It was still dark when Nicole quietly slipped out of her employers’ house at 4 a.m., on an early morning in November 2016. The Singaporean family she worked for was fast asleep. Nicole, a domestic worker from the Philippines, was breaking protocol: The couple who employed her never allowed her to leave their high-rise apartment on her own. But she had packed her suitcase and didn’t plan on coming back.
“I hailed a cab, and asked the driver to take me to HOME’s office,” she says, referring to the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, a Singaporean NGO that operates a shelter for runaway domestic workers. “The driver saw that I was not well, so thankfully, he didn’t make me pay.”
Before deciding to flee, Nicole had spent two months living with the family she worked for – in Singapore, foreign domestic workers are not allowed to live on their own. She says the husband made repeated advances, asking her for sexual favors. She rebuffed him, but stayed in the job. “I had to support my daughter, back in the Philippines,” she says. The situation kept getting worse, however. “One day, as I was working, he touched me on a private part of my body,” Nicole says. “I was really shocked. He tried to act like it was just a joke. But I decided that I had to leave.”
Today, she lives at HOME’s shelter, which is located at a confidential address in Singapore, to avoid angry employers showing up and demanding their workers back. At any given time, between 60 and 70 women live at the shelter, the majority of them from the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia, with a few from Sri Lanka and India. According to HOME’s director, Sheena Kanwar, some stay for a few days, others for months. And most simply want to find another job where they can feel safe and continue to provide for their families back home.
But it’s not a straightforward process. According to Singaporean law, to transfer to a new job, a foreign domestic worker must first secure the approval of her current employer. HOME’s staff helps mediate these cases, but they can drag on for months, and they don’t always succeed. While the women wait to see if they can transfer employers – or whether they’ll be sent home – they take English and financial literacy classes, learn yoga and receive counseling. HOME also provides meals and financial assistance to cover local transportation costs. But since the women lose out on their income during this time, families back home who rely on their support can suffer greatly.
When women first arrive at the shelter, “some are quite traumatized,” says Kanwar. “Often, when they decide to flee, they’ll call our helpline, and we advise them to find an excuse to leave their employers’ home so that we can send them a taxi. If they’re locked up, of course, we’ll call the police. But some take drastic steps, like jumping out of windows or tying together bedsheets to get down to the ground.”
Kanwar says that while some have suffered physical or sexual abuse, the majority of the women who flee their employers’ homes are victims of emotional abuse. “Usually it’s extreme overwork, constant screaming and insults, and threats to send them home – which is terrifying to them, because they’re usually their families’ primary breadwinners,” Kanwar says. “Often, employers will confiscate their mobile phones, cutting them off from family and friends. And instead of giving them one day off a week – which is required by law since 2013 – the employers will insist they keep working nonstop.”
It was emotional abuse that led Maria to escape from her employers after living with them for nearly a decade. She says she was loath to leave because she was very attached to the children, who she was looking after. But in the face of increasing abuse – yelling, insults, threats to send her home – she asked for release papers in order to change employers.
“My ma’am got very angry, and screamed at me,” Maria says. “She told me she would never give me the papers. I cried, and she took away my keys to the apartment. I was very scared of what might happen next, so in the middle of the night, I jumped out the window. Thankfully, the apartment was not on a high floor.”
Maria has now spent more than a month at the shelter, and, like Nicole, is hoping to stay in Singapore and find better employers – she, too, has a daughter to support back in the Philippines. However, because her former employers won’t cooperate, HOME has helped her take her case to the Ministry of Manpower. “If the ministry feels the worker has a valid case, they’ll help her with the transfer, but it doesn’t happen in every case,” Kanwar says.
HOME’s activists believe there are several flaws in Singapore’s policies governing domestic workers that lead to higher risks of abuse. The biggest one, Kanwar says, is the requirement that all foreign domestic workers – of which there are about 237,000 in Singapore – live with their employers. “It creates vulnerability for the worker,” she says. “The employers have the expectation that they will be served 24-7. And many times the workers don’t have their own rooms – they’ll sleep in the living room, in the hall, with the kids or with an elderly person.”
Another flaw, Kanwar says, is that employers can lose their security deposit of 5,000 Singapore dollars (about $3,400) if their foreign domestic worker goes missing. Whether domestic workers are hired directly or come through an agency, their employers have to take out a security bond as deposit, which the government will demand if the employer loses track of their worker. Though this is a rare occurrence – the Ministry of Manpower says they seize the security deposit in less than 0.04 percent of cases each year – Kanwar says it nevertheless has a chilling effect.
“This makes [the employer] paranoid as soon as the worker is out of their sights,” she explains. “It encourages them to track their worker’s every move.”
Scoring a live-out option for foreign domestic workers still seems a far-off dream to Kanwar. In Singapore, domestic workers’ salaries are not high enough for them to be able to afford rent, so if the state were to grant them a live-out option, that would require providing some form of subsidized housing. So for now, HOME is focusing its efforts on smaller changes, like better enforcement of the day-off rule, and private rooms for workers within their employers’ homes.
“We need to take incremental steps,” explains Kanwar. “While not every employer is bad, today the community has a sense of entitlement about foreign domestic workers. We can’t change mentalities overnight, but we must continue educating Singaporean society about workers’ rights.”
For Nicole, just being somewhere safe and supportive is enough of a change to give her the hope that she will find a new job where she is treated with dignity. “I feel free now. At my employers’ house, I felt like a prisoner. I had no privacy – I slept on a mattress on the floor in one of one of their children’s rooms – and I worked from dawn until bedtime,” she says.
“Now, I just want to find an employer who has a good heart, and won’t treat me like a slave.”
The names of the domestic workers in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.