Transfer maids

Give due regard to the autonomy of the workers

Recently, the Ministry of Manpower recommended the sharing of stay-home notice and other related costs between employers, when transferring a migrant domestic worker (MDW).

The criteria and guidelines essentially compensate employers who wish to transfer their MDWs, and had incurred costs in hiring an MDW from abroad.

While such measures are welcome, and are designed to encourage the transfer of MDWs who have not completed their contracts, the fundamental issue of an MDW's lack of employment mobility remains.

MDWs are not allowed a transfer without their employers' consent. However, employers are able to unilaterally terminate their MDWs at any point during the employment period.

Those who request transfers may be threatened with repatriation or have their requests denied, with employers citing difficulties in getting replacements due to the current shortage of MDWs born out of border restrictions.

Since the onset of Covid-19, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics has encountered more MDWs who wish to change employers as they are unable to cope with their living and working conditions, but are not allowed to do so due to the employers' uncertainty as to when they will be able to hire someone else.

With the new recommendation, whether or not the transfer gets effected still turns on employers - the current employer needs to give permission to transfer, and the prospective employer must agree to share the quarantine costs. Employers may still refuse a transfer if the prospective employer does not wish to share these costs.

As we introduce measures to address the shortage of MDWs, we must also give due regard to their autonomy.

Measures introduced last year for employment agencies to take over the management of MDWs to facilitate transfers can also be implemented only with the employers' consent, and without due regard to the MDWs' choice.

The lack of employment mobility is a key reason why some MDWs stay in exploitative working situations and do not report abuses or violations.

We must do more to alleviate the power imbalance that exists between MDWs on the one hand, and employers and agents on the other.

For a start, MDWs who wish to change employers at the end of their work permit terms should be allowed to do so, without their employers' consent, similar to workers in non-domestic sectors.

Jaya Anil Kumar
Research and Advocacy Manager
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'Give due regard to the autonomy of the workers'. Subscribe