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HOME calls for greater protection of foreign domestic workers' mental well-being

A migrant workers' group has called for greater protection of the mental well-being of foreign domestic workers (FDWs). The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) said current laws in Singapore are not adequate in addressing the issue of mental health of FDWs.

SINGAPORE: A migrant workers' group has called for greater protection of the mental well-being of foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) said current laws in Singapore are not adequate in addressing the issue of mental health of FDWs.

To support its claim, HOME has embarked on a study - which is a first of its kind in Singapore - on the state of mental health of FDWs.

Last year, HOME provided shelter for more than 1,000 women.

HOME said most of them are FDWs who had run away from their employers after being abused.

HOME said the exploitation, victimisation and marginalisation of these women pose a serious threat to their mental well-being.

In November, HOME began a study to provide a comprehensive assessment of mental health of FDWs.

Bridget Tan, founder and CEO of HOME, said: "So far our laws have been developed, and enacted, looking at more the protection of the physical well-being of migrant workers, maybe security issues, but not so much on their mental state of mind."

At the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), its Chief of General Psychiatry Dr Alex Su has seen about one to two cases of FDWs with mental illness in a month over the past five years.

IMH does not track patient numbers based on occupation.

Dr Su said the women were brought to IMH by their agents or employers for severe depression, suicidal tendencies or psychotic symptoms.

He added for most of them, this was their first case of mental illness.

The FDWs referred to the institute are in their early 20s, and Dr Su said several factors could have triggered the conditions. They include feeling isolated from fellow countrymen, and having to work long hours.

The study on FDWs’ mental health is led by German psychologist Anja Wessels.

It will be based on a sample size of 400 FDWs, and so far, more than 200 questionnaires have been administered. HOME hopes to complete the study by March.

The questionnaire seeks to establish the level of satisfaction of the FDWs' living environment and their relationship with the employer.

Ms Wessels said: "We want to provide robust, and accurate information on mental health situation, and in order to do this, we need to have a sample that is representative of the population, and that's why we aim to have a sample that consists of specifically 48 per cent Indonesians, 36 per cent Filipinas, and 40 per cent Burmese."

Stakeholders said such a study will be useful for employers and the authorities.

K Jayaprema, president of Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), said: "In the case of policy makers, they can have a better understanding of the kind of corrections they might have to do in legislation to the way employers should be treating their domestic workers.

"The introduction of rest day was one that they have done. There are a lot more areas that legislation can be improved to help FDWs to have a better work environment."

The government has made policy changes to improve the working conditions of FDWs.

In 2013, the Manpower Ministry introduced one mandatory rest day per week for FDWs. However, employers can compensate the FDWs with one day's wages if the FDW is required to work on her rest day.

Currently, there are more than 210,000 FDWs. The study is also timely as Singapore's dependency on FDWs is set to grow.

Ms Jayaprema added: "Especially now that we are having an ageing society and there seems to be an increasing number of domestic workers being hired to look after the elderly. Eldercare is a much more specialised area and much more stressful than doing regular housework."

The study on the mental health on FDWs could pave the way for research on other migrant groups.

HOME hopes to conduct future studies on the mental well-being of workers in other sectors like construction. 

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