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When Yanti started working for a Singaporean family, she never thought she would have to deal with not having enough food to eat. For migrant domestic workers (MDWs) like her, Singapore represents wealth and prosperity. “I didn’t expect I would have to depend on my next-door neighbour to feed me,” she said.
Yanti survived on two slices of bread and coffee for breakfast, instant noodles for lunch, and leftovers for dinner. This is despite the fact that she started work at 5am and finished only at 11pm or sometimes close to midnight. She wasn’t allowed to snack between meals. When she was lucky, her employer would take her out for meals on Sundays and she could tuck in to more food.
Yanti isn’t alone in facing this situation. Food deprivation is a serious problem among migrant domestic workers in Singapore, an issue that HOME and TWC2 raised in their recently submitted report to the UN Committee on the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Last year more than 200 out of the almost 900 domestic workers who sought assistance from HOME said they did not have enough to eat. The majority of worker complaints about food revolve around two basic issues: quantity and quality.
During a series of focus groups conducted by HOME earlier this year, one MDW reported being given no breakfast except coffee, no lunch, and a portion of her employer’s meal for dinner; she lost 20 kilos in the six months she spent with her employer. Another was given one bowl of rice and one boiled egg for lunch, and one bowl of rice and two boiled eggs for dinner for the duration of her employment. The majority of MDWs also reported that they were not given snacks in between meals.
There are few options for MDWs faced with this situation. One MDW told us she could only get enough food by wrapping leftovers from her employers’ table in cling wrap, hiding it in the bin, and eating it later in secret on the way to the rubbish chute. Another MDW relied on a friend who discreetly passed her a small parcel of food every day. Many MDWs, however, didn’t even have these options – all they could do was drink water to stave off hunger.
The second consistent complaint from MDWs is that they are often fed a diet that is not nutritious or given items that are barely edible. For example, many are only given white bread and jam for breakfast and/or instant noodles for lunch or dinner, often without any extra vegetables, meat or eggs to supplement. Other MDWs have told us that they are routinely given mouldy, rotting or expired food. One MDW’s employer only gave her mouldy or rotting vegetables, and became angry when other family members occasionally gave her fresh produce to eat.
Our CEDAW report also states that although employers who do not provide MDWs with adequate food can face penalties, our laws are vague in its language regarding food provision. Employers are only instructed to provide ‘adequate food,’. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has attempted to provide a daily sample menu on its website as a guideline for employers. However, guidelines do not set clear legal standards and this results in inconsistent and patchy enforcement.
MOM has also claimed that complaints about food are simply the result of the inability of FDWs to ‘adapt’ to food in a new country. This may be true in some instances but it should not be seen as a personal failure. In Singapore, we take food multiculturalism for granted. Not all cultures have such a varied repertoire of food. Nor does everyone have the social or cultural capital to switch among different types of food typical of a ‘cosmopolitan’ lifestyle’
MOM has also said that FDWs and employers should work ‘amicably’ to settle their differences. For the most part, however, it is difficult to reach such an outcome because it depends on an equal relation of power between employers and domestic workers. Many domestic workers, even those in the best of relationships, are wary of raising any issues for fear of displeasing either their employers or their employment agents. This imbalance in power is also why FDWs choose to ‘resign’ before they broach the issue with their employer and/or file a complaint with MOM.
As a signatory of the Convention, it is the Singapore government’s obligation to ensure that MDWs in this country are provided with adequate food. Not doing so constitutes a violation of Article 12 of CEDAW, which urges signatories to eliminate discrimination against women in the area of health. In order to demonstrate their commitment to upholding the obligations set out by CEDAW, HOME and TWC2 recommend that MOM explain how and when such guidelines are to become enforceable in a meaningful, clear and consistent manner, to safeguard the health of all domestic workers, not only those who find themselves in the most serious of situations.
To learn more about the issues raised in our CEDAW report to the UN CEDAW committee see here