Recognise power imbalance in employer-maid relationship

While working as a research assistant during my undergraduate years, I used to conduct interviews with maids with regard to their knowledge of their employment rights in Singapore.

So I cannot agree with the assertions made by Mr Philip Sim Ah Tee on maids' welfare ("Practical reasons to have live-in maids"; Wednesday).

While we may have witnessed employers taken to court for maid abuse, most of these cases represent the more severe (and often physical) mistreatment that is difficult to cover up.

Many employers also abuse their maids psychologically.

However, such cases are largely unreported because they are less conspicuous and are easily hidden from the public eye.

For example, through my interviews, I discovered that many employers forbid their maids from using mobile phones and interacting with other maids in their neighbourhood.

This deprives them of the means to relieve personal stress and maintain a healthy social and mental state.

Some employers also seek loopholes that enable them to not adhere to certain clauses of the employment contract.

For example, many maids are made to forfeit their entitled weekend leave in return for monetary compensation.

Although this may seem fair or be the preference of some maids, most of them are forced to obey their employers' wishes.

In worst cases, some maids do not even get paid extra.

This coercion also means maids have less access to information and are less resourceful in countering their employers' misdeeds.

Although laws are in place to protect the victim, the power imbalance is too large in the employer-worker relationship, such that maids often succumb to the misdoings of their employers out of fear.

Moreover, regulations such as the mandatory $5,000 security bond often turn into "justification" for employers to actively police their maids.

In the process of crafting new ways to improve the well-being of maids in Singapore, the public and the authorities need to recognise the employer-maid power imbalance.

Perhaps, empowering maids and giving them the confidence to confront their employers would be a good step towards rectifying the problem.

Ow Yau Loong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'Recognise power imbalance in employer-maid relationship'. Print Edition | Subscribe