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In November 2014, after being locked in her employer’s apartment in Singapore, Thu Zar Myint climbed out the bathroom window in a desperate bid to escape.
She began scaling the five-story building; she lost her grip on the third floor and fell to the paved concrete below.
Thu Zar Myint broke various bones and damaged her spine. She’s continuing with physiotherapy, but is not expected to walk again. Her husband has had to stop working to take care of her.
Three months prior to her fall, the 35-year-old Burmese woman had been looking for a better income to support her 15-year-old son’s schooling. “He’s doing well in school, so I wanted to earn more money to give him a better education,” she said.“Only the illegal agencies are recruiting the girls, largely from rural areas of Burma.”
Singapore – one of Asia’s most developed countries – seemed an obvious choice. She was a hard worker, and expected to earn enough to send money home to her family.
Instead, Thu Zar Myint received mistreatment and abuse. She was often required to work up to 19 hours a day without a day off; her food consisted largely of leftovers, often in inadequate portions. “I never asked for more food,” she said. “My employer’s wife didn’t seem like someone who would be willing to give me good food. If the food was good they would keep it for themselves, and I ate the leftovers they didn’t want anymore.”
On several occasions, after she requested to be transferred to a different employer, she was locked in her room – a small windowless storeroom. “My employer said that they might send me back to the agent, but they didn’t say when,” she said.
Despite this treatment, Thu Zar Myint’s case was a tricky one for the authorities. While recovering in hospital she learned that she had been working in Singapore without the authorisation of her government, and few people, if anyone, could lobby on her behalf. She was repatriated to Burma about three weeks later, her arm and leg still in casts.
There is a ban on Burmese nationals working in foreign countries as domestic servants or maids, but this law has been poorly regulated. As domestic maids who leave from Burma are doing so illegally, very few laws exist to protect their rights, making them highly susceptible to exploitation from both agencies and employers.
“Only the illegal agencies are recruiting the girls, largely from rural areas of Myanmar [Burma],” said Thein Than Win, director of health and education at Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics, or HOME, a Singapore-based NGO. “I think most of the time recruiters go through the families or friends of people looking for work. They explain about how good life is in Singapore, and that’s how they spread the word.
“Most of the [legitimate] Myanmar agencies are not interested in sending domestic workers abroad because it’s such a sensitive issue – they’re more interested in sending male [construction] workers to Malaysia, or Thailand, and sometimes to Singapore. Only the illegal agents are recruiting girls and sending them to Singapore.
“In our shelter, the girls are from all over Myanmar. Recruiters also work in the slum areas of the big cities, such as Rangoon, so there’s a large recruitment network in Myanmar.”Thu Zar Myint broke various bones and damaged her spine.
The promises of gainful employment often result in a stark reality check. Salary deductions to pay back agency loans all but write off income for several months: it usually takes seven or eight months, with a large chunk – and in some cases, 100 per cent – deducted from their monthly wages. They are also vulnerable to a loophole in Singaporean legislation regarding rest days; while days off are technically mandatory, employers are able to pay their workers in lieu of their rest day.
One of the agencies’ selling points to potential employers is that Burmese domestic maids are almost always cheaper than those from countries with tighter regulations. A recent study from HOME found that Burmese domestic workers were overwhelmingly paid the least compared to maids from other countries.
“Many come for financial reasons; they need to support their family, their childrens’ education, or to support their sick parents,” says Win. “Most of [the workers] are from poverty-stricken families, or they don’t have any job opportunities or much education, or experience in other jobs. The wages in Myanmar are very low and the job opportunities – particularly in the rural areas – are not good, especially for women.”
Hlaing Hlaing, 23, now resides in a HOME shelter after running away from her employer (she requested that a pseudonym be used for publication due to an ongoing tribunal case). Her case echoes Thu Zar Myint’s experience.
“I wanted to go to Singapore to support my family,” she said, describing how she had been recruited by a woman she met in her village near Naypyidaw. She was told about the money she could make and how appealing Singapore would be. After a month’s training in Rangoon, she arrived to begin her new job.
Hlaing Hlaing’s work day was almost non-stop. She would wake up at 5am to start work, looking after a household which included four children. The day would involve cooking, cleaning, washing and various other household tasks, with few breaks in-between. “We were given instant coffee for breakfast, and didn’t get lunch until [anytime between] 2 – 4pm, which we had to eat fast because we were so busy. Then we were given the leftovers of the employers’ food for dinner.”
She would finish work and go to bed around midnight, before waking at 5am to start again the next day. This was repeated every single day.
Exhausted, Hlaing Hlaing joined two of her colleagues when they ran away from the employer after two months. She was being paid S$450 (US$330) per month, all of which was going towards the agency loan. Now waiting for Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower to settle her case, Hlaing Hlaing’s only current income is a monthly allowance of S$60 from HOME.
After almost a year abroad, she said she does not expect to receive any financial compensation and will return to Burma no better off than when she left.
Burmese domestic workers’ problems follow a trend: poor employment regulations, compounded with inadequate training, poor language skills, and cultural differences, often lead to major issues at work.
“I think language is one of the big problems domestic workers face in Singapore,” said Win. “The agencies don’t do a good enough job in teaching the workers a basic level of English.”
Even basic necessities can become an issue: “Sometimes employers will not give them enough food, or food which is not culturally palatable, like sliced bread, or some coffee, or sandwiches, which is not enough or not the right type of food for a [Burmese] domestic worker,” said Win.
“The pace of life in Myanmar is also slow compared to Singapore, so when the domestic worker arrives the employer might find it irritating because they often work quite slowly.”
Regardless of these women’s experiences, Singapore remains a glamorous and appealing country for many Burmese workers.
HOME is currently advocating for greater regulations. In an official statement the non-governmental organisation (NGO) stated: “Ultimately, foreign domestic workers (FDWs) need to be included in the Employment Act. The ban has not resolved the root issues. We urge the Myanmar government, in consultation with NGOs, to set labour standards to protect Myanmar FDWs in bilateral agreements with the Singaporean government.”
But this could take time to materialise, in part due to Burma’s upcoming elections in November. “Many in Burma think domestic work is inferior or indecent work,” said Win. “If the [Burmese] government makes it seem like they support sending domestic workers to a foreign country, the public will not support them. If they make a move which is not favourable in public opinion they’re worried they won’t be elected again, so this is very much tied up with politics and public opinion.”
Despite several requests, the Burmese embassy in Singapore has so far not responded to DVB about these issues.
“A lot of women around my age who don’t know about Singapore want to come to work here,” says Hlaing Hlaing.
“There are a lot of good and successful stories from girls who go back to Burma. The agent never told me about the ban, and I feel a lot of bitterness towards my former employer, but I’m okay with Singapore.”
When asked if she would recommend looking for jobs in Singapore to her friends, she shook her head.
“No,” she said.