SINGAPORE - Domestic workers who seek help for their work conditions mostly do so due to overwork, verbal abuse and salary issues - and many of their complaints appear to be "strong indicators of forced labour".
These are among the findings of a report released on Tuesday (Jan 15) by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) and Hong Kong-based anti-trafficking group Liberty Shared, looking into forced labour in Singapore's domestic work sector and calling for better protection of workers.
Forced labour refers to work or services exacted from a person "under the menace of any penalty and for which (he) has not offered himself voluntarily", according to the International Labour Organisation, a United Nations agency.
Responding to the report, a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesman said that it "does not accurately reflect the employment and working conditions of foreign domestic workers in Singapore".
"Forced labour is a complex issue," MOM said. "Meeting one or more of the ILO forced labour indicators may not necessarily mean that a worker is indeed in a forced labour situation," the spokesman added in a statement.
She noted that Singapore's Prevention of Human Trafficking Act is aligned with the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, which the Republic ratified in 2016, and whose definitions of explotation and forced labour it took reference from.
The report noted that based on casework data from Home, out of 2,832 complaints it received from April 2017 to March 2018, 483 were related to overwork. During this period, it saw an average of 17 new runaways and in the past year, it provided shelter to more than 800 foreign domestic workers.
There were around 250,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore as of June 2018.
"It is not uncommon for domestic workers to report working hours that range from 16 to 18 hours a day - in some extreme cases, even 20 hours a day - with the domestic worker also not having any rest days," said the report. "As there is a live-in requirement for migrant domestic workers, those who look after the elderly or young children may be on call 24/7."
Surveillance cameras, which are "common" in Singapore homes, make it hard for workers to take breaks without express permission by employers as well.
Other issues with workload include being asked to perform tasks not traditionally viewed as domestic work: Giving employers massages, washing their cars or working illegally in another household or the employer's business.
The second-most common complaint among domestic workers was verbal abuse, of which there were 472 cases, said the report. These include threats and insults, with some being called "stupid" or "dog". Others had vulgarities hurled at them or experienced sexually loaded insults such as being told: "You are no better than a prostitute."
Issues with pay were the next most common problem, forming 342 of reported grievances. These include unpaid or delayed salaries and salary deductions, such as for employer obligations such as medical expenses.
Some employers "safekeep" domestic workers' pay as well, with workers sometimes pressured to sign documents indicating they have received their salaries, said the report.
Recent policy changes deal with a part of this, with MOM introducing a new Work Permit condition from this year that disallows employers from "safekeeping" domestic workers' money.
Other problems raised range from being given inadequate food to unreasonable restrictions of phone use.
"While physical and sexual abuse cases are generally taken seriously by the authorities, the problem lies in obtaining sufficient evidence for a prosecution," the report added.
Investigations can take over a year, and a worker may not be allowed to leave the country during this time even if she wants to.
The report also flagged conditions that leave domestic workers vulnerable.
"The lack of guaranteed minimum wage, exclusion from the Employment Act, along with the non-mandatory employment contract and insufficient guidelines to working conditions... leave Singapore's migrant domestic worker population vulnerable to different forms and degrees of labour exploitation and abuse," said Ms Sheena Kanwar, executive director of Home and Ms Archana Kotecha, Asia region director for Liberty Shared, in the report's foreword.
"(While) anti-trafficking legislation exists, this is in no way a substitute for fundamental labour protections," the pair added, noting that complex forced labour issues cannot be dealt with by referring to labour laws that are not designed with deal with such issues.
In its response, MOM said the report's claim that foreign domestic workers (FDWs) lack legal protections in Singapore "cannot be further away from the truth".
"Even though FDWs are not covered under the Employment Act because many of the stipulations within the Act, for example regulating overtime pay and fixing work hours, cannot be simply applied in a home environment, they are covered under the comprehensive Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA)," the spokesman added.
MOM also said that EFMA requires that employers provide adequate rest, proper accommodation, medical care, among others, to their domestic workers.
Home's research and advocacy manager Stephanie Chok, however, noted at a launch event for the report that the EFMA does not apply the same protection as the Employment Act, adding that the EFMA adopts "ambiguous language" like "acceptable accommodation" and "adequate food".
"So, when a dispute arises, mediation outcomes then become very much dependent on the discretionary power of individual officers," said Ms Chok.
The ILO estimates there are 11.5 million migrant domestic workers in the world. In Asia, Singapore employs the second-highest number of documented migrant domestic workers who come from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
"Foreign domestic workers here face vulnerability in part due to high dependency on their employers, who can influence over their movements and ability to communicate freely with others," said the report. "(They) may enter an employment relationship voluntarily, but the emergence of particular conditions may transform that situation into one of forced labour."
These include physical confinement or threats, and some may also fear retaliation through unsubstantiated negative feedback, which jeopardise their chances of returning to work here, the report added.
In MOM's response, it said that apart from legal protection, all new foreign domestic workers must attend a Settling-In Programme where they are educated on their rights and responsibilities, as well as on assistance channels.
"Post deployment to household, MOM continues to engage foreign domestic workers through various outreach efforts. Interviews are conducted with first-time (domestic workers) to ensure they are settling in well," MOM added.
MOM also said "only a very small number" of domestic workers run away from their employers, with a majority of cases due to misunderstandings between both parties. Abuses, it added, constitute an "even smaller minority".