Trafficking in Singapore

Domestic Servitude in Singapore

domestic servitude

Domestic servitude is not a well understood form of trafficking in Singapore. The recruitment of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) does not involve organised crime syndicates but takes place within legal channels involving ordinary interactions between employers and employment agencies. The perpetrators in this form of trafficking do not realise that they are complicit in trafficking because such cases are often viewed as only that of abuse.

Though not all cases of abuse are trafficking, there are employers and agents who have crossed the line.

FDW Trafficking Report

In 2012, 151 FDWs residents of the HOME shelter participated in FDW Trafficking Report conducted by HOME. In 98% of the cases, all three elements of the definition of human trafficking – action, means and purpose – were present. 149 of the 151 women were held in situations of exploitation, with 150 women subjected to coercive practices to keep them in such situations. 54 women were deceived during the recruitment process and the vulnerability of 54 women was abused by their recruiters into situations of exploitation.

F sought employment through a licensed recruitment agency in her home city of Manila. The contract she signed, in line with the Philippine Government’s employment laws, stated a monthly salary of SGD$600 and one weekly day off. At no point did F’s agent mention salary deductions. When F arrived in Singapore, she was presented with a different contract. Her salary was reduced to a monthly payment of SGD$420 with a six-month salary deduction and no day off during the two-year employment period. F was also banned from using her mobile phone. Although F was upset, she felt helpless to seek assistance.
S was confined to her employer’s home for eight straight months, with no freedom to leave. Her hand phone was confiscated by the employer and S’s only contact with her family were sporadic phone calls as and when the employer purchased phone cards.
E’s employer threatened her with phone calls to the police if she did not complete all of her tasks perfectly. The employer further intimidated E with threats to call E’s family in the Philippines and say there was a police case against E.

Indicators of Trafficking

Applying the ILO Operational Indicators of Trafficking in Human Beings on the 149 cases, we found out that

(i) deception relating to key terms of the employment arrangement, including wages and earnings (40.4%);

(ii) Abuse of vulnerability caused by financial difficulty (66.2%) or a lack of information provided during recruitment (88.7%);

(iii) Excessive working hours (96%) and inadequate rest days (96.7%) during employment;

(iv) Low or no salary (100%); and

(v) The use of coercive practices, such as salary deductions to repay recruitment debt (96.7%),confiscation of documents (96%) and isolation, confinement and surveillance (62.3%) in order to keep FDWs in a condition of exploitation.

The exploitation faced by FDWs who have been trafficked results from a combination of these unacceptable working and living conditions.

Scale of the Problem

Figures collated by Home and the Indonesian and Philippine embassies, all of which run shelters for maids in distress, show that at least one report of physical or sexual abuse is lodged with the police every other day.

However, not all the cases are reported. Some domestic workers hesitate to report for fear that there may be repercussions on their families and themselves from their agents. Some have a distrust of the authorities. Furthermore, police investigations and prosecution can take months or years.

While some women persevere and wait for the cases against their employers to be resolved, four out of five withdraw their complaints and go home, according to Jolovan Wham, Executive Director, Home. Others leave when their claims cannot be substantiated – sometimes even after they pass lie detector tests conducted by the police – and their employers cannot be charged in court.

The flaws in the Singapore system in seeking justice for these women are perhaps most clearly evidenced by the fact that of the 77 of the 151 women who were referred to either MOM or the police or both in the FDW Trafficking Report, none of them was flagged as trafficked or potentially trafficked women.

There may be a lack of political will to identify FDWs as a sector of the migrant workforce which is vulnerable to labour trafficking. Firstly, the idea that employers and employment agents who are ordinary members of our society are being characterised as human traffickers is not palatable. Secondly, domestic workers plays a critical role in allowing Singapore women to enter the workforce by shouldering the domestic chores.

More must be done to assist FDWs who are trafficked and to stop those who are vulnerable from being trafficked. Critical to this effort is to educate the public on the ethics of hiring FDWs, and for stronger measures to protect FDWs particularly by including them in the Employment Act.

For the full report on “FDW Trafficking:, pl see



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