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With more than 35,000 Burmese domestic workers in Singapore, the Singaporean and Burmese governments must do more to ensure that these women do not face abusive conditions in homes, a representative from a migrant worker advocacy group said.
The small city-state has long held a spotty record when it comes to its citizens’ treatment of domestic workers, with the workers complaining of long hours, bad pay, and – at times – even abuse.
A recent report by Al Jazeera highlighted a practice by certain maid agencies that displayed the young women of various nationalities – Burmese, Indonesian and Philippine — in shopping malls under galleries titled “Budget Maid” with posters and signs advertising “special discounts”.
The Philippine government reportedly reacted by barring two maid agencies – Homekeeper Agency and Budget Maid Agency — in Singapore from recruiting Filipinos after publication of the Al Jazeera report.
According to a state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, the Burmese embassy in Singapore will lodge an official complaint with the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower over this practice.
Aye Mar Mar, the founder of Helping Hands for Migrant Workers – a Singapore-based group that assists migrants who have been abused by their employers – told DVB that while recruitment agencies may have questionable practices in attracting clients to hire domestic workers, the government must also be stricter in ensuring the safety of workers after they have been placed within families.
According to Aye Mar Mar, her group has received more than 20 cases of abuse against Burmese domestic workers since the start of this year. As the majority of Singaporean households require the foreign domestic workers to live in their homes, abuses can happen behind closed doors, and also make it difficult for women to leave.
“It’s mostly abuse cases, like physical abuse. Like they would slap the girls, and they throw hot water on their bodies,” she said.
Other common complaints include working long hours – sometimes from 5am to midnight everyday – being cut off from the outside world with no phone privileges, and not being provided with adequate meals, Aye Mar Mar said.
“The Singapore government has to enforce the rules, and the punishment must be strong, so that all the employers will be scared and won’t do abuse if there is a big punishment,” Aye Mar Mar said.
A statement issued by the Singaporean Embassy in Rangoon to DVB said that displaying foreign domestic workers as being “’available for hire at cheap or discounted prices’ are unacceptable practices.”
“MOM [the Ministry of Manpower] requires EAs [employment agencies] to be responsible and accord basic respect in their practice to both their clients – the employer and the FDW [foreign domestic worker] – and expects them to exercise sensitivity when marketing their fees or services,” the statement said, with their emphasis.
The statement added that agencies “found to have acted in a manner detrimental to the interest” of foreign domestic workers will face legal action. Agencies are also not allowed “to restrict” the movements of foreign workers, it said.
Khin Pyo Nwe, a Burmese woman who has worked as a domestic worker in Singapore for six years, said her first two years was spent toiling in the home of a Singaporean-Chinese family who did not feed her proper meals. Her pay was also docked whenever she took a day off, typically once every two months.
She added that the Al Jazeera report was not the first time she had heard about domestic workers being treated like commodities. Advertisements in the newspapers would show a “low fee” maid babysitting while another one ironed clothes, she said.
“I am a university graduate and I was a teacher back in Burma,” Khin Pyo Nwe said. “Every time I see an advertisement in the newspapers for housemaids with discounts, it is always Burmese and Indonesian nationals.”
“It makes me sad to realise that this is how we are seen in this country and I feel ashamed.”