8 hours a day in prison – I will go back to Myanmar, even if I have to starve there….They go to work at 7.30am and sometimes they return at 6 to 8pm. The water is always finished, and the food is not enough. There is nothing in the room. I don’t have handphone and they always check me for
handphone.I am so scared that the house will fire, I will die. After a while, I just scared. I scared when they lock the door every day.
This is the story of Soe Soe (not her real name), a Foreign Domestic Worker from Myanmar working in Singapore. And her story is not an isolated one.
A Sunday Times poll in 2003 showed that only half of 284 FDWs interviewed have a regular day off. And of those who get a day off, only a lucky 10% receive one day off a week. Further, workers mentioned that they are often only allowed rest days after repaying the debts owed to their employers for their placement fees in “Debt, Delays, Deductions” (TWC2, 2006) . During the period of 7-8 months when their debts are repaid through salary deductions, these women are quite cut off from social support in Singapore. This renders them vulnerable to abuse and even to being trafficked.
Soe Soe wrote that “I dare not complain to agent because the agent cut my pay for 7 months. If I complain and don’t have job, the agent will charge me money every day I stay. I try to stand it, for 1 year. I never send any money back to my mother.”
This state of social isolation still holds true today. 10.2% of Filippina domestic workers have a day off each week in the “Research Report on Filipina Ex Migrant Domestic Workers who Worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan” (HOME, 2012). This compares less favourably with almost 88% of workers in Hong Kong and 41.3%of workers in Taiwan. Again, Singapore lags behind Taiwan and Hong Kong with 44.9% of workers reporting no day off, in contrast to 13.7 percent in Taiwan, and 3 percent in Hong Kong.
Only 43.1% of workers in Singapore are allowed to buy and keep their own mobile phones compared to 82.4% in Taiwan.
The same study also reveals that 19.1% of workers were made to wait until after the salary reduction period to use their mobile phones. Without easy access to a mobile phone, these women are unable to stay in touch with their families and friends. They have cope with their new environment on their own.
Abuse can take place when a worker is prevented from seeking help and is away from the public eye. Isolated, these women are unable to access help when they need to. Some of the most egregious cases of abused domestic workers that HOME has seen occurred when these women were confined to their employers’ home.
Melanie (not her real name) had to jump 6 floors out of her employer’s home to escape the abuse and confinement she was subjected to. Her case is now treated as one of trafficking.
The passing of the Day Off legislation in March 2012 is a significant step. However, in helping domestic workers to get their much deserved day off and to access social support, more can still be done. At the moment, the legislation allows employers to compensate their workers if they are not give a day off. But these women need to get out of the house, not only to get away from work but to socialise.
No one should be confined against their will.