Addressing domestic worker abuse can’t just be about harsh penalties

Piang Ngaih Don was only 24 years old when she died in July 2016, far from her home in rural Dimpi village in Chin State, Myanmar. In the year that she’d worked in Singapore, she’d not been given a day off, nor access to a mobile phone. She had also been deprived of food and water, and subjected to verbal and physical abuse. 

News reports contain horrific details of the torture she’d suffered: an autopsy found 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries all over her body. Her employer, Gaiyathiri Murugayan, punched her and choked her, and would sometimes leave her tied to the window grille. There was evidence that Gaiyathiri had also grabbed her by the neck and shaken her like a rag doll, fracturing her hyoid bone.   

Piang Ngaih Don

These shocking facts have understandably attracted public attention, particularly after Gaiyathiri pleaded guilty to 28 charges—including culpable homicide—in February this year. Gaiyathiri’s mother, Prema S Narayanasamy and her husband, Kevin Chelvam, face four and 69 charges against them respectively, for their roles in the abuse. The Singapore government has also responded to this case, promising reviews of existing measures to prevent the abuse of domestic workers. 

Doubling down on punitive measures against “evil” might sound appealing when we’re horrified and outraged by accounts of cruelty, but addressing the problem at its roots would require deeper consideration, and more holistic reforms.

Law and home affairs minister K Shanmugam also had strong words to share: he condemned the “bestiality” of Piang Ngaih Don’s abusers, and spoke of the “two pillars in any society to keep evil in check”, which he identified as education and the law. “The law has to come down with full force when the rules are broken,” he said.

While education and the rule of the law are both important, and abusers should be held accountable for the harm that they’ve caused, we need to be careful not to jump straight to ideas of punishment when it comes to addressing domestic worker abuse. Doubling down on punitive measures against “evil” might sound appealing when we’re horrified and outraged by accounts of cruelty, but addressing the problem at its roots would require deeper consideration, and more holistic reforms.

The underlying conditions

Piang Ngiah Don suffered extraordinary violence at the hands of vicious employers. But many aspects of her experience are not as uncommon in Singapore as we might like to imagine. In the weeks following the news of Gaiyathiri pleading guilty, we heard about Yulia’s case, in which her employer was sentenced to six months’ jail for abusing her at least half a dozen times in the span of two months. Yulia had to escape her abusive circumstances when her employer was not in the flat. Just weeks before Piang’s case was reported this year, we heard about how an Indonesian domestic worker had to climb 15 storeys to leave her employer’s house after being repeatedly abused. 

Domestic workers experience work conditions fundamentally different from any other employee in Singapore. They are legally mandated to live in their place of work, and are forced into a relationship of dependency with their employers that at best infantilises them, and at worst leaves them vulnerable to abuse. 

Domestic workers experience work conditions fundamentally different from any other employee in Singapore.

Under Singaporean law, the domestic worker’s right to remain in Singapore is tied to their employers, who have the power to cancel their work permits and repatriate them at any time. Domestic workers in their first year of employment are often also saddled with debts from agent and training fees—often described as “loans”—that leave them with barely any money for themselves and their families in their early months of work. This not only causes significant financial anxiety, but also disincentivises workers from lodging complaints or speaking out about abuses, for fear that they might lose their employment before they’ve even cleared their debts.

The security bond and levy system in Singapore also strongly indicates to employers that domestic workers are their ward, or, even worse, their property. The existence of the security bond places an undue financial burden on employers of MDWs and causes them to police their MDWs’ behaviour, often involving the denial of rest days as well as the confiscation and withholding of MDWs’ mobile phones, passports and other key documents. This concept is further emphasised by the way employment agencies treat and talk about workers: putting them through “live training” that turn them into window displays, or using language that treat workers as commodities rather than people, such as referring to new arrivals to Singapore as “fresh maids”, or touting “free replacement” if employers aren’t satisfied with their hire.

This mindset about employers’ guardianship or ownership of domestic workers encourages behaviours that would not be acceptable in other industries. Many employers control domestic workers’ access to phones—if not prohibiting them from owning one in the first place — and use pay-in-lieu agreements to exploit a legal loophole and deprive workers of the weekly day off that they’re entitled to. Such restrictions leave workers isolated and cut off from networks of support and care, exacting significant tolls on their mental health and well-being. Over the past year, many Singaporeans have expressed frustration over their struggles of having to work from home and go stir-crazy due to “circuit breaker” lockdowns and pandemic restrictions on gatherings; this experience should help us better understand how much more challenging it is for domestic workers who are not only forced to remain indoors without time off, but also far away from their loved ones and the familiar rhythms of home.

This mindset about employers’ guardianship or ownership of domestic workers encourages behaviours that would not be acceptable in other industries.

Even workers who are given days off often report not having a full 24 hours off: instead, they are expected to do housework in the morning before going out, and are subjected to curfews, as if they were teenagers instead of adults.

These underlying conditions — some legally mandated, others normalised over the years — place domestic workers in a relationship with their employers that most of us would never accept in our own jobs. They also leave every single domestic worker vulnerable to some form of exploitation or abuse, even if not all employers take full advantage of the situation.

What needs to change?

If we truly want to address the conditions that enable the abuse of domestic workers — ranging from exploitative behaviours to the horrors that Piang Ngaih Don had to go through — we will first have to address the highly skewed power dynamics of every employer-domestic worker relationship. This is not something that we can enforce through punishments brought by the “full force of the law”, which tends to reinforce the false belief that the abuse of domestic workers is largely the result of individualised factors, or isolated “evil” employers. 

Instead, we need to fundamentally overhaul systems that leave domestic workers at the mercy of their employers, where their well-being standards are left to the benevolence of individual employers, or caught in situations of debt bondage. We will also need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and our society, and consider the attitudes that we have fostered and perpetuated. While implementing strong labour protections will go a long way in addressing power imbalances, effort needs to be put into actively shaping healthier, more equitable relationships between domestic workers, their employers, and society at large. These efforts should be inclusive of, if not led by, domestic workers, rather than organised in a top-down way that once again leaves domestic workers talked to, rather than talked with.

We need to fundamentally overhaul systems that leave domestic workers at the mercy of their employers, where their well-being standards are left to the benevolence of individual employers, or caught in situations of debt bondage.

Ultimately, we need to recognise that domestic workers are workers — not servants, “helpers”, or a member of the family taking on caregiving work voluntarily. While they can be expected to perform their tasks with a level of professionalism, as all employees are expected to do at work, they should also be treated with respect and dignity, and have full access to labour protections and rights that workers are entitled to.

Domestic workers should therefore not be made dependent on their employers in such an infantilising way. They should be free to change employers should they want to. The loophole that allows employers to offer payment in lieu of rest days should be closed, so that all domestic workers will be guaranteed a day off a week. Workers should also be given the option to live out, so that they aren’t tied to their place of work all the time. These are conditions that most Singaporeans take for granted as employees — this should also be the case for domestic workers.

We’ve included a more comprehensive list of concrete steps that can be taken at the end of this article.

What about the employers?

When migrant rights activists advocate for better labour protections and work conditions for domestic workers, it is common to see responses arguing that employers are the ones on the back foot. Some Singaporeans claim that the existing system already leans in domestic workers’ favour.

While we disagree with this characterisation — anecdotes of poor employees do not point to a systemic skew in power relations, unlike the conditions that we have detailed above — we acknowledge that the current system does sometimes place employers in situations they do not want to be in. Some employers, for instance, might not actually want to be in that position of responsibility or “guardianship” that the security bond and level systems lead to. Others might prefer their domestic workers to live out, but don’t have this option due to current regulations.

Reforming current systems and reshaping the employer/domestic worker relationship can also address many of the issues that employers face, making the process beneficial to employers as well. 

Reforming current systems and reshaping the employer/domestic worker relationship can also address many of the issues that employers face, making the process beneficial to employers as well. 

Beyond this, we should review Singapore’s existing care infrastructure. Singaporean households often hire domestic workers to fill caregiving gaps because of a lack of affordable alternatives for childcare or eldercare. Our national reliance on importing migrant women to fill these gaps is at such a level that employing a domestic worker to care for children or elderly parents/grandparents is often the only option accessible to Singaporeans, even if their homes might be small, or family members unhappy about the idea of having a stranger in their space. This can breed resentment and anger, leading to problems for both employers and workers. Investing more in our care infrastructure and providing Singaporeans access to more affordable options — particularly as we age as a society — is crucial.

In conclusion

Like many other Singaporeans, we were angered and horrified to discover the extent of the abuse that Piang Ngaih Don had suffered. We are also heartened by the flurry of donations from Singaporeans for her family. But we believe that, if we really want to make sure that no other domestic worker will have go through what Piang Ngaih Don did, then we need to go further than we have ever gone before in our reviews of existing mechanisms and processes, and re-examine structural and societal conditions and norms relating to the recruitment, employment, and labour conditions of domestic workers in Singapore.

Recommendations

  1. Ensure MDW’s access to sources of assistance
  • Mandate ownership and usage of functional phones. Enforce this with a policy of conducting interviews with MDWs, throughout the course of their employment in the absence of their employers, to ensure that employers are not confiscating phones, preventing MDWs from owning phones, or restricting its usage.
  • Guarantee and enforce MDWs’ right to mandatory days off without option of payment in lieu, with freedom of movement guaranteed (as opposed to “resting at home” enforced by employers).
  • Greatly enhance MDWs access to support services in their native languages.
  1. Address the power imbalances of MDW working conditions
  • Guarantee MDW’s freedom to change employers.
  • Provide live-out options for domestic workers, and start to transition towards infrastructure and policy frameworks that support such arrangements. 
  • Put in place measures to ensure that domestic workers fully understand and freely consent to the IPAs/contracts they sign with employers, and the terms they agree to. 
  • When domestic workers make complaints about their work conditions, salaries, and/or leave arrangements to MOM, do not dismiss their complaints simply because the terms of their contract allows such conditions. Facilitate the negotiation of terms. 
  • Including domestic workers in the Employment Act.
  • Abolish the security bond and levy systems.
  1. Widen the network of active, preventative support for MDWs
  • Require medical professionals to check for symptoms of abuse and report suspected cases to support services or authorities.
  • Employment agencies should be more proactive in checking in on the MDWs they have placed. When instances of abuse and exploitation are reported, employment agencies should approach the situation with empathy and neutrality, and not be dismissive of the MDW’s complaints
  • Build the capacity of all people to engage family members/friends whom they suspect are denying their workers’ rights.
  • Actively create spaces for domestic workers to build a support system for themselves while in Singapore.
  1. Challenge classism and devaluation of care work
  • Taking a strong stance against segregationist practices such as banning domestic workers from certain spaces (e.g. swimming pools in condos, having separate lifts, etc). 
  • Grant reparations for domestic workers who have faced abuse, in the forms they desire, e.g. financial reparations, access to free counselling services, personal apologies, etc.
  • Enact policies and practices that signal a material appreciation for care and domestic labour (e.g. financial support for full-time caregivers of children/seniors) to challenge the dehumanisation and underpayment of the people who perform this labour. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: