Ignoring domestic workers’ rights is what Singapore does best

Marifel, the nanny who took care of the author’s children when they were living in Singapore. Photo: Tom White

A few weeks ago I wrote a story about Marifel, the wonderful domestic worker who cared for my kids while I lived in Singapore for five years.

The story, published on Medium, got 60,000 views — largely thanks to Facebook — and a spot on the Philippines current affairs programme Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho on GMA7.

The response was astonishing, my inbox got flooded with messages from all over the world, mostly in support of Marifel and domestic workers like her, but also thanking me and my wife for being so kind.

I got incredibly personal emails from women who used to be domestic workers and expats who had witnessed poor treatment in the Middle East.

A couple of Singaporean friends shared their own accounts of appreciation and messages rolled in from all over the Philippines, many of them from men.

There were also lots of very kind messages directly for Marifel, wishing her well for her next job in Hong Kong and friends offering to help her when she arrives.

But life has moved on. Well, for us it has. 

For Marifel she is now waiting. She has to jump through a few administrative hoops to get to her new job, which starts soon. She has to complete a medical and training before she can leave the Philippines, which involves regular trips to and from IloIlo. It is both stressful and tiring. 

As the breadwinner she wants and needs to be working, but she is in a state that is very familiar to migrant workers in places like Singapore and Hong Kong: limbo. 

Before I left Singapore I met a Filipina domestic worker who had spent two years waiting for her abuse case to be resolved by the Singapore judicial system. She was in limbo. During that time she wasn’t allowed to work and she lived in a safe house with more than 50 other women. 

If you’re a migrant worker, such services and processes are painfully slow: You are forced into a bureaucratic quagmire at just about every turn, permanently locked into the slow lane.

The worse thing is that this can be done with relative ease, because not enough people really care to champion domestic workers’ rights. People in Singapore will get more angry about an MRT breakdown than, say, an employer taking a folded chair to a domestic worker’s back, smashing her with a bamboo pole or burning her with a hot spoon and sticking a sewing needle in her (all cases which have been through Singapore’s courts recently). 

Labor laws are shamefully stacked in favor of employers and domestic workers like Marifel, who are trying to improve their lives and their family’s, are being routinely ignored by policymakers. 

The reason I wrote the story about Marifel was because she is truly one of life’s gems, she is a beautiful ray of light, and she deserves more recognition for the sacrifices she made to find work in Singapore.

I wanted to paint a picture of her to those who didn’t know her: Something that didn’t depict her as the victim of a cruel system, but an empowered woman who does an amazing job every single day, despite all the obstacles.

If only we had more stories that championed the brilliance of migrant workers perhaps we’d be able to challenge the silence that permits them to be treated in such a disdainful way.

In Singapore, you can still ban domestic workers from swimming pools in condos, you can prevent them from going home for a full year, deny them a weekly day off and confiscate their mobile phones so they can’t call their families.

They have forced six-monthly medical examinations, which no other foreign workers in Singapore have to undertake. If they get pregnant they get fired and deported.

Some are forced to share bedrooms, some sleep under the watchful gaze of CCTV cameras, some have private investigators tailing them when they go out.

All of this in civilized Singapore.

Interviews I did with NGOs on this subject usually ended with a weary acknowledgement that Singapore was under no obligation to act. Even though it could possibly lead Asian nations on this issue, it has carefully chosen not to.

So who can change this situation? There are plenty of good employers — I know lots personally — but the only thing that will change this depressing status quo are more stories that celebrate the moms, daughters, aunts and sisters who come here to work and why they are important.

And only when Singapore employers are forced to see these women as humans with the same motivations as them, who bleed and cry just like they do, will they (and their government) change their behavior.

There are enough people who care in a city like Singapore to shame the ones that don’t. I am convinced of that. They are the key to change.


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