Take Seriously Caregivers’ Needs and Well-Being to Prevent Tragedies from Happening

This letter was submitted to TODAY’s Voices page and was published on 6 December 2018.

The needs of those undertaking care work have gained prominence in recent times, and a support network continues to grow for those undertaking the emotionally and sometimes physically strenuous work of caregiving.

In such debates, however, the needs and rights of a vital community of caregivers continue to be obscured: Those of migrant domestic workers.

The tragic death of baby Richelle is an important reminder to take the needs and well-being of caregivers seriously.

As reported in “Indonesian maid who punched crying baby, causing her death gets 7 years' jail” (Nov 22), Indonesian domestic worker Maryani Usman Utar worked 18 hours a day and suffered from interrupted sleep due to the baby’s middle-of-the-night feeds.

Additionally, Maryani was denied rest days and forbidden to own a mobile phone to contact her family and friends. She was also regularly scolded.

Maryani asked for a transfer twice, but was unsuccessful.

These working conditions are not uncommon.

In the last year, more than half of the 800 domestic workers that the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (Home) housed complained of excessive working hours and inadequate rest.

More than 60 per cent reported being shouted at, insulted or threatened.

More than 25 per cent did not have any days off at all, while another 30 per cent either had their phones confiscated or had unreasonable phone restrictions placed on them.

Home published the results of a psychological test in 2015 in which close to 700 domestic workers were surveyed: Almost one quarter of them were found to suffer from poor mental health.

The risk factors most detrimental to a worker’s psychological well-being include language-related communication barriers and verbally and physically abusive behaviours.

The research found that the lack of privacy, restrictions on communication, debt and homesickness were harmful to their mental health.

Factors co-related to good mental health included sufficient daily sleep, privacy and frequent contact with friends and family.

Given the conditions Maryani was working under, it is not surprising the psychologist who diagnosed her found that she had moderate depression at the time of the offence.

We urge the Ministry of Manpower to review its policies governing the welfare of migrant domestic workers, including having a ban on employers withholding the workers’ mobile phones.

Live-in domestic work, especially for those engaged in caring for the vulnerable, can be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Sadly, it does not seem enough to encourage employers to be more humane.

Ensuring that domestic workers have basic labour rights guaranteed in law and effective redress when they are violated is necessary to ensure that their health and well-being is not dependent on the goodwill of employers.

Support systems for domestic workers who are caring for seniors, children or vulnerable adults would be beneficial for all, including the employing families and those they care for.

Measures should be taken to minimise the risk of such tragedies happening and a core part of this must involve improving the working conditions of domestic workers.

Stephanie Chok

Advocacy & Communications Manager

Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics

Stephanie Chok