© 2017 by Research Across Borders

© 2017 by Research Across Borders. Background by Scharein. RAB logo by Joellie Lin

26th November 2017: New research released


Bonded to the system.

Labour exploitation in the foreign domestic work sector in Singapore


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Executive summary

Singapore is one of the largest destination countries for foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Southeast Asia. Yet, evidence suggests that FDWs in Singapore are vulnerable to labour exploitation due to a lack of adequate work regulations and legal protection, and the systemic nature of their employment conditions.

The aim of this research was to (a) identify the extent and practices of labour exploitation and associated risk factors among employed FDWs in Singapore, based on (inter)national standards of labour rights, as well as to (b) gain an exploratory understanding of the underlying psychological, socio-economic and legal mechanisms of labour exploitation in Singapore.

The research adopted a mixed-method approach and involved overall 799 FDWs and 80 FDW employers. Empirical evidence was collected in three stages. Qualitative data were captured from FDW focus groups (N = 13) during the design phase to inform research criteria for the main data collection. The main data collection included the collection of quantitative and qualitative data via semi-structured interviews with 735 employed Filipino and Indonesian FDWs in Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia respectively (stratified convenience sample). A follow-up discussion with FDW employers (N = 80) and FDWs (N = 51) sought their views and opinions on possible solutions to mitigate labour exploitation in Singapore.

As to the prevalence of labour exploitation, in total only one-third (33%) of the 735 surveyed FDWs were employed in work conditions in which there was no reported exploitation or coercion by their employers, as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The majority of workers (60%) were identified as exploited, of which 23% were identified as victims of forced labour, a form of labour exploitation with both exploitative and coercive elements. 10% of surveyed FDWs were identified as being trafficked (through deception and/or coercion) into their current exploitative employment, whereby the majority of these workers were trafficked into forced labour conditions. Based on a total number of 243,000 documented FDWs in Singapore, it is estimated that more than 145,000 FDWs in Singapore might be affected by exploitative employment conditions, of which over 55,000 workers are likely to be victims of forced labour. Furthermore, over 24,000 FDWs in Singapore could have been trafficked into exploitative foreign domestic work in Singapore.

Overall identified risk factors for FDW exploitation are coercive employer behaviour and the worker incurring expenses for necessities, which are likely to compensate for employer neglect. FDWs in forced labour, i.e. when coercive employer behaviour is used to extract exploitative labour, are especially more likely to incur expenses for necessities and to use their personal finances to pay for meals and other essentials that should be provided by their employer as mandated by Singapore law. Further, FDWs who are victims of forced labour are more likely to have a short current employment duration (of six or fewer months), experience language barriers when communicating with their employer, and be of Filipino nationality. During recruitment, FDWs who were deceived about employment conditions and experienced coercion during their recruitment are more likely to be trafficked into exploitative work in Singapore, mainly in the form of forced labour.

Regarding involved parties, multiple economic dependencies exist (apart from the FDW’s financial dependents in her country of origin) between the FDW and her employer, the recruiter in the FDW’s home country and her employment agency in Singapore, as well as between the FDW employer and the Singapore government. These dependencies are based on different debt bondages that lead to various salary deductions for the FDW and costs for the employer and leave the worker seriously economically disadvantaged with an average salary even below the average in her home country. We conclude that labour exploitation in Singapore is, in fact, systemically enabled bonded labour.

Focusing on the mitigation of FDW labour exploitation in Singapore, most surveyed FDW employers (67%) reacted positively towards having the option of live-out accommodations for FDWs, which could decrease excessive working volume (93% of FDWs in the sample were affected) and isolation (66% affected) experienced by FDWs in Singapore. As to the abolishment of the security bond that all employers must pay to the Singapore government, most employers recognized structural dependencies between the bond and a perceived responsibility for their employee beyond work, and, in concordance with FDWs discussion participants, desired a change in the existing legal system.

This study serves as the first large-scale research to identify the prevalence and manifestations of labour exploitation among FDWs in Singapore and provides statistically conclusive relationships between labour exploitation on the one side and coercive employer behaviour, abuse of the FDW’s vulnerability in Singapore, and deceptive and coercive recruitment. We further captured FDW experiences and assessment of labour exploitation as well as the acceptance of FDW employers, as key stakeholders, as to possibilities to mitigate labour exploitation through selected amendments in the Singapore FDW employment conditions.

FDWs continue to play an important role in Singaporean households, and many of these workers have become a part of their employer’s family. FDWs are integral not just to the Singaporean society, but also to its economy. The appreciation of their contribution should be reflected in Singapore’s laws and regulations, and in the way FDWs are treated and cared for. As such, this research provides empirical evidence to allow for informed decision making to foster implementation and enforcement of fair, decent and dignified foreign domestic work in Singapore.

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