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New survey finds fewer Singaporean employers view foreign domestic workers positively than in 2010

SINGAPORE — A new survey has found that while Singaporean respondents supported better labour conditions for foreign domestic workers, this sentiment did not necessarily translate into good employment practices.

A foreign domestic worker is seen strolling with an elderly woman.

A foreign domestic worker is seen strolling with an elderly woman.

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SINGAPORE — A new survey has found that while Singaporean respondents supported better labour conditions for foreign domestic workers, this sentiment did not necessarily translate into good employment practices.

The large-scale study of four countries by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that close to eight in 10 (78 per cent) of the Singaporean respondents were in favour of improved labour conditions for domestic workers.

This was the second-highest percentage among the four countries after Thailand (80 per cent). Public support in Malaysia was 71 per cent and in Japan, 64 per cent.

The survey interviewed a total of 4,099 people, including 1,005 Singaporeans.

However, the report, titled “Public attitudes towards migrant workers in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand”, also noted that employers among the survey respondents were less supportive of improved labour conditions.

When presented with a list of eight entitlements — such as paid leave, overtime pay, ability to hold their passports or a phone, or a day off each week — Singaporean employers were found to have only provided nearly three of these entitlements on average.

The report, which was published on Wednesday (Dec 19), also cited a recent qualitative study, which found that not only were Myanmar domestic workers in Singapore working 13 to 18 hours a day, they were expected to be on-call 24 hours a day.

“Some could not take their statutory day off per week,” the report stated.

Here are some of the key findings of the report, which also looks at the attitudes of respondents towards migrant workers in general.


Among the female migrant workers in South-east Asia and the Pacific, about 39 per cent were domestic workers, the survey found. About eight in 10 foreign domestic workers were women.

Increases in the number of people hiring domestic workers over the last decade was also seen in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

The rate of increase was the highest in Thailand, which saw its 1 per cent employment rate in 2010 shooting up to 16 per cent in 2019.

In Singapore, the country with the highest percentage of respondents employing migrant domestic workers, it went up from 23 per cent in 2010 to 30 per cent in 2019.


Despite the rise in the number of respondents engaging the service of foreign domestic workers, the ILO said it was alarmed that positive attitudes among these employers have declined.

The report said that Singapore’s score on the knowledge, attitudes and practice (KAP) index — which provides a measure for the level of support people have towards migrant workers — slipped from 36 per cent in 2010 to 29 per cent this year.

The score for Malaysia and Thailand this year were 13 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. Japan was excluded from this index.

While Singapore was the highest-scoring country, the ILO said that most respondents had limited knowledge about migrant workers, held many negative attitudes towards them, and were unwilling to engage in behaviour that would support migrants.

In one example cited by the report, more than half of the Singaporean respondents felt that migrant workers have pushed up the crime rate. There is no evidence to support this fear.

Furthermore, the report suggested that the lower KAP scores could mean that migrant domestic workers face a higher risk of discrimination today.


In Singapore, the index showed that just under half of the respondents were at the “knowledge formation stage” — which essentially means that they were just learning about the issues faced by migrant domestic workers, but were unsure if these were critical or relevant to them.

In contrast, only 7 per cent were at the “compliance stage” — meaning they knew about these issues and were willing to take action to help these workers overcome them.

“Unfortunately, negative attitudes can condone discrimination, exploitation, and even violence against migrant workers,” the report said.

In Singapore, migrant domestic workers are protected by the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and by the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations.

Still, this year saw several high-profile abuse cases involving foreign domestic workers. In one such case, heard in court this year, an Indonesian domestic helper suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of her employers for half a year.

The victim was assaulted with various household items in 2012 — leaving her with a deformed ear, scars across her forehead and shoulders, and a permanently impaired little finger.

More than seven in 10 Singaporeans polled supported stronger law enforcement to reduce violence against migrant women, and close to 80 per cent believe they should have access to shelters if they experience violence.

About two in five of the respondents felt that these female migrant workers did not report the abuse because they were afraid.

However, the ILO said that the abuse and violence were not limited to the physical. “Emotional abuse and threats of violence can be just as harmful.”


When Singapore employers were presented with a list of entitlements that they could provide to their foreign domestic workers, the average response was that they provided roughly three of them. In Thailand, employers provided roughly four, while those in Japan provided only about one of them.

The report said that the most commonly provided entitlements were paid leave, sick leave, and one day off a week.

This is the list of work entitlements, and the percentage of female foreign domestic workers working in Singapore who benefit from them:

  • Paid leave: 51 per cent

  • One day off: 59 per cent

  • Sick leave: 41 per cent

  • Maternity leave: 13 per cent

  • Right to leave the house: 32 per cent

  • Overtime pay: 24 per cent

  • Mobile phone: 47 per cent

  • Keep passport: 27 per cent

  • None: 8 per cent


Domestic work is often undervalued, and often not fully considered as work, either by employers or through full inclusion in national labour laws, the report said.

The ILO stressed that governments, trade unions and other stakeholders, including domestic workers’ groups, should conduct a coordinated campaign on the social and economic value of domestic work, and on the rights of domestic workers.

It added that none of the four countries has ratified the ILO’s Convention No 189, which obliges governments to recognise that domestic workers deserve the same labour law rights and protection accorded to most workers.

The ILO said that doing so “would go far toward improving working conditions for domestic workers”, as it allows for weekly rest for at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on payment in kind, and the right to collective bargaining, among other things.

It said that it will also be helpful if “all stakeholders” use respectful terms to describe domestic workers.

“They should avoid terms such as ‘servant’, ‘maid’ and ‘helper’,” the ILO said. “Instead use ‘domestic worker’, which squarely shows that domestic workers are workers, and not servile or part of the family.”

Related topics

domestic worker employment migrant labour attitude knowledge abuse Singaporeans

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