Emotional abuse of maids in Singapore highlighted in report: 'Philippines is garbage'

A silhouette of a depressed woman or girl sitting on the window. (Photo: Getty Images). maid, singapore
A report has found that maids in Singapore suffer from three prominent forms of emotional abuse in the workplace: terrorizing behavior, control, and degradation. (Photo: Getty Images)

One migrant domestic worker (MDW) was often told by her employer, "Philippines is very cheap. Philippines same like garbage." Another employer threatened to hurt the maid's family when she asked for a transfer, claiming, “I will send police, hurt family”.

One MDW was constantly told "you are just a maid" and that if she tried to go back to the employment agency, they would send her back to the Philippines.

In one instance, a worker was forbidden from talking to neighbors. Even when the helper went out, the employer made her look down and told her not to look at other people. The employer also kept her phone and only allowed her to use it once a month.

Yet another employer made the MDW work 16-hour days. She did not dare to rest as there were 12 CCTVs in the house, including one in the room that she slept in.

These were just some of the harrowing tales that emerged from "Invisible Wounds: Emotional Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore", a new report by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).

HOME, a non-government organization (NGO), is an outspoken advocate for MDWs in Singapore.

Methodology of the report

Authored by HOME's senior research and advocacy manager Jaya Anil Kumar, the report seeks to provide a definition of emotional abuse and gives 13 recommendations to address it.

It is based on extensive focus group discussions with 22 MDWs who resided at HOME’s shelter between July and September 2019, the majority of whom hail from the Philippines. The report also draws on the NGO's data from about 1,800 cases between 2019 and 2021.

The findings of HOME’s 2015 report "Home Sweet Home? Work, Life and Well-being of Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore", looked into the general mental well-being of 670 MDWs.

In consultation with academic Loraleigh Keashly’s conceptual framework for analyzing emotional abuse in the workplace, the report divides emotional abuse into three categories. There are also six sub-categories that were the most prominent forms of emotional abuse documented among MDWs:

  • Terrorizing behavior: threats/intimidation and insults

  • Control: social isolation and invasion of privacy and/or surveillance

  • Degradation: disrespecting worker’s position as an employee and loss of dignity causing feelings of embarrassment, powerlessness

Threshold must be crossed

While there is legislation against and prosecution of employers who engage in physical and sexual abuse, the "passing acknowledgment" of emotional abuse on the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website is not realized in any meaningful way through legislative or regulatory actions, wrote Kumar. This is further complicated by the difficulties in collecting evidence of such abuse.

At an online press conference on Wednesday (Jun 22) where the report was launched, Kumar acknowledged that the authorities do take action when an employer's actions cross a threshold into, for example, criminal intimidation or clear harassment.

"In other instances, where the standards fall short of perhaps what is criminal behavior... it does not result in any form of investigation, because it is not a regulation that is breached under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, for example," said Kumar, who alluded to the very common phenomenon of verbal abuse, which is experienced by almost 70 percent of MDWs who come to HOME's shelter.

There are also no specific laws governing the use of mobile phones by helpers: this is entirely up to the employer.

What is emotional abuse?

Contestants prepare backstage at Rampstar 2018, a beauty pageant organized largely for Filipino domestic helpers in Singapore, July 29, 2018. REUTERS/Feline Lim
Contestants prepare backstage at Rampstar 2018, a beauty pageant organized largely for Filipino domestic helpers in Singapore, July 29, 2018. REUTERS/Feline Lim

The report concludes that emotional abuse of MDWs remains prevalent in Singapore, and is a "particularly invisible and insidious form of abuse". It is sometimes accompanied by other forms of abuse (physical, sexual, verbal) and involves a "devastating psychological impact" on its victims.

Because it has no visible effects on a person’s body, it tends to be considered less serious than other forms of abuse. "Many MDWs are simply told to take it in their stride and ‘persevere’ (or, in colloquial terms, ‘tahan’) in the face of emotional abuse."

The report therefore urges importing definitions of emotional abuse from the Vulnerable Adults Act (VAA), which has the only legislative definition of “emotional or psychological abuse” in Singapore, to legislation covering MDWs.

The VAA defines emotional abuse as “conduct or behavior by an individual towards another individual a) that torments, intimidates, harasses or is offensive to the other individual; or b) that causes or may reasonably be expected to cause mental harm to the other individual, including thoughts of suicide or inflicting self-harm”.

MDWs exploited and vulnerable

According to the MOM website, as of December 2021, there are some 246,300 MDWs employed in the city-state, hailing from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and India.

The report notes that globally, domestic workers in private households are recognized as some of the most exploited and abused workers in the world. It cited similar studies in Taiwan and Hong Kong, with the former reporting that live-in domestic workers are at higher risk of abuse and the latter finding a correlation between depression levels and abuse in Filipina MDWs.

Kumar noted that as MDWs in Singapore live and work in their employers' homes, employers tend to view what is personal to the worker as relevant to the job and vice versa. This can give them the impression that they have a say in and control over the personal and private aspects.

"It is important to note that underpinning the experience of emotional abuse amongst MDWs is the stark imbalance in power – which is all the more heightened in domestic work due to perceptions regarding domestic labor and policies that allow employers to unilaterally make decisions for MDWs," wrote Kumar.

For example, under Singapore law, MDWs require the consent of their current employers to change employers, while employers are able to unilaterally terminate domestic workers and repatriate them on short, sometimes immediate, notice.

Even after the expiry of their work permit – normally valid for a two-year period – employers retain the right to either terminate MDWs against their will, or renew their work permit without their consent.

"Therefore, when MDWs face emotional abuse, they are particularly vulnerable victims who exist in a dependent relationship with their perpetrators with limited means of escaping, or altering the circumstances of their situation," wrote Kumar.

Effects of emotional abuse

The effects of emotional abuse include "fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt in the short term, and depression and anxiety in the long term".

Over time, this treatment erodes self-esteem and self-worth, especially given their vulnerable position in society as low-wage female MDWs. "They start to be convinced that...they deserve the abuse they are getting," wrote Kumar, adding that advanced cases of depression are almost always accompanied by suicidal ideation.

Previous research by Home found that an "alarming number" of MDWs in the city-state already suffer from poor mental health.

Recommendations

A group of domestic helpers who took a day of leave to see Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrive outside the Indonesian embassy in Singapore September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su
A group of domestic helpers who took a day of leave to see Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrive outside the Indonesian embassy in Singapore September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su

HOME's 13 recommendations to address emotional abuse include reviewing the employer orientation program to include training on interpersonal skills, and getting employment agencies to better support MDWs experiencing emotional abuse

It also supports allowing MDWs to switch employers freely, ensuring enforcement of laws that criminalize verbal abuse and providing live-out options for domestic workers.

A key tenet to many of the recommendations proposed below is strong labor and social protections for MDWs, wrote Kumar. "While individual behavior is difficult to regulate, putting in place conditions that govern fair and decent treatment of employees is what these recommendations seek to do."

When asked how HOME aims to follow up on the recommendations, Kumar said that Home will have to work with other stakeholders such as MOM, employment agencies, and employers. "This is a very whole of society kind of issue, in that it takes a lot of breaking down in perceptions of what domestic workers are, and what domestic work is and the seriousness of domestic work, before we can really tackle this issue."