Do 'maid cameras' cross the line?

Currently, it is not illegal for employers to install cameras in bedrooms and toilets as there are no privacy laws here, said lawyers. But if surveillance is done in areas where the worker undresses, this could constitute an outrage of modesty.
Currently, it is not illegal for employers to install cameras in bedrooms and toilets as there are no privacy laws here, said lawyers. But if surveillance is done in areas where the worker undresses, this could constitute an outrage of modesty.ST PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: DESMOND WEE

They do when they are put up in areas which infringe on maid's privacy, say MOM, TWC2

Like many maids in Singapore, Ms Dewie, 27, came here for a bigger pay cheque to support her young children. She could endure the backbreaking hours, even the repeated scoldings, but what made her decide to leave was the closed-circuit television camera in the toilet.

"Why are you taking so long in the toilet? Why are you using my shampoo and not yours?" her employer would ask, despite not being home at that time. Ms Dewie, whose story was recounted by non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), then checked the toilet and found a tiny camera hidden in a corner.

It is not uncommon for employers here to use closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to keep an eye on their maids, especially those left at home with the elderly or young children. They use CCTVs to deter their maids from abusing family members or to ensure that no strangers enter their homes.

But a line is crossed when these cameras are put up in private areas, said the authorities and advocacy groups for foreign workers.

"CCTVs should not be installed in areas that will compromise the FDWs' (foreign domestic workers') privacy, for example, where they sleep, change their clothes or the bathroom area," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). "All employers must respect the privacy of their employees, including foreign domestic workers who work and reside in their employers' homes."

RESPECT WORKERS' PRIVACY

CCTVs should not be installed in areas that will compromise the foreign domestic workers' privacy, for example, where they sleep, change their clothes or the bathroom area. All employers must respect the privacy of their employees, including foreign domestic workers who work and reside in their employers' homes.

A SPOKESMAN FOR THE MINISTRY OF MANPOWER

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), said his group believes the presence of surveillance cameras where the maid sleeps and rests should be outlawed.

"Even if the domestic worker is sharing her room with the children or the elderly, such cameras should not be allowed because everyone has a right to his privacy," he said.

Currently, it is not illegal for employers to install cameras in bedrooms and toilets as there are no privacy laws here, said lawyers. But if surveillance is done in areas where the worker undresses, this could constitute an outrage of modesty.

The MOM spokesman said: "In the event that such complaints are brought to our attention, we will advise the employers to take down the CCTV. Should the cases involve insulting of modesty, these will be referred to the police," she said.

She added that complaints of intrusion of privacy are very rare.

But welfare groups that work with migrant workers say they get numerous complaints from maids about employers monitoring them in their private spaces.

"It is a significant problem because in a week, at least one domestic worker who approaches us for help has reported the existence of surveillance cameras in the house or her room," said Mr Wham.

A survey by Home of 670 maids this year showed one in five of them had surveillance cameras in her room. But workers such as Ms Dewie often choose not to report such infringements because they fear losing their jobs. She was repatriated a week after her employers found out last year she was talking to TWC2.

TWC2 board member Shelley Chio said: "Sometimes, the maids end up blaming us out of frustration, when their cases are not settled after three or four months. But my concern is: What if it happens to the next maid the employers hire?"

There were 218,300 foreign maids in Singapore as of June last year, which means that about one in five families here hires one.

Maid agencies said they have received complaints about CCTVs from maids. Said Mr Benny Liew, director of Comfort Employment: "CCTVs are so common nowadays that maids are used to them, so fewer come to us about it. But we have done transfers for maids who are uncomfortable with the cameras.

"Usually, employers will take down the cameras in private areas after we warn them. But there are grey areas such as cameras installed outside their rooms but (which are) pointing in the direction of their rooms."

He said those who install cameras at home should inform their maids.

Ms Alison Chung, 35, who works in the media industry, initially used a camera that looks like an adaptor. However, she has since switched to a standard surveillance camera.

"I installed it in my son's room after I... found my helper treating my son a little too rough for my liking," said Ms Chung, whose son was eight months old at that time.

"But I believe employers should be honest with their helpers if they do have CCTVs at home. They should show their helpers where the cameras are located and explain their reasons for having the cameras, so helpers know it isn't for spying but to monitor the children."

Ms Susanto (not her real name), a 27-year-old maid, said: "I think cameras outside our private spaces are okay, though that says a lot about the lack of trust. But for those that violate our personal space, they... cause us a lot of mental stress."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Do 'maid cameras' cross the line?'. Print Edition | Subscribe