Migrant domestic workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand earn below minimum wage: Study

Domestic workers in Singapore, in particular, reported the most number of hours worked across the three countries, at an average of 12.8 hours per day and 81 hours a week.

Tan Hui Yee

Tan Hui Yee

The Straits Times


Domestic workers in Singapore also paid the highest amount in migration costs, compared with those in Malaysia and Thailand. PHOTO: ST FILE

June 16, 2023

BANGKOK – An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study of 610 employers and 1,201 migrant domestic workers across Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand has found that these workers are earning below the minimum wage.

Their employment conditions were also poor, despite the fact that they were performing jobs that required sought-after transferable skills like clear communication and managing others’ emotions, according to the study, which collected data between July and September 2022.

Domestic workers in Singapore, in particular, reported the most number of hours worked across the three countries, at an average of 12.8 hours per day and 81 hours a week. This is almost double the national standard of 44 maximum hours per week for other sectors.

When their working hours are taken into account, their average pay of US$480 (S$645) a month was below the minimum wages set by their countries of origin.

Compared with migrant domestic workers in Malaysia and Thailand, those in Singapore also paid the highest amount in migration costs and fees as a proportion of their wages, representing more than three months’ worth of their salary. They paid for these costs through their savings, salary deductions and loans from relatives and friends.

Evidence of forced labour – defined by the ILO as when there are indicators the work is involuntary and the worker is under threat of a penalty – was found across all three countries surveyed. These indicators include not being able to quit one’s job and being made to work without overtime pay.

In Malaysia, 29 per cent of the workers reported such conditions. The equivalent figure was 7 per cent in Singapore – which translates to an estimated more than 17,000 migrant domestic workers – and 4 per cent in Thailand.

As at December 2022, Singapore has 268,500 migrant domestic workers, according to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Households with caregiving needs comprise an estimated 86 per cent of their employers.

“Domestic work is one of the most important tasks in our society, and yet provided with the least protection. This can no longer be accepted,” said Ms Anna Engblom, the chief technical adviser of ILO’s Triangle in Asean programme, which produced the study. Her statement was issued on Thursday at the launch of the report.

A key factor for the poor working conditions was the continued exclusion of migrant domestic workers from equal labour and social protection, on the perception that domestic work was not “real” work.

The report said: “Where domestic work is not considered work, labour migration schemes are delinked from labour and social protections, meaning they can neither guarantee safety nor can they guarantee a labour force that meets evolving domestic and care needs.

“Where domestic work is not considered skilled, the diverse demands of the market cannot be met.”

To improve protection for domestic workers, the report urged Singapore to expand the Household Services Scheme – first piloted in 2017 – which allows migrant workers hired by companies to provide part-time domestic services, as well as have live-out arrangements. It also urged the Singapore Government to regularise working hours and wages of domestic workers, possibly in the way it is doing for cleaners.

The report noted that the development of the Household Services Scheme “demonstrates that migrant domestic workers can deliver household and care duties while living out of the home; and that this work can be protected by labour rights and wage protection”.

Singapore’s MOM told The Straits Times that the vast majority of migrant domestic workers and their employers surveyed in its 2021 study were satisfied.

“Over 99 per cent of the migrant domestic workers were satisfied with working and living in Singapore and would recommend their family or friends to work here. They also reported high levels of satisfaction across various areas of well-being, including emotional support received, which increased from 93 per cent in 2015 to 99 per cent in 2021,” it said.

MOM noted that migrant domestic workers are protected under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Employment Agencies Act.

These regulate the employment of migrant domestic workers and their well-being, and include comprehensive protections in areas such as timely salary payment, the provision of food and proper accommodation, as well as adequate daily rest.

Employers are also required to provide migrant domestic workers with a weekly rest day or compensation in lieu; and at least one rest day each month that cannot be compensated away.

“This allows migrant domestic workers to rest and recharge from work, and form networks outside the employer’s household,” MOM said.

The ministry said it has also improved the processes to monitor the well-being of migrant domestic workers and enable them to build a network of support beyond their employer’s household.

“These include post-placement checks by employment agencies, house visits to randomly selected households, as well as interviews with first-time migrant domestic workers within their first six to 12 months of work.”

Employers are also required to send their migrant domestic workers for six-monthly medical examinations, assuring migrant domestic workers of access to medical services, it said.

Commenting on the ILO’s findings, Mr Terence Ho, associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told ST: “It is important to have a societal consensus to improve the welfare and working conditions of migrant domestic workers, who play a critical role in supporting households, particularly with our ageing population. The ILO report underscores this need.”

He added: “There is scope to continue improving work conditions for migrant domestic workers by progressively raising minimum standards for employment. Employers should also be encouraged to go beyond the basic requirements, as happier and well-rested migrant domestic workers can provide better help to households, which also stand to benefit from improved employer-employee relationships.”

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