No Privacy, No Space: Domestic Workers Endure Poor Living Conditions
At close to midnight, Awe, a domestic worker from Myanmar, curls up in the corner of the living room with a thin mattress and a small fan and tries to get some sleep. “Sometimes it is difficult,” she says, “because my employer watches TV or her son plays computer games till the early hours of the morning.” She copes with the noise by using ear plugs, but when she rises at 6am to start her day, she does not feel rested at all.
Inadequate living conditions are the norm for many live-in domestic workers. At HOME, we frequently receive complaints by domestic workers about living in cramped spaces with poor ventilation. Sleeping in store rooms, kitchens, and living rooms are common. One domestic worker told us that she had to share the same area at the back of the kitchen with the employer’s pet dog. Another domestic worker was forced to sleep out on the balcony, with a shower curtain for shelter, so that every time it rained she had to choose between sleeping outside in the wet or sleeping on the floor of a tiny storeroom without ventilation. However, there is no justice at all for workers who file such complaints at the Ministry of Manpower as they are usually repatriated to their home countries by their employers upon doing so. It is also likely that enforcement action is not taken against these employers as the workers are not required to remain behind to assist in investigations.
Denial of personal space takes various forms. For example, it is common practice for many Singaporean households to install a surveillance camera in the room or area where the worker sleeps. Filipino domestic worker Flordeliza had to endure the intrusive presence of a CCTV camera in her bedroom even though she was not sharing it with a child or elderly person under her care. She knew that the camera was turned on at night because of its blinking light.
She was so distressed and traumatised by the constant surveillance that she often broke down in tears and started to lose her appetite. When she told her employer that she could no longer work for them because of this lack of privacy, she was terminated without notice and the employer attempted to repatriate her. A HOME volunteer responded to her call for help at the airport and she was sent to our shelter. We assisted her to file a complaint at MOM but she still had to return to the Philippines in the end.
As we noted in our shadow report to the Committee on the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Ministry of Manpower’s current regulations simply state that employers should provide “acceptable accommodation” for domestic workers. MOM guidelines also encourage employers to provide a mattress, pillow, blanket, a “mechanical ventilator” and “reasonable amount of privacy.”
However, it is unclear how such guidelines are enforced. For example, last year MOM issued a directive stating that “CCTVs should not be installed in areas that will compromise the FDWs’ (foreign domestic workers’) privacy, for example, where they sleep, change their clothes or the bathroom area … all employers must respect the privacy of their employees, including foreign domestic workers who work and reside in their employers’ homes.”
Despite this, lack of privacy remains a concern among domestic workers. In a study that HOME conducted in 2015, we found that 20 percent of those surveyed had a surveillance camera installed in their rooms. We also found that 59 percent did not have their privacy respected in the employer’s house, and this has been identified as a major risk factor to a domestic worker’s mental health.
To date, there is no known case of any employer who has been prosecuted in court for failing to provide decent living conditions.
The UN CEDAW Committee noted in its General Recommendations No. 26 on Women Migrant Workers (2008) that domestic workers are especially vulnerable to poor living conditions. The committee also acknowledge that live-in migrant domestic workers are often housed in cramped conditions which lack privacy and that governments needed to address this inadequacy through legal protections.
In line with its commitment to CEDAW, the government of Singapore should take steps to ensure that domestic workers have adequate accommodation. We call for MOM to set clear standards in the work permit regulations to which employers should adhere, and to ensure that such standards are consistently enforced. MOM should also move to enshrine in law what is currently only a recommendation, namely that employers should not install surveillance cameras where domestic workers sleep and rest.
To read our joint shadow report to the UN’s CEDAW committee, click here.