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On International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we call upon the Singapore government to strengthen social support systems and access to remedies for women and girls who are survivors of violence. Migrant domestic workers are often the most at risk of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Their vulnerability is heightened because of their isolation in employers’ homes, dependency on them for survival, and limited abilities to communicate in English. Normalised employer practices in Singapore such as the denial of rest days and restrictions on mobile phone use exacerbate this vulnerability.
While we acknowledge the strong deterrent penalties the government imposes on perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse, we are concerned that other forms of harassment and violence are not given adequate attention. Psychological and verbal violence are the most frequently reported forms of abuse by the women that HOME provides assistance to. However, when such complaints are filed, they are often not accepted as valid complaints and many victims who lose their jobs to seek help end up being repatriated to their countries of origin.
In a study of 670 domestic workers conducted by HOME in 2015, it was found that 51 percent of the respondents faced some form of verbal abuse, 6 percent of the respondents had been exposed to some form of physical abuse and 7 percent of respondents were victims of sexual harassment or abuse. In the last six months, HOME recorded 93 cases of physical abuse by an employer or agent, and 23 cases of sexual abuse or harassment. Another 240 said they were shouted at, threatened, belittled or insulted by their employers. Such treatment reinforces employers’ and agents’ control over domestic workers and exerts a heavy psychological toll.
Domestic workers’ reluctance to seek help is made worse by the lengthy investigations proceeding a formal complaint: it takes several months and even years before a case is resolved, during which the right to work is not guaranteed. Additionally, appeals to return to their countries of origin may be denied and authorities routinely compel victims to remain behind as potential prosecution witnesses.
Six months ago, the Ministry of Manpower made it mandatory for all domestic workers who leave their employer’s homes to seek assistance to report to the Ministry. If they were not deemed to have suffered grievous abuse or otherwise fulfill MOM’s criteria for what constitutes a ‘valid claim’, they would be required to return to their employment agencies. Many domestic workers are reluctant to do so as employment agencies have a history of prioritising the demands of employers over the wellbeing of DWs; a number are also perpetrators of abuse. However, domestic workers who refuse to return to their agencies at the behest of the Ministry of Manpower would be threatened with blacklisting: the DW may not be able to work in Singapore again. Verbal abuse, long hours of work, physical confinement, and withholding of personal belongings such as mobile phones and passports are not considered valid complaints: HOME has documented several cases in which victims of such forms of violence and ill-treatment have been pressured to return to their agents.
Combatting violence in all of its forms can only be effective when there is an enabling environment which empowers women to speak up, seek help and make informed choices. Policies and practices which compel and pressure survivors into acquiescence, such as those described above not only violate their basic human rights and right to self-determination, it causes secondary trauma and re-victimises survivors. Therefore, we urge the Singapore government to:
a) Strengthen social support systems by ensuring that all survivors of violence have the right to shelter, culture- and gender-sensitive counselling, legal aid, medical services and decent work opportunities.
b) Work with governments of sending countries to ensure that all survivors who wish to go back to their countries of origin are allowed to do so and those who are required as prosecution witnesses are given sufficient incentives and compensated for returning to Singapore.
c) Abolish the requirement which compels migrant domestic workers to file complaints against their will at the Ministry of Manpower and be pressured to return to their employment agencies when they have experienced psychological violence, verbal abuse and other forms of ill treatment.
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