Migrant domestic workers in Singapore continue to face various types of emotional abuse, despite growing legal protections against more visible forms of sexual or physical abuse, a migrant worker advocacy group claims in a new report.
In a report published this weekthe Humanitarian Organization for the Economy of Migration (HOME), a Singapore based group which advocates for the rights of migrant workers, has documented the “invisible wounds” that employers often inflict on domestic workers, many of whom are migrants from the Philippines.
Reports say that while emotional abuse “tends to be viewed as less serious” than physical or sexual assault, it “involves a serious and pervasive pattern of behavior” that can lead to depression and anxiety. Since this type of abuse is inherently “non-physical and may not produce the kinds of tangible, material, or visible ramifications that other types of abuse such as physical and sexual abuse may have”, it is also much more difficult to identify and, in extremis, to prosecute.
HOME’s report, which follows previous research on forced labor and the mental well-being of Singapore’s migrant domestic workers, was based on extensive focus group discussions with 22 migrant domestic workers who resided at HOME’s Singapore shelter. in 2019, the majority of them from The Philippines. The report also draws on data on around 1,800 other cases collected by the organization between 2019 and 2021.
He argues that emotional abuse can include any or all of the following: threats, intimidation and insults; social isolation, surveillance and invasion of privacy; and lack of respect for the worker’s position as an employee, which can instill feelings of embarrassment and helplessness.
The 56-page report offers granular details on the daily challenges faced by migrant domestic workers. An employee interviewed by HOME was belittled by her employer, who constantly told her that “you’re just a maid” and told her that if she tried to return to the employment office, they would send her back to the Philippines .
Another was watched by an elaborate system of CCTV cameras, including one in the bedroom she slept in, and forced to work 16-hour days. This worker, the report says, “felt really uncomfortable knowing that the camera was in the room and that her privacy was being violated, with her employer watching her every action.” HOME says using CCTV cameras to spy on domestic workers has become “common practice” in Singapore.
HOME and other advocacy groups have long documented how Singapore’s foreign migrant workers – who play a critical but often overlooked role in maintaining the gleam of the city-state’s gleaming modernity – are falling victim to abuse and exploitation of labor rights. This is particularly the case for women employed as domestic servants or nannies, who often live with their employer and whose treatment and working conditions are therefore much more difficult for labor advocates to monitor.
A previous HOME report argued that the work of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, who earn between S$300 and S$400 (US$215) and S$400 (US$287) per month, is “largely invisible and unregulated”, and that their plight is mostly “invisible in the private sphere of their employers’ households.
“When MDWs face emotional abuse, they are particularly vulnerable victims who exist in a dependent relationship with their abusers with limited means to escape or change the circumstances of their situation,” the report states.
At the root of these cases, HOME argues, is a glaring power imbalance between employer and employee, and that Singapore needs to expand its current legislative protections to encompass these less obvious forms of abuse.
“When domestic work and the people who perform it are afforded adequate legislative protection,” he says, “attitudes and perception towards domestic work will invariably change and instances of emotionally abusive behavior will be minimized”.