Now, it can cost as little as $300 to hire a maid, down from an average of around $1,600 six months ago, checks with 15 agencies show.
Agents can offer such rock-bottom rates because they are passing the bulk of the recruitment costs onto the maids themselves.
Myanmar domestic worker, Alice, started her 2 year contract in Singapore with a 7 month salary deduction. She worked for the next 7 months without a single cent in her pocket. Her employers never paid her.
This is the story of how poor women from Cambodia, India,Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines and Sri Lanka foreign domestic worker get a job in Singapore: their employment agencies arrange for the women to take out a loan that covers the cost of their migration and placement fees from their prospective employers who recover the loans by deducting the amount from the women’s monthly salaries for the first 7-8 months of their employment.
While it is common practice for employers to give their domestic workers a monthly allowance between $10-50 in the salary deduction period, that works out to barely 0.33 cents to $1.67 a day!
With an average salary of S$400-500, most domestic workers struggle to pay off the average loan of S$3000. Meanwhile the pressure for them to send money home to support their families remains, particularly in cases of where the domestic workers who have taken up loans in their home countries for their migration. Paying off their loans could sometimes mean tolerating poor living and working conditions which were not expected.
Alice endured untold sufferings – physical abuse and humiliation – under the burden of repaying her loan. Only after her loan was paid off did she run away from her abusive employers. Her case is currently in court. Her employers have been arrested and charged. She is recognised as a victim of trafficking.
Running away before paying up their loans is not always an option for those who are abused and trafficked. Women report that they have been warned by their employment agencies to pay back their loans. It was not possible to run away from the abuse.
“You have to pay back…..or we call the police…” Alice recalls her agent’s threats.
HOME’s FDW Trafficking Research Report (2012), found that 137 out of 151 (90.7%) domestic workers interviewed were not granted any rest days during their salary dedcution period but after the completion of the salary deduction period, only 73 women (48.3%) had no rest day. This clearly demonstrates the impact of the salary deductions on the working conditions. The report also reveals that 150 interviewed were subjected to some forms of coercion – verbal, physical and sexual – primarliy to ensure that the repayment of the recruitment debt is made in full.
In many instances,
not all the coercion involves the use of physical force in order to “force” women to work, but rather the use of more subtle means of influence in order to create in her the belief that she has no choice but to continue to work despite the exploitative conditions, if only to ensure that she earns money at some point in the future and avoids any negative repercussions for her and her family.
TWC2’s report Debt, Delays, Deductions also notes that domestic workers are subjected to arbitrary salary deductions for breakages, medical costs, informal savings scheme and living expenses which prolong their salary deduction period and deepens their vulnerability.
Many more women like Alice too have tolerated bad treatment by their employers and only reported their cases after the salary deduction period. We have to review this loan scheme that places the entire burden of placement fees on poor women. With rising cost of migration, this issue needs to be more urgently addressed as it is disproportionately borne by these poor women, making them vulnerable to abuse and even trafficking.
The current Employment Agencies Act has not been effective in protecting foreign domestic workers.. Even though the Act caps placement fees at 2 months, employment agencies continue to disguise additional costs and fees as ‘loans’. The result: the debts these women incur are still just as onerous, if not worse than three years ago, when the new revisions to the Act came about.
Domestic work like any forms of labour should be governed by basic labour standards as established for other workers in Singapore’s Employment Act. Including domestic workers in the Employment Act is the long term solution to protect these women’s rights and interests.