Can a new scheme help improve life for Singapore’s domestic workers?
Migrants working as household cleaners enjoy better conditions than the city-state’s legion of live-in domestic workers, but experts say the impact so far is limited.
Rachel Genevieve Chia
– Poe Ei San, a Myanmar migrant, could not find work as a nurse in affluent Singapore. So she cleaned houses instead.
Every day, the 25-year-old Yangon University graduate washes toilets, scrubs floors, and wipes down kitchens. “Because of the low pay and instability in Myanmar, many young people look for jobs overseas,” she said.
Poe is among a small but growing number of home cleaners employed through the city-state’s Household Services Scheme (HSS), a four-year pilot programme allowing companies to hire migrant workers from countries including Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka to provide part-time cleaning services for households. Companies offer part-time home cleaning at about 20-25 Singapore dollars ($15-19) an hour, with slots ranging from two to eight hours.
The scheme is primarily designed to meet demand for part-time help, and by extension, reduce Singapore’s reliance on live-in foreign domestic workers, referred to as maids by many families. In 2019, about 250,000 women were employed in Singapore homes, covering about one in five households compared with one in 13 three decades ago.
The coronavirus pandemic has made it harder to recruit domestic workers from overseas, so Singapore this month made the HSS permanent and expanded its scope to include more part-time services, such as grocery shopping, car-washing and pet-sitting. It also allowed firms to hire cleaners from Cambodia.
Announcing the move last month, the manpower ministry said the scheme was “useful in supporting the demand for part-time household services”.
Many of the city-state’s largely dual-income families have become heavily dependent on live-in help for chores, cooking, and caring for elderly relatives, children and pets; the women themselves work long hours with little time off for meagre pay.
Confined mainly to the household, they are also at risk of abuse. Between 2017 and 2020, there were about 270 police reports of domestic worker abuse each year.
Although the HSS does not set out to reduce abuse, formalising household chores as work gives cleaners better pay and rights than domestic workers.
Enter the cleaner
Cleaning companies say demand for part-time cleaning has risen as households have found it more difficult to hire live-in domestic workers.
According to the manpower ministry, the number of companies registered with HSS jumped from 50 in 2019 to 76 in 2021. HSS cleaners now serve more than 10,000 households.
Unlike domestic workers, cleaners serve multiple homes, live in their own accommodation, and are protected under the Employment Act, which dictates a maximum of 44 contractual working hours a week, at least 1.5 times overtime pay, seven days of annual leave, 14 sick days and one rest day per week. They can earn as much as 1,600 Singapore dollars ($1,193) a month.
Domestic workers, meanwhile, are governed by regulations calling simply for ‘acceptable’ accommodation and ‘adequate’ rest. Most earn no more than 650 Singapore dollars ($485) a month and work seven days a week, sometimes for as long as 14-16 hours a day. They are not legally entitled to annual leave, sick days or overtime pay.
The manpower ministry, which declined interviews, previously stated on its website that it is “difficult to enforce the terms of the Employment Act for domestic workers as they work in a home environment and the habits of households vary”.
Experts say the benefits of HSS are higher salaries, stronger protections and a lower risk of abuse because the women are not required to live in the household. HSS eliminates the live-in factor that leaves domestic workers vulnerable to abuse, as they can be isolated and denied access to a phone.
Amarjit Singh Sidhu, a lawyer who handles helper abuse cases, says that because cleaners have “more interaction with society” there are “more opportunities” for them to report any abuse.
Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan agrees that the living arrangements are better for the migrant worker.
“Living separately from the families they work for results in fewer opportunities for ill-treatment and abuse of cleaners. With a clearer distinction between their residence and place of work, the rights, welfare and interests of cleaners can be better safeguarded.”
However, these benefits are limited by the small number of people involved.
No statistics are publicly available, but Zhong Jingjing, managing director of Helpling, an HSS cleaner-booking platform used by about 40 companies on the scheme, estimates Singapore has about 1,000 to 2,000 cleaners.
Myanmar women who were previously domestic workers make up about 90 percent of cleaners on the platform, she adds. Most domestic workers in Singapore come from Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Dominic Lim, sales and marketing manager of cleaning firm Fresh Cleaning, adds that Singapore’s Myanmar community sees cleaner roles as preferable to the life of a household-bound domestic worker.
Domestic helper abuse is a hazard Poe is well aware of, having seen news in February of
the death of Piang Ngaih Don
. The fellow Myanmar migrant endured 14 months of torture and starvation at the hands of her Singapore employer; Piang was burned, beaten and choked, lost 15 kilograms, and on her final nights slept on the floor, chained to a window grille.
Poe was in Myanmar, searching for a job in the sovereign island, when she saw the headlines. “I didn’t want to be a maid after that,” she said. “Nobody will know if your employer bullies you.”
Still at risk
While domestic workers have a fixed salary, cleaners’ salaries comprise basic pay, allowances for food and transport, overtime pay and incentives. As a result, their income can be two or three times that of a live-in worker.
But despite the improved conditions, HSS cleaners remain at the mercy of their employers.
“While cleaners under the HSS may be less isolated than live-in domestic workers, workers covered under the Employment Act are still subjected to depressed wages, heavy recruitment fees, and difficulty in changing employers,” said Jaya Anil Kumar, research and advocacy manager for welfare group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.
The organisation helps between 10 and 20 cleaners a year on issues including overwork and unpaid or underpaid wages.
There are also risks in their route to employment, which is little different to that of a domestic worker and exacerbates the power imbalance between the company and the migrant workers, Jaya said.
The women are primarily recruited by agencies in source countries that charge fees to place them with a Singapore company and send them to the island.
Interviews with cleaners surfaced complaints such as exorbitant recruitment fees, passports being taken away by cleaning companies for ‘safekeeping’, and employers failing to pay up for overtime.
Nor does HSS address Singaporeans’ perception of migrant workers as inferior and domestic work as lowly, which are among core reasons for domestic worker abuse, she added.
“Many employers feel migrant workers should be grateful that they’re getting a job. There’s a sense of ownership of the worker,” she said. “Abuse arises because employers devalue both domestic work and the domestic worker.”
Cleaning firms say they have not seen cases of physical abuse, although some admit verbal abuse happens. There are about 700 customers on Helpling’s blacklist for abusive behaviour and failure to pay bills, while cleaning firm United Channel Construction & Facility Services says 30 percent of customers shout at cleaners.
Jaya says more effort must be made to dignify household work and its crucial role in helping Singapore society run smoothly.
Singapore’s manpower ministry has already said it will assess whether it can further expand the scope of services for HSS. Earlier this year, former Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said caregiving could be one such service – but there are concerns from some quarters about the risk of abuse.
Margaret Thomas, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research, says domestic workers taking care of the elderly are often overworked and vulnerable to abuse from their charges, especially those with dementia.
United Channel manager Flora Sha says dementia patients can be violent, throwing things and pulling caregivers’ hair.
Despite these warnings, Poe is excited about the possibility of working in caregiving. She still dreams of becoming a nurse and hopes the experience would help her secure a job at a Myanmar hospital when she returns home.
“I know the elderly might abuse me, but I’ll be patient with them,” she said. “Under HSS, the company is responsible for staff, so I’m confident it’s still better than being a maid.”
This story has been supported with funding and training by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.