Respecting the Contributions of Foreign Domestic Workers

Shamsul Kamar is the Executive Director of the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) and Dr Don J.Q Chen (PhD.) is the Assistant Director of Advocacy & Partnership for the same centre. Any extracts should be attributed back to the authors. 

The month of April and May saw several commentaries published on Channel NewsAsia online about the plight of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore.

These commentaries highlighted the powerlessness of FDWs against exploitative employment practices, negative stereotypes Singaporeans hold towards FDWs, and how our attitudes towards them have been shaped by a few cases; limiting us from according them empathy, respect and fairness.

The agenda underlying these commentaries is that we need to re-evaluate our preconceived notions towards FDWs, understand the issues they face at and outside of work, and above all, be responsible employers of FDWs.

Recognising the Value of Skills

In 2016, NTUC set up the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) to champion fair treatment of all domestic employees in Singapore. CDE has done so by engaging employers and FDWs to resolve employment related issues, providing humanitarian aid to FDWs in distress, and encouraging integration of FDWs into Singapore through social activities.

In late 2017, CDE undertook a large scale quantitative study to understand the local FDW landscape. With an independent survey company, we surveyed 1,012 FDWs and 1,004 employers over a period of three months. One of the key findings that have emerged from the study is the gap between how employers and FDWs perceived training.

Almost all FDWs surveyed indicated that they had undergone some form of training before they were deployed for work. Only slightly more than half of the employers surveyed agreed that FDWs they hired had been trained. The same survey found that employers placed high value in training related to disabled and elderly care; and employers also suggested that FDWs be trained to manage the stress associated with their jobs.

Employers’ sentiments towards the importance of training in disabled and elder care accurately reflect the reality that Singapore is facing a demographic time bomb where 27 per cent of our population will be 65 and above by the year 2030. With shrinking family sizes and a smaller support base for an increasing number of elderly dependents, labour participation rate among working age adults is expected to rise and more females are expected to join the workforce. The responsibilities and stress of caring for the young, the old and the infirmed will therefore fall increasingly more and more on FDWs. We need to ensure that our FDWs are well-trained to manage the requirements of their job, as well as the stress that comes along with it.

At CDE, we have been advocating that all FDWs must be adeptly trained at their home countries before they enter Singapore and a proper assessment framework must be put in place to ensure that FDWs are “skills-certified” before they can be deployed for work. In line with this belief, we have spoken to a few established employment agencies in Singapore to find out their perspectives on skills certification. Unsurprisingly, these agencies are largely supportive of the initiative and they have in fact pledged to work with their upstream partners to ensure that the FDWs they bring into Singapore are suitably trained. From the employment agents’ perspective, better trained FDWs equate to higher placement rate and lower incidence of replacement.

The potential impact of implementing a certification framework is two-pronged. Firstly, certification is an assurance of proficiency. It will help allay employers’ concerns about the abilities of their FDWS and change Singaporean’s perceptions of FDWs being low-skilled to them being semi-skilled workers.

Secondly, it is known that when one possesses better skills, one can command a better salary. The certification framework will hopefully provide FDWs with the incentive to ensure they have the requisite skills to meet minimum expectations of their employers.

Changing Attitudes    

We need to institutionalise a mental shift in how we perceive the role and contributions of FDWs towards our households. First, we need to recognise that FDWs are lived-in help that alleviate us from caretaking duties so that we can go to work with peace of mind. Second, FDWs have aspirations, no different from you and I, and are making personal sacrifices by leaving their homes to work in an alien environment for the betterment of their own family. Third, rather than to perceive them as low-skilled workers having lower social status, let’s reconsider them as having made important contributions to our family with their skills in household chores and caregiving.

While the government can put in place mandatory frameworks to train and certify FDW to uplift the quality of the FDW landscape, the most critical ingredient in this entire conversation is our attitudes toward them.

As a maturing society that is slowly but surely becoming more conscious about the rights of the individuals, we need to sidestep the making of a Roman holiday that is derived from a sense of preponderance when we see FDWs being locked in a cycle of low skills, low wage, doing menial tasks, and having poor employment prospects.

An FDW, like any individual who works hard for a living, must be provided the chance to lift themselves out of this vicious cycle, if they are willing to grab the opportunity. Societal support and the change in our mindset towards them is crucial. This is precisely the breakthrough we need.

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