Commentary: Improve welfare of foreign domestic workers to prevent 'care drain'

Commentary: Improve welfare of foreign domestic workers to prevent 'care drain'

Recent commentaries have sparked off a discussion about our treatment of foreign domestic workers. It’s not just for the sake of having high standards vis-à-vis other countries, says one observer from Yale-NUS.

SINGAPORE: In late 2017, when Singapore’s passport became the most powerful in the world, my Singaporean students were understandably proud of how their tiny nation now offered more visa-free access to its citizens than even Western countries like the United States.

At roughly the same time, Singapore was named the top “expat destination” for the third straight year, based on the HSBC Expat Explorer Survey.

But how would Singapore rate if there were a similar ranking system for how different countries treat foreign domestic workers (FDWs), who are arguably just as important as highly skilled expatriates to the smooth running of the Singapore economy?

It would most likely only receive a middling score.


It is true that compared to countries in the Middle East, Singapore has a much better track record when it comes to the treatment of FDWs, for instance.

Their average wage rates in Singapore are higher. They enjoy significant freedom of movement and freedom of religion if they are able to secure a regular day-off

The Singapore penal code recognises the vulnerable position in which domestic workers are placed and therefore increases the level of punishment meted out to employers for offences such as abuse, wrongful confinement and sexual assault. 

Singapore is also one of the few countries that provides a mandatory “settling-in programme” to all domestic workers soon after their arrival in the country.

In contrast, most countries in the Middle East offer, on average, much lower monthly wages and employers impose strict rules that curtail the free movement of women workers outside their employer’s home.

Last year, the International Labour Organisation reported that many of the problems domestic workers face in Arab states stem from “low-compliance with existing laws and weak enforcement mechanisms to address poor compliance”.

maids singapore
Domestic workers in Singapore (File photo: TODAY)

Meanwhile, countries like Canada cover FDWs under their labour laws.

In Ontario, for instance, these workers are eligible for minimum hourly wage rates (that are much more generous than Singapore’s), overtime pay, paid sick leave, weekly days-off and paid public holidays off. They are also required to be either given a private room or paid extra so they can “live out”.

In Chile, FDWs who successfully complete a two-year contract can apply for permanent resident status.

But some might argue that it is not fair to compare Singapore, a city-state, with such large countries, and that Singapore’s small size means that it cannot afford to be as generous as others when it comes to the treatment of FDWs.

So how does Singapore compare with another small territory like Hong Kong?

READ: A commentary urging for rest days and overtime pay for foreign domestic workers.

READ: A commentary on not holding our treatment of foreign domestic workers to countries with lower standards.

READ: A commentary urging for a breakthrough in the conversation on labour rights for foreign domestic workers.


Unfortunately, Singapore does not fare too well when set against Hong Kong.

Neither destination offers permanent residence to FDWs, but the Chinese territory does guarantee all migrant domestic workers a minimum allowable wage of HK$4,410 a month. This translates to S$740 a month, much higher than the minimum monthly wages of S $570, S$550, and S$450 in Singapore for Filipino, Indonesian and Myanmarese domestic workers respectively that are suggested by their embassies. 

Like Singapore, Hong Kong also guarantees migrant domestic workers a weekly day-off, but adds that this must be a continuous 24-hour period of rest. All 12 statutory holidays must be given as paid days off to workers.

Workers are also entitled to a long-service payment after five years of employment with the same employer. And finally, female FDWs in Hong Kong are also entitled to maternity leave and are protected from being fired simply for becoming pregnant.

In Hong Kong, FDWs are even covered under its Employment Ordinance that lays out protections for all native-born workers. If Hong Kong can manage to extend these protections for the more than 300,000 FDWs employed there, should Singapore follow suit?

Hong Kong domestic workers
Filipina domestic helpers sharing a meal in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe)


Why should it matter where Singapore stands in relation to other destinations when it comes to the treatment of FDWs? Bharati Jagdish, the host of Channel NewsAsia’s On The Record, wrote recently that “we pride ourselves on being a First World nation, so shouldn’t we endeavour to apply First World standards of fairness to our treatment of all workers including guest workers here?”

This is a persuasive normative argument for better treatment of the temporary migrant workers who enable expats and residents to enjoy such a great quality of life here. But there are also competitive reasons why Singapore should treat low-wage FDWs better.

If Singapore gains a reputation as only a mid-ranked destination for FDWs, then the best qualified and talented of these migrants will choose not to seek employment in Singapore.

Others may opt to work in Singapore for only a couple of years, using it as a stepping stone to secure a job in a more attractive overseas destination that provides them with higher wages and greater benefits.

My research on the migration patterns of Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers highlights how Malaysia and the UAE are common prior destinations for “stepwise migrants” who come to Singapore because they are attracted by its relatively higher wages and better working conditions.

But when I ask them about their future plans, many of them talk about wanting to move on to places like Hong Kong where the wages are even higher and more protections exist for migrants.

In Hong Kong, more than 50 per cent of the 250 Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers my students and I surveyed had worked in at least one other overseas market before their arrival in Hong Kong. Singapore was their most common prior destination.

Filipina domestic workers who are members of the "Unsung Heroes" choir take part in a
Filipino domestic workers take part in a practice session inside a kindergarten school's classroom in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/DALE DE LA REY)


The competition between countries for these experienced migrants is heating up even further. 

In 2015, the Chinese government introduced a pilot visa programme for FDWs to be employed by expatriates in Shanghai, with double the wages they can earn in Hong Kong.

In 2017, Japan also launched a pilot programme to bring in FDWs on agency-sponsored contracts with wage rates equal to those earned by local Japanese cleaners. 

If Singapore does not position itself as a top destination for such migrants, the best of these workers will continue seeking out destinations where they can enjoy better working conditions and protections.

A “care drain” – as opposed to a brain drain – will begin to develop, strains on households with young and old family members will emerge, and wasted time and energy will be regularly spent training new workers to keep up with the high turnover.

Some might argue that local domestic workers are currently not covered under the Employment Act either and so benefits should not be extended to foreigners before locals. 

But that is the opposite of what I am proposing here. Paid domestic work is real work and all domestic workers – whether local or migrant – should be able to avail themselves of the protections enshrined in the Employment Act. 

However, we should also recognise that the vast majority of domestic workers in the country are temporary migrants, not locals, and that they may need additional protections because of this vulnerable status.

The Singapore Government already recognises the importance of attracting and retaining “foreign talent”, which is the primary reason it invests so heavily in its reputation as a top expat destination.

But the same thinking should apply to lower-status categories of migrant workers, including FDWs, who also contribute to the expansion of the Singapore economy, the growth of the native-born population, and the smooth functioning of Singapore society.

The protection and retention of these FDWs should become the next area where Singapore strives to rank number one. Here’s to the day when Singapore is named the best “foreign domestic worker destination” in the world. 

Anju Mary Paul is an associate professor of sociology and public policy at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Her research specialises in labour migration patterns in Asia and cross-country policy comparisons.