December 5, 2005

Singapore must halt maid abuse

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A human rights group has urged
Singapore to provide better legal protection for foreign maids,
many of whom face "abysmally" long hours, "pitiful" wages and
conditions amounting to "forced labor."

The 128-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch
(HRW) is based on 90 interviews and case studies and describes
numerous instances of cruelty and abuse.

"A system that excludes a class of workers from labor
protections, leaving them to work for sixteen hours a day,
seven days a week, for pitifully low wages is one that demands
serious and meaningful reform," the report said.

By excluding maids from its Employment Act, Singapore's
labor laws fail to comply with international law, it said.

About 150,000 women -- mainly from Indonesia, the
Philippines, and Sri Lanka -- work as maids in Singapore, with
roughly one in every seven Singaporean households employing a
live-in worker so that couples can work and raise families.

For the migrant workers, a job abroad is a chance to earn
more money and support families back home. Migrant workers from
the Philippines, India, Pakistan and other countries send as
much as US$100 billion in remittances a year to their home

The report, "Maid to Order - Ending abuses against migrant
domestic workers in Singapore," said that maids in Singapore
frequently worked 13-19 hours a day, with no day off.

They faced sexual, verbal and physical harassment; were
deprived of food, salaries, religious freedom, and social
contact; were forced to do work outside the scope of their
contracts; and in the worst cases, died in workplace accidents.

Many were abused by employment agencies in Singapore and by
their employers, and were too scared to complain or press
charges for fear they would be deported without their salaries,
HRW said.

While the Singapore government has tightened some
regulations covering maids, the report said, several policies
actually exacerbate domestic workers' isolation in homes and
their risk of abuse.

Maids are not allowed to marry Singaporeans or get pregnant
-- rules which are not applied to other classes of foreigners
such as bankers and investors. One domestic worker, Rita Yuboc,
described her working conditions as follows in the report:

"I woke up at 4 a.m. Some employers are like that, they
don't want you to sleep or take a rest. I would take my baths
quickly. My employer would knock on the door 'I didn't tell you
you could take a bath'. Sometimes employers want the maid to
clean until 10 p.m. or 12 a.m. and to start working again at 6

The report said that while Singapore's laws and regulations
offer stronger protection than do those of neighbouring
countries such as Malaysia, the city-state lags far behind Hong
Kong, which includes domestic workers in its main labor laws,
protecting their rights to a weekly rest day, a minimum wage,
maternity leave, public holidays, and paid annual leave.

The report follows a string of embarrassments in recent
weeks for Singapore, at a time when its government is eager to
portray the country as an attractive tourist and investment

Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said last week
that Singapore's decision to hang an Australian drug smuggler
was "barbaric." In October, Reporters Without Borders ranked
Singapore 140th out of 167 countries in its press freedom