The dream of opening a business back in Burma is what brought Moe Moe to Singapore two years ago. What she did not know is that it would be nine months before she received her first salary. For the first nine months everything went to the deductions made by the company that brought her here, a practice that traps domestic workers like Moe Moe with burdensome debt and the need to endure all kinds of abuse to get their first salary.
“I was paid 420 Singapore dollars and I did not have a single day off in 10 months,” explains the 25-year Burmese woman. Her stocky stature contrast with the photos that she shows during the time she was abused, where she looks emaciated and shows signs of having been beaten.
Singapore is the dream destination for many women in Southeast Asia: a prosperous city-state where the wages can be up to five times higher than in their home countries. According to the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), at present one in five Singaporean households has one of these workers, in a country of about five million people.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In the 1990s, Singapore’s government encouraged local women to enter the labor market, increasing the number of visas available for domestic workers who could take over the household chores, elderly parents, and children. These workers are mostly from much poorer countries in the region, such as the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia, and their remittances are an important source of income for the households they left behind. According to the World Bank, for example, in 2015 remittances accounted for 10.3 percent of Philippines GDP.
Agents in their home countries sometimes provide the workers inadequate or misleading information about their employment abroad, or charge them exorbitant fees. That leaves the workers no option but to borrow at high interest rates from local lenders or agencies, which must be repaid out of the first six to ten months of salary. This is what happened to Moe Moe.
In Singapore there is no minimum wage. The characteristics of each nationality are taken into account when formalizing contracts with agencies, and some governments are demanding pay rises for their domestic workers abroad. As of January 2016, Indonesian and Filipinas were being paid SGD550 ($408) a month, with Burmese receiving $450 dollars.
“This is work for poor people,” says the employee of one of the many agencies located in Katong mall, a building constructed in the early seventies that now looks obsolete. “[The maid] can sleep in the living room without having a separate space and work all day. She is at your disposal from the time she wakes up until the time she goes to sleep,” adds the employee of another company.
These agencies are a starting point for many women who have found their employer previously in an interview via Skype from their home countries, while other women are waiting for weeks to be transferred to another employer. In this case, they must pay additional transfer fees that perpetuate their debts, further delaying their escape from poverty in their own countries.
Many workers in Singapore have positive experiences, but others are not so lucky, especially those working in the homes of lower income Singaporeans, according to the organization Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which has monitored abuses for more than a decade.
Workers are forced to live in their employers’ homes and may not have a day off for months. In May, the Indonesian government said it will stop sending new live-in maids abroad from as early as next year, because it wants maids to live separately from their employers.
“I was forced to sleep on a mattress on the balcony and I didn’t know who to ask for help,” says Ummai Ummairoh, a 34-year-old maid. She now chairs the Indonesian Family Network, thanks to the unusual generosity of her current employers, who allow time off work if conferences or activities require it.
Domestic workers often face exploitative conditions, including excessive working hours, lack of rest days, bad housing conditions, and lack of freedom of association, as they are not allowed to form unions to defend their rights.
Moe Moe explains that she was hired by a family of Singaporean Chinese to take care of three children, aged 1, 3 and 7, and carry out household chores. Her working day would begin at 5 a.m. and end at midnight. She would eat white rice three times a day, accompanied by a glass of water, and faced beatings when caught stealing food from the kitchen. Her employer also asked her husband to whip her with a bamboo stick, a method used in China for disciplining children.
“I wanted to leave, but she used to say: Who’s going to want you? Also, I had to pay the debt to the agency that brought me here. One day she [Moe Moe’s employer] made me get on a plane to Burma, and she said: If someone asks you what happened to your face, tell them you fell down,” explains Moe Moe, who returned to Singapore to seek justice and now lives in a shelter run by HOME as the trial unfolds.
However, complaints rarely reach the courts, because domestic workers are not allowed to work while they wait for their cases to be resolved, something that can months. Language barriers, lack of information, and immigration status impose major barriers on workers who wish to report abuses. In 2015, HOME recorded 299 cases of emotional abuse, 108 cases of unpaid wages, 102 cases of physical abuse, and 75 cases of insufficient food, among 1212 cases in total.
John Gee of TWC2 explains that in the case of non-payment of salary, the employer may be pressured to pay by the Ministry of Manpower. This can be effective, since the Ministry can tell them they will not be allowed to hire another worker until their dispute with the existing one is resolved.
“But if it’s an abuse case, it is more likely to result in a trial. The employer is prosecuted by the state, not by a domestic worker: The state bears the costs. What we don’t see is domestic workers launching private suits for compensation for loss of earnings, injury to health, and these sort of things: They don’t have the money and don’t even seem to think along those lines usually. Most, after a traumatic experience, just wish to put it behind them and move on,” he says.
Domestic workers won the right to have a weekly day off in 2012, although some prefer to negotiate that day warrant in exchange for compensation to supplement their low incomes. This legislation has generated controversy, because there are those who are convinced that the government has not done enough to meet international rights, while others complain of not being able to control their workers and worrying about them establishing relationships or becoming pregnant.
Women who have a day off tend to meet in public spaces for picnicking or in the vicinity of malls segregated by nationality, where they seem in a hurry to enjoy their limited free time, make new friends or meet other migrants who come looking for romance. Sunday is always short, since by nightfall they must return to their place of work.
Recent years have brought some changes, with improvements in some social norms and a gradual increase in law enforcement. “Now that we have a day off a week, we will also struggle to get a schedule and minimum wage,” asserts Ummairoh, with a determination that conveys her hope for a better future.