SINGAPORE - The Manpower Ministry 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 (Dec 1) that the study "painted a misleading picture of the employment of foreign domestic workers (FDW) in Singapore", and accused researchers of using an overly simplified interpretation of labour exploitation.
The 151-page survey, conducted by Sydney-based research organisation Research Across Borders, had concluded that labour exploitation in Singapore is "systemically enabled bonded labour", using definitions of exploitation and forced labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency.
The researchers of the study also claimed that they had used a definition of exploitation "tailored to suit the Singapore context".
The study by researchers Anja Wessels, Madeline Ong and Davinia Daniel was published on ResearchGate, a social networking site for academics, on Sunday.
They had surveyed 735 Filipino and Indonesian foreign domestic workers. Most were found at public areas around Paya Lebar MRT station, City Plaza mall, and Lucky Plaza mall.
This data was collected through "semi-structured interviews" conducted in Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia from June and September 2015, said the study.
The data showed that six in 10 FDWs - there are 243,000 in total here - were found to be exploited, while 23 per cent were identified as forced labour victims, said the researchers.
Using an interpretation of ILO's definitions, the study said exploitation refers to a combination of working and living in adverse conditions.
Those are subject to penalties by the employer if they did not perform the work, or other forms of coercion, are categorised as forced labour victims by the study.
Another 10 per cent were identified to have been trafficked into their current employment on the basis that they were "deceived or coerced during the recruitment process", the study said.
However, MOM disagreed with the researchers' take on exploitation, saying that the researchers "did not consider the unique nature of domestic work when interpreting the indicators".
For example, the study did not consider the fact that work and personal time in the context of a domestic helper cannot be easily differentiated.
It, too, did not consider that employers are responsible for the maids and their family's well-being and safety.
Scenarios such as not giving the maid the house keys, 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, Miss Wessels, told The Straits Times that while she agreed with MOM that the live-in nature of FDWs here are unique, she argued that this was the "core of the problem" since lines between work and private life are blurred.
The Research Across Borders study also said the inadequate work regulations and legal protection here, as well as the systemic nature of their working conditions of these workers in Singapore, meant that they were vulnerable.
There are also "grossly unequal power relations" between maids and their employers, said the study, adding how FDWs are not covered by the Employment Act, but by the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) instead.
The researchers also concluded that the debts that FDWs incur in coming to Singapore cause various salary deductions for the FDW and "leave the worker seriously economically disadvantaged with an average salary even below the average in her home country".
To this, MOM said it does not mean that maids are not protected by the law.
Said MOM: "Under EFMA, employers are required to ensure prompt payment of salaries, provision of proper food, rest days or compensation in lieu of accommodation, medical care, and safe working conditions for their FDWs.
"These are laws and not guidelines. Employers who violate the laws face stiff fines, jail terms, and can be banned from hiring FDWs in future."
Under the Penal Code, employers who commit offences against their FDWs face penalties of 1½ times the usual punishment.
MOM also cited its own 2015 survey of 1,000 FDWs, which found that 97 per cent of respondents were satisfied working here and the same percentage indicating that their workload was either just right, or they could handle more.
Said MOM: "We also interview more than 3,000 new FDWs per year after their first few months of working here. More than 95 per cent indicated that their workload was manageable, and did not raise any well-being issues."
The Research Across Borders study also contradicts the experience of other voluntary welfare organisations representing FDWs.
In a Facebook post on Friday morning, the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) said preliminary findings for a survey it is conducting found that "more than 85 per cent of FDWs feel Singapore to be safe, secure and have confidence working here".
About the same number also found the laws here "to be fair and tough enough to deal against abuse", said the post.
CDE's survey is slated to be released next year.
FDW Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) executive director William Chew told the Straits Times that he was "really puzzled" at the survey findings as they were inconsistent with his own experience. Mr Chew has been advocating for FDW rights since 2004.
Of the 170 calls FAST receives each month, less than 10 per cent are about workload issues. Around 40 per cent relate to adjustment problems, 20 per cent to contractual and salary issues and the rest are miscellaneous inquiries by maids.
Mr Chew said: "I am frankly at a loss as to what kind of sample this research firm got. It said all the respondents are Filipino and Indonesian, but the fact is that maids from other source countries today like Myanmar were not polled... If the study is not scientific, it is irresponsible to release these results."
Miss Wessels from Research Across Borders said her latest study was sound as it demonstrated the three pillars of scientific empirical work - 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.