them when they enter the country.” Government leaflets containing helpline information are often confiscated too, by agents or employers. And employers have the right to cancel helpers’ work permits and send workers back to their home countries without practical means to appeal against wrongful dismissal.

Liew is also troubled by the implications of contracts on basic human rights. “Local regulations make it clear if you get pregnant your contract will be terminated,” she says. “This is an outrageous restriction. You cannot terminate a woman just because of a work permit condition.” There’s even the nature of Singapore architecture: each new condominium that springs up seems to have smaller and smaller rooms for domestic workers, euphemistically described as a “plus one” addendum to the number of bedrooms by local estate agents. Most are windowless storerooms, too small for anything but a child’s bed to fit inside.

Workers are also bearing the brunt of an unwelcome shift against them in the way that employment agencies are remunerated. Up until the 1990s, when an employer hired a helper, that employer would bear the agency fee and any related costs such as training or flights that may have been incurred in the worker’s home country before flying to Singapore. Since the Asian financial crisis, the norm has become to shift most of those costs onto the employee on a “fly now, pay later” system, meaning that the helper must pay back that debt before receiving any cash for herself. Ng says most workers lose about eight months salary to cover costs incurred in their home country – and if she changes employer before the end of a contract, the fee is likely to be topped up again. It’s worse still for male construction workers who typically work for a year before earning a cent. “AEA has, for many years, requested MOM to regulate this area, but to no success,” says Ng. “Our proposition is to fix the number of months of salary that can be deducted from the FDWs… Unfortunately, MOM believes in a free market philosophy and adopts a non-interference approach.”

One area that clearly is beyond the ministry’s control is the behaviour of recruiters in places like the Philippines. “Recruiters in home countries practically always make promises that are not kept,” says Gee. “They promise the wages are better, the working hours shorter. Some recruiters will give what they call a gift to the worker’s parents, maybe $100 or $200. It all seems to be free, but she’s not being made aware of the charges that are being added all the time.” Recruiters have also been widely reported to offer one contract in the home country, only to coerce the worker to sign another, much more damaging contract at either the departure or arrival airport, telling them the employment will not proceed otherwise. “They nearly always sign it and there is no going back then,” Gee says.

On top of all this, when wronged, it’s hard for a helper to contest a legal case when they have no income or place to stay. This was the genesis of HOME. Liew has one woman in her shelter, a victim of physical abuse, who has been in the shelter for more than one year waiting for the case to reach court; while she does this, she can send no money home. “Why is a charity like ours footing the bill for a prosecution witness?” asks Liew. (HOME receives no government funding.) Far more victims of abuse likely either leave the country without pursuing their abuse, or tolerate it in order to move on to another source of income.

That was the outcome for Lunita (name changed), a Filipino helper who broke out of her employer’s home and ran to a family in a neighbouring block of her condominium, complaining of having been assaulted and verbally abused, with bruises up her arms. The neighbour helped her draft a police statement and took her to the HOME shelter, whose staff took her to the police station to file a formal complaint.

The next day the police took her to the employer’s house to retrieve her possessions. The employer – who had been reported to police for assaulting a previous helper too – showed the police gifts she said she had bought for Lunita; the police, no longer convinced by Lunita’s story, elected not to press charges and returned her not to the shelter but to her agent. The agent made it clear the inconvenience she had caused and threatened to charge her an additional placement fee equivalent to several months wages, levies she avoided after agreeing to go back to her original employer, the one she alleged had assaulted her. She made her choice to make sure she didn’t lose her ability to send money back home. The bruises were still livid on her arms when she went back.

That’s where she is right now.


The closest thing to a voice in parliament for this part of society is Yeo Guat Kwang, a man who wears many hats: an elected member of parliament, a director at the National Trades Union Congress, and chairman both of a consumer initiative and of the Migrants Workers’ Forum, a collaboration between his and other unions. You would call his a softly-softly approach; three times he punctuates a comment calling for improved migrant worker conditions with a remark like: “We are also a bit worried that local members will feel we are doing too much for them [foreign workers]”.

Nevertheless he believes his group has been partly responsible for improving elements of work permit conditions, notably the standard contract for domestic workers, and in a nation without a tradition of political dissent or unfettered freedom of speech, perhaps this is how change is effected.

His position is that of the unionist and worker, with the contract as the key to redress: “In Singapore’s law breach of contractual agreement is the easiest thing to pursue and I push for that,” he says. “To me as a unionist I say that’s what the workers want: they want damages, they want money. I don’t care if my employer goes to jail or is fined, the fine will go the government. As a worker, I want the money.”


Few employers of domestic workers realise that their maids are not only supporting whole families at home, they’re also saving their economies.

Amando Tetangco is Governor of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the Philippines’ central bank. “Remittances are an important pillar of the Philippine economy and contribute significantly to its resilience,” he says. They do so by increasing the foreign exchange supply, which helps the country purchase imports and settle foreign currency obligations; by promoting higher consumption as the recipient families spend their money on goods and services like food and school fees; by generating employment as a consequence of that consumption; and by contributing to savings.

Tetangco estimates that between eight and 10 million Filipino workers live overseas. He suggests remittances from overseas Philippine nationals hit US$17.1 billion in 2009 and will be about a billion higher in 2010. That’s more than 10 per cent of the entire economy of the Philippines.

14 views0 comments


bottom of page