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Domestic workers are the slaves of modern Asia

Accounts of Southeast Asian domestic workers in the Middle East being tortured, forced to work for hours on end and even sexually abused are well documented. But a spate of abuse cases in recent years show this is also happening in Asia’s wealthy, modern cities. Migrant women face abuse and racial discrimination, some live in slave-like conditions and all grapple with a lack of legal protection or channels to voice their concerns in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, South China Morning Post reports.

Over 10 months, she was caned, barred from using the toilet, forced to eat her own vomit and warned that her relatives could be killed if she complained. It was a life Moe Moe Than, 32, a domestic worker from Myanmar, never imagined when she arrived in Singapore in 2012. This month, Filipino domestic worker Baby Jane Allas reported her Hong Kong employer to the city’s authorities for firing her after she had received a cervical cancer diagnosis. Allas said she had slept for 15 months without a bed or a mattress and not been fed properly. Domestic worker advocates and labour experts say these two high-profile cases are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Despite of all the egregious cases we have heard about in recent years, the fundamental gaps in terms of the protection of domestic workers have remained the same,” says Sheena Kanwar, executive director of Singapore’s Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).

“The reluctance in changing this is because it is economically beneficial for everyone to let things stay the way they are … especially for the government, with all care giving services pushed to underpaid domestic workers,” she says.

In the past, only rich families in Asia had helpers. But in more recent decades, middle-class families turned to domestic workers partly because an increasing number of women went out to work.

A recent study showed that in Hong Kong, for instance, only 49 per cent of mothers – aged between 25 and 54 – were able to join the labour force if they did not employ a domestic worker. With a helper, this labour force participation increased to 78 per cent.

The research found that only by enabling more women to join the labour force, foreign domestic workers indirectly add US$2.6 billion to Hong Kong’s economy, US$2.6 billion to Singapore’s economy and US$0.23 billion to Malaysia’s. Last year, in total, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong contributed an estimated US$12.6 billion to the city’s economy, or 3.6 per cent of its gross domestic product. They also contributed US$8.2 billion to Singapore’s economy and US$900 million to Malaysia’s.

But despite their growing importance, the perception that these women are “slaves” persists. Because many of these workers come from impoverished countries, the employers think they can take advantage of them.

In the case of Singapore there is no recognition of women’s basic right to reproduce. Domestic workers have to take pregnancy tests every six months. If they are found pregnant, they are deported.

Many domestic workers endure abuse and unreasonable policies in silence because they are in debt due to high placement agency fees and because they are under pressure to send money to their families back home. And while the avenues to voice their concerns are scarce and convoluted, often they offer no guarantee of justice.

Migrant domestic workers join forces in Central, Hong Kong, to demand decent wages and resting hours. Photo: Winson Wong


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