The Manpower Ministry (MOM) has panned a study by an organisation which claimed that a majority of maids here are exploited by their employers and that more than one in five are victims of forced labour.
In replies to queries, MOM said on Friday that the study "painted a misleading picture of the employment of foreign domestic workers (FDW) in Singapore", and accused the researchers of using an overly simplified interpretation of labour exploitation.
In response, the researchers of the 151-page study from Sydney-based research organisation Research Across Borders claim that they had used a definition of exploitation "tailored to suit the Singapore context". The survey had concluded that existing frameworks in Singapore have "systemically enabled bonded labour", using definitions of exploitation and forced labour by the International Labour Organisation.
The study by researchers Anja Wessels, Madeline Ong and Davinia Daniel was published on ResearchGate last Sunday. They surveyed 735 Filipino and Indonesian foreign domestic workers in 2015.
The data showed that six in 10 FDWs - there are 243,000 in Singapore - were found to be exploited, while 23 per cent were identified as forced labour victims.
The study said exploitation refers to a combination of working and living in adverse conditions. Those subject to penalties by the employer if they did not perform the work, or other forms of coercion, are categorised as forced labour victims.
However, MOM disagreed with the researchers' take on exploitation, saying that they "did not consider the unique nature of domestic work when interpreting the indicators". For example, the study did not consider that work and personal time in the context of a domestic helper cannot be easily differentiated. Also, it did not consider that employers are responsible for the maids' and their family's well-being and safety.
Scenarios such as maids not being given house keys and needing permission to leave the house, or other similar situations, should not be considered as "isolation" or "confinement", said MOM.
The ministry added that it has strengthened measures to improve the well-being of FDWs over the years. This year, it increased the minimum sum assured under FDWs' Personal Accident Insurance from $40,000 to $60,000.
The study's lead researcher, Ms Wessels, told The Sunday Times that while she agreed with MOM that the live-in nature of FDWs' work here is unique, she argued that this was the "core of the problem" since lines between work and private life are blurred. She said her latest study was sound as it demonstrated validity, reliability and objectivity, and she welcomed further research work on the subject.
"The intention of this report was never to denounce the Singapore Government or Singapore in general but to seek a discourse. As such, I respect and welcome any feedback," she added.