The lived realities of migrant domestic workers in Singapore
Flying from hundreds to thousands of kilometres from their home country to Singapore, migrant domestic workers (MDWs) have been a crucial part of Singapore’s economy and social sphere, making up 4.4% of Singapore’s population and 7.3% of the labour force (MDW info, n.d.). MDWs come from different countries, such as the Philippines, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, to make a living and support their families back in their home countries (Zainal & Barlas, 2022). However, as a foreigner living in a foreign land with new cultures and practices, it is difficult for some of these MDWs to adapt to this new environment. Due to these challenges faced while trying to adapt to the new living conditions in Singapore, these MDWs may face issues such as loneliness and homesickness (Zainal & Barlas, 2022). According to the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics in 2015, 24% of domestic workers suffer from poor mental health, which is a substantial proportion (Kaur-Gill, Qin-Liang & Hassan, 2021). I believe it is essential to explore this realm of study because MDWs play a huge role in supporting the domestic sphere of Singapore, relieving Singaporeans from their duty of housework for them to focus on their occupations. Therefore, I wish to explore how these MDWs truly feel working in Singapore and how their mental health is affected by their lived realities, including living conditions and the treatment they encounter by their employers or the locals. I will also explore strategies to help improve the mental health of the MDWs.
Despite being an integral group of workers in Singapore, propelling its economic and social growth, many MDWs are treated as outsiders in Singapore. MDWs are also susceptible to mistreatment by employers: receiving late payments, for example, and even physical and sexual abuse (Zainal & Barlas, 2022). There are many possible reasons why the employers in Singapore treat MDWs in such manners. In a capitalistic society where people buy goods and services, employers who pay to hire the MDWs will feel entitled to treat the MDWs however they want since they paid for their services. There is also a power differential between the employers and the MDWs because of their relationship as employer versus employee (MDWs) (Meah, 2021). This perceived difference in power between the employer and MDWs give the employers justifications to treat MDWs as lesser than them. Additionally, MDWs tend to be compliant despite mistreatments for fear of losing their jobs. Due to the strong pressures to be always on-task and not to make any mistakes in fear of being dismissed from their jobs, the mental health of the MDWs may decline over time if they do not get the proper support. As MDWs are under work permits that can be terminated at any point of their work, they face a high level of financial insecurity and risk of losing their job if they do not perform up to the employers’ expectations. Moreover, there are employers who would use the threat of deportation against the MDWs during any workplace conflicts (Kaur-Gill, et al., 2021). The sense of helplessness while needing to maintain a good relationship with their employers and their employment agents could affect the overall mental health of the MDWs due to a suppression of negative feelings being felt, hence depression is one of the most common mental health issues faced by MDWs.
As a migrant entering a foreign land, the support system that the MDWs once had in their home country is now no longer with them. Therefore, one of the most common feelings felt by the MDWs in Singapore is loneliness (Zainal & Barlas, 2022). Other sources of negative emotions felt by the MDWs include sadness or “depression”. These negative emotions are caused by various factors, such as the lack of support system, work related problems and getting treated like a lesser human being in Singapore (Zainal & Barlas, 2022). There is a heavy pressure on the MDWs to perform up-to-standard in Singapore. Taking on the caregiver role in Singapore is often an underappreciated job, where the MDWs contribute much to the maintenance of social stability by taking care of the households in Singapore. Therefore, employers would expect MDWs to be able to take on the different tasks handed to them, as they are also paid for it. However, the tasks can be over demanding and unreasonable, such as taking care of the relatives’ home of the employer as well (Zainal & Barlas, 2022). It is crucial that the MDWs gain enough support for their mental health and have access to outlets to let out their emotions. Even though there are avenues to aid these MDWs in their mental health and to support their well-being, some of them may still be hesitant to seek help due to factors such as language barrier and being afraid of causing trouble to the employers (Kaur-Gill, et al., 2021). The mental stresses, such as depression, that they hold in without any aid can affect their work in one way or another.
How can we better improve the mental health of the MDWs that are working in Singapore?
To better support the MDWs, we should not rely only on government institutions, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and the MDWs individual efforts. The employers, employment agents as well as Singaporeans in general should take on the responsibilities to create a fair and accepting environment for MDWs to work in Singapore. Some solutions that I will be exploring include the role of MDW individuals, employers, and government institutions/NGOs.
1) MDWs who have the opportunities to gain social connections in Singapore can share their woes and stresses with the people that they meet (e.g. friend groups with other MDWs, partners, family).
2) MDWs can directly communicate with their employers where possible to speak about the challenges that are faced. This can not only help the employer to better understand the MDWs, but it can also help the MDWs to stand firm and to not be overwhelmed by over demanding work.
It is possible for the MDWs to receive mutual support from their friends and fellow MDWs through bonding sessions or meet up session, however they will require their own individual time which can be quite limited, which is only one day per week. However, there are improvements made to MDWs rest days by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in Singapore, whereby they will be enacting the rule of letting MDWs have one day rest in a month that cannot be compensated away (Ministry of Manpower Singapore, n.d). Mutual communication is also crucial, and employers must be willing to communicate with their MDWs for them to strike a balance between work and rest.
1) Employers provide more attention to the MDWs and check up on them from time to time to ask about their well-being, as sometimes MDWs may be bottling up their emotions in fear of burdening the employers or anyone else with their emotions. Moreover, employers should seek help for their MDWs as soon as possible if they show any tell-tale signs of mental health issues.
2) Employers should allow open communication between them and the MDWs to better understand each other’s needs. To facilitate communication, employers should employ MDWs who speak the same language as them to avoid a huge language barrier while communicating.
Other than communication, employers can also include their MDWs in family bonding sessions to better integrate them into their family culture and to create a sense of belonging for the MDWs to work more comfortably. Although there can be an ease of restrictions for the MDWs to spend their free time, under Singapore law, MDWs are prohibited from getting pregnant and getting childbirth else they would get their work permits cancelled and be deported (Goh, 2015). Hence, employers would still have to maintain some level of supervision over their MDWs, and MDWs would still have to live with these restrictions while working in Singapore.
1) There are several non-profit organisations and state agencies that are available to help MDWs with their mental health. These help lines include The Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) which provides face-to-face counselling for MDWs, and employers, Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) provides helpline and Befrienders Service is also available to aid MDWs who are in distress. There are mental health organisations such as Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) and Silver Ribbon to help MDWs (Ministry of Manpower, n.d.).
2) Lowering or removing barriers for the MDWs to seek help easier. Other than providing MDWs with helplines, sometimes the MDWs may be hesitant to seek help in fear of being found out by their employers, and thus fear losing their jobs. Hence the state or non-profit organisations can schedule check-up sessions with employers and MDWs to reach out and monitor situations, especially for those households that have antecedents of abuse of their MDWs.
Although there are avenues provided by the government/NGOs to help the MDWs, the voice of the MDWs might be silenced due to their hesitancy or their fear of getting into trouble if they seek help. Therefore, regular check ups on potentially disruptive homes could help the MDWs, but there may be blind spots that can miss out MDWs who are in the category of voice who are being silenced.
In conclusion, I have explored how MDWs in Singapore have faced different forms of emotional stress due to various factors such as loneliness from leaving their home country and feeling the need to suppress their emotions due to job precarity despite harsh treatments from their employers. I have also explored the reasons why MDWs need to have a proper support system for their mental health, mainly to avoid them having their mental health decline that will affect their work performance. I have also provided a list of strategies that MDWs, employers and government/NGOs can do to better improve the mental health of MDWs and evaluated the strategies. There is still a lot of work required to be done to support the MDWs’ mental health, however, with the current measures we can work towards improving their wellbeing progressively in Singapore.
Goh, L. S. (2015, October 29). Atmosphere of fear prevents pregnant maids from seeking help. AWARE. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from https://www.aware.org.sg/2015/10/atmosphere-of-fear-prevents-pregnant-maids-from-seeking-help/#:~:text=Pregnancy%20and%20childbirth%20are%20prohibited,permit%20and%20the%20worker's%20deportation.
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Zainal, K. A., & Barlas, J. (2022). Mental health, stressors and resources in Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore: A thematic analysis of in-depth interviews. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 90, 116–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2022.08.004