Launch of Joint Report ‘Behind Closed Doors: Forced Labour in the Domestic Work Sector’

22 January 2019

By Christie Cheng

FL Report Launch.jpeg

On 15 January 2019, HOME launched its collaborative report with Hong Kong-based anti-trafficking group, Liberty Shared, Behind Closed Doors: Forced Labour in the Domestic Work Sector. The speakers included the lead author of the report, Dr Stephanie Chok (Research & Advocacy Manager, HOME), and Ms Archana Sinha Kotecha (Asia Region Director and Head of Legal, Liberty Shared), who provided expert guidance and drafting support. The session was moderated by Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu, Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University and researcher on migration within the Global South.

During the launch, both speakers offered an overview of forced labour in Singapore and the objectives of the report. Chok shared that the report does not set out to determine prevalence, it aims to discern patterns: it examines the multiple forms of exploitation and coercion experienced by migrant domestic workers who have sought shelter from HOME, and assesses how these may enable and lead to situations of forced labour. The report adopts the International Labour Organization’s framework, in which forced labour is defined as ‘all work or 
service which is exacted from any person under
 the menace of any penalty and for which the 
said person has not offered himself
 voluntarily’, and involves the twin dimensions of menace of penalty and involuntariness.

While mainstream portrayals of forced labour may focus on incidences involving physical assaults and confinement, quite often mechanisms of coercion are ‘subtle and not immediately observable’—for e.g. threats, the withholding of wages, or restrictions on communication—as several case studies shared during the launch demonstrated.

Kotecha, meanwhile, emphasized that although anti-trafficking legislation is in place, Singapore’s framework for labour protection is inadequate. Migrant domestic workers remain highly vulnerable to labour and human rights violations, a situation exacerbated by the live-in requirements of domestic work. Domestic workers need to be protected by labour laws with clearly specified standards. While globally, the focus tends to be directed towards human trafficking, Kotecha highlighted that forced labour is arguably more prevalent in the region and deserves more attention than it currently does.

The report advocates for a rights-based approach when dealing with victims of forced labour and human trafficking, in which survivors of forced labour are not treated as passive victims but recognized as claimants of rights, with access to both criminal as well as labour justice. Recommendations include extending the Employment Act to domestic workers, improving labour mobility for domestic workers, abolishing the skewed online reference channel, establishing fair recruitment practices, and urging the Singapore government to ratify the 2014 Protocol on Forced Labour. 

The launch was covered by several media outlets including The Straits Times, TODAY, Thomson Reuters, The New York Times and the South China Morning Post.

To download the full report, click here.

Stephanie Chok