Foreign domestic worker agencies allegedly mistreat workers in their dormitories: Activist

An agency lodging where the locked front gate prevents helpers from leaving the premises unaccompanied. Photo: FDW in Singapore / Facebook
An agency lodging where the locked front gate prevents helpers from leaving the premises unaccompanied. Photo: FDW in Singapore / Facebook

Mistreatment of foreign domestic workers is in the news yet again, and this time it’s the employment agencies in the spotlight.

According to an unofficial report posted on the Facebook group FDW Singapore Working Conditions Forum, women who come to Singapore to work as domestic helpers are subject to abuses ranging from being forced to shower ten at a time, to having to scrub floors on their hands and knees at agency-run dormitories. This occurs even before they start work properly as live-in household helpers.

Catherine Plagne-Ismail, the founder of the Facebook group, says that women from the Philippines, Myanmar, and Indonesia are made to temporarily stay in such dormitories before moving into their employers’ homes to begin their jobs.

“Some find the stay at the shelter more stressful and more tiring than the daily chores with the employer,” said Plagne-Ismail in her Facebook post.

She says that women staying in the dormitories are sometimes transported to the agency owners’ homes during the day and forced to work for no pay.

Plagne-Ismail, who lives in the UK with her Singaporean husband, informed Coconuts Singapore in a phone interview that she founded the group last October out of personal interest. The anecdotes and pictures she posts on the page are sent to her by struggling helpers in Singapore.

One troubling post made earlier this month includes images from helpers living in unnamed boarding houses that have allegedly engaged in such mistreatment — an issue that Plagne-Ismail claims is common throughout Singapore.

“We had helpers in the past,” she clarified to Coconuts Singapore. “I wanted to help inform them of their rights and encourage them to tell MOM [Ministry of Manpower].”

No phones allowed. Photo: FDW in Singapore / Facebook

While women in the agency residences feel free to share their stories and photos with her to post from her home in the UK, many of them are too afraid of backlash to share the images themselves.

“They are afraid their employers might fire them, withhold wages, verbally abuse them,” she said.

Because of this, Plaigne-Ismail “worries that the women might change their stories when officials ask.”

The rent fees are also supposed to include meals, but women in the dormitories say that food is “scarce” and far from nutritious. The post depicts small plates with rice and a small piece of chicken for dinner, among other tiny portions.

An unappetizing meal. Photo: FDW in Singapore / Facebook

Cooks are told to mix flour and MSG into the omelets in order to “bulk it up.” Watered-down vegetable soup is routinely served —  Plagne-Ismail describes them as “similar to what you would give to the pigs in the Philippines.”

Other inhumane living conditions include:

  • No lockers provided, so theft of personal valuables is frequent
  • No privacy as CCTVs keep watch of the lodgers 24/7
  • Some sleep without any pillow or blanket; beds are shared
  • Phones aren’t allowed for usage; some agencies will even confiscate the phones of workers

Many current and former FDWs who were not involved in creating the initial report, have commented on Plagne-Ismail’s post, backing up her allegations.

“More than 100 people, but only have one toilet,” noted one commenter. “And shower is open space, so you just (stand) naked there and shower.”

According to MOM guidelines, the employment agencies are responsible for providing accommodation and food of foreign domestic workers between their arrival and receiving their work permits.

A spokesperson from MOM told Coconuts Singapore that Ministry staff conduct surprise inspections of temporary housing in order to enforce standards. Agencies that fail to provide — or ensure that third-party accommodation operators provide — proper accommodation can be fined up to S$5,000, face jail time, or even have their licenses revoked.

Plagne-Ismail is gratified to see that helpers and former helpers like Maria Elisabeth are using the FDW Working Conditions Forum, but says that comments and posts on a Facebook page will not cause a major change in the women’s treatment.

Her hope for the Facebook group is that the local helpers in need will use it to communicate with each other and decide how they want to help themselves. She believes that eventually when the women feel comfortable to report the abuses to MOM, the boarding houses might change their ways.

MOM encourages whistleblowers to come forward to them right away, whether they have witnessed mistreatment of workers or have been mistreated themselves. Identities will be kept anonymous, assured the MOM spokesperson to Coconuts Singapore

To report information or concerns regarding improper FDW accommodation, contact MOM at +65 6438 5122 or MOM also has a dedicated toll-free hotline for FDWs at 1800 339 5505. All information will be kept strictly confidential.


Editor’s Note: Article updated to reflect MOM’s statement on the case. 

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