Ma Wain Wain from Myanmar struggled to adapt to the role required for her new job as a domestic worker in Singapore. A few weeks after she moved to the city, the young woman told her agency that she was suffering from stress and asked to go home.
On October 13, 2017, the authorities found her lifeless body on the ground, very close to the apartment where she worked, in the Potong Pasir neighborhood. The girl’s passport indicated that she was 23 years old, but her relatives, who live in the Burmese region of Mandalay, revealed that she was just 16. According to Singaporean laws, foreign domestic employees must be older than 23. Considering the background, it is believed that she committed suicide.
The same year that Ma Wain Wain died, the independent organization Research Across Borders published an investigation revealing that foreign maids represent 17 percent of Singapore’s workforce and their conditions are usually not good: 60 percent are exploited in a variety of ways, with work days of more than 12 hours.
Last December, two Myanmar girls working as domestic workers died in the same week, which shows the extent of the problem. A 19-year-old woman apparently fell from an apartment building after she had worked at her employer’s home for only 20 days. Another domestic helper apparently fell from the ninth floor of the apartment block where she had worked for 18 months. She was also believed to be 19, although her passport stated that she was 25. Both women were believed to have committed suicide.
The job as a domestic helper, in charge of a stranger’s home thousands of kilometers from their own home, requires a period of adaptation, especially for younger girls. Many do not know how to cook, do not get along with children, and barely can communicate with their employers because they do not know the language.
Maids in Singapore have a few days off, or none at all. This prevents them from escaping, sharing their experiences, or asking for help if they need it. The report from Research Across Borders reveals that 41 percent must work on their only day off, even though, since 2013, it is mandatory that they have one rest day a week.
The majority of the domestic workers in Singapore are from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar. It is difficult to know how many are minors, because they enter the country and work irregularly.
Stephanie Chok, the advocacy and communications manager in the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), explained that she knows cases of domestic workers under 23 “every month” and of girls under 18 “every year.” Chok has worked with the organization since 2008, especially in the reception centers, and has been in charge of advocacy since June 2017.
The local newspaper The Straits Times offers another count. Its authors concluded that in Singapore there were at least 240,000 domestic workers in 2017; according to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) official estimate of the proportion of underage workers there would be more than 200. But more and more cases have been discovered in recent years.
The data from MOM, Singapore’s ministry of human resources, also revealed an increase in the hiring of underage assistants. In 2017, MOM estimated the incidence of underage workers at 8.7 per 10,000, up from 4.3 and 6.4 in 2016 and 2015 respectively.
In the past three years, MOM has taken action against 98 employment agencies for bringing minor workers to Singapore. In May 2018, for example, two agencies were sanctioned for importing 13-year-old employees from Myanmar. Penalties include fines of up to 5,000 Singaporean dollars (US$3,680), six months in prison, and the withdrawal of licenses.
According to John Gee, president of the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) research subcommittee, most of the trafficked girls are from Myanmar because “the business of recruiting is much less regulated” there.
He said that recruiters earn more or less money depending on the number of maids they place at employers’ homes. If they do not find any suitable candidates when they travel to villages looking for girls interested in traveling abroad as maids, they try to persuade the younger ones. Sometimes, they even try to find parents who are willing to urge their daughters to go.
The agencies are links in the recruitment chain and may or may not take a position against hiring minors. The activist explained that since the maids often use a false passport with changed age, “it may not be so obvious” that they are young. Recruiters focus mainly on their appearance.
Once the maids arrive in Singapore, the costs of transportation, accommodation, and agency fees start to grow, so the girls are left with no choice but to continue to lie about their age. Otherwise, they could be returned home with debt.
The girls do not receive a big amount of money, but their salaries are higher than those they can receive in their countries of origin, where the conditions are even more precarious. The report mentions that employees earn around 381 Singaporean dollars per month (about US$280), reduced to 158 (about US$116) if they send money to their relatives.
The inequality with respect to the average remuneration in Singapore is pronounced. A Singaporean receives monthly around 3,694 Singaporean dollars, which means that the earnings of a foreign domestic worker are just over one-tenth of the average.
Gee explained that the Singapore agencies trust that their partners in the countries of origin have checked the ages of the girls, under the threat that they will not cooperate with them in the future. He said that to discover an irregularity, “there is not much that can be done beyond an interview with the workers.”
Since 2014, Myanmar’s government has banned women from migrating as domestic workers to Singapore, no matter how old they are. However, this legislation is ineffective.
Gee argued that the regulation was expected to protect women against abuse, but the effect has been the opposite: “Many girls leave Burma with or without the cooperation of a local agency.” When they get a job in Singapore, he said, “they are more vulnerable because they have opposed the ban in their country.”
Nobody knows how many stories similar to Ma Wain Wain’s exists. As Gee explained, and as happens in other countries, the local press usually does not publicize these cases for fear of inciting other people to take their own lives.
On the other hand, MOM treats girls’ deaths from falling as accidents that occur when they are cleaning or hanging from windows in a dangerous way. In 2012, MOM introduced some regulations to punish employers that allow workers to perform certain risky tasks. According to Gee, since then, “no reliable figures have been issued.”
NGOs have reported that at least two other young Burmese girls under the age of 20 died in a similar way to Ma Wain Wain in 2017. Another case of a 15-year-old Burmese girl who jumped from the ninth floor of the apartment where she worked came to light recently. The girl survived with spinal injuries after landing on the seventh floor. Her passport indicated that her age was 25.
As Gee said, there are unscrupulous agencies that work with minors if they can earn money. These companies then claim that they did not see any irregularities in their documents.
He explained another problem: many employers believe that young girls will work more according to their wishes and “prefer not to face an experienced woman who can be more assertive about the treatment and their rights.” It is difficult to change these points of view.
Unfortunately, many maids also suffer in other parts of the world with labor exploitation and all kinds of abuses: physical abuse, sexual aggression, forced confinement, unpaid wages, denial of food and health, and excess hours of work without days of release.
Those were the findings in a 2006 report published by the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) that summarizes violence against women workers in El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, in addition to Singapore.
Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.