12/15/2005, 00.00
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Foreign women workers toil in forced labour conditions

They come from Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka. They are denied rights other workers enjoy. They cannot have a boyfriend, are locked in their employer's home, work for pitiful wages 16-hour shifts and get one day of rest per month.

Singapore (AsiaNews/HRW) – Women migrant domestic workers in Singapore suffer grave abuses including physical and sexual violence, food deprivation, and confinement in the workplace, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a new report released today.

"Many domestic workers labour without pay for months to settle debts to employment agencies, work long hours seven days a week, or are confined to their workplace," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Singapore's refusal to extend ordinary labour protections to domestic workers is leaving them open to abuse."  
Workers have to bear the cost of recruitment, transportation, training, and placement and, according to HRW, to pay for these charges, many of them work for 4-10 months with little or no pay.

The 124-page report is based on more than one hundred in-depth interviews with domestic workers, government officials, and employment agents.

Since Singapore imposes a monthly levy on employers of migrant domestic workers to regulate demand, employers pay S 0-295 [US 8-174] to a central government fund each month, more than the wages of many domestic workers themselves.

The Singapore government thus raises roughly US 2-313 million per year and yet its "refusal to extend ordinary labour protections to domestic workers is leaving them open to abuse."  

Human Rights Watch said that authorities have excluded domestic workers from the country's main labour laws. Only starting in January, domestic workers signing new contracts will be entitled to a single day off a month.  
Migrant domestic workers earn half the wages of Singaporean workers in similar occupations, such as cleaners or gardeners. Unpaid wages is a growing complaint. And if they get pregnant, they are expelled.

At least 147 migrant domestic workers have died from workplace accidents or suicide since 1999.

According to the report, Singapore's current system "excludes a class of workers from labour protections, leaving them to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for pitifully low wages". According to Kenneth Roth, the system "needs a real and incisive reform".

Families in Singapore employ approximately 150,000 women, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lank, who constitute about 25 per cent of the 600,000 migrant workers in the city state of 3.5 million people.

To control illegal immigration, the Singapore government has imposed a security bond on each employer, who forfeits S ,000 [US ,950] if their domestic worker runs away.

Employers have thus an incentive to prevent domestic workers from running away or having boyfriends; forbid them from talking to neighbours, and sometimes lock them in the workplace.

The Indonesian embassy estimates that it receives fifty complaints per day, mostly from domestic workers. The Philippines embassy and the Sri Lanka High Commission estimate receiving forty to eighty complaints from domestic workers per month.

For the government, the report "grossly exaggerates" the situation. Foreign domestic workers choose to work here because of better terms and conditions than in their home countries or in other countries.

It claims that most foreign domestic workers are happy and safe. An independent survey by Singapore Press Holdings indicated that in December 2003 80 per cent of them were happy to work in Singapore. (PB)

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