Illegal Maids: Foreign Domestic Workers

Written by Joanne Lee

From Chilli Mud Crabs to ending sentences in lah, Singapore has a rooted history of what makes the country liberated from Malaysia, Britain and Japan. Since its independence, the country has constantly remained as a potential working ground for labourers, resulting in a “large influx of immigrants from all over Asia” including China, India and Malay Archipelago (Leyl, 2015). This presented a new socio-cultural environment and perhaps acceptance of multiple backgrounds and religions. Although Singapore is viewed rich in culture, language and tradition, foreign domestic workers face possible repatriation due to several laws that dictate their ability to work in the country. This is particularly applied to low-skilled foreign workers due to the fear of resource scarcity, excessive permanent residence and extreme poverty.

From 101 East’s video Maid in Singapore, female foreign domestic workers (FDW), especially from Myanmar, are often exploited. Baited by recruitment agencies and guaranteed high income, these workers are employed illegally and may experience an abusive environment – sexually and physically.

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-11-45-00-pmScreenshot from video “101 East – Maid in Singapore”

Born in a country with no large opportunity to discover well paid work, women are persuaded by the rumoured high income. In saying this, they are given a chance to work in Singapore in return with a large salary that may benefit their family’s finances. Although there is evidence of respectable employers, many are lead to unfortunate circumstances. For example, an agent promised a fifteen year old girl a job as a domestic worker. However, it was under Singaporean law that foreign domestic workers must be at least at the age of twenty-four. Despite this, the agency provided false passports for underaged girls and an intensive house job that would affect their mental state as they would become prone to homesickness due to their immaturity as Mary, recruitment agent states “…even if they can work, they can’t stand the pressure and get homesick” (Al Jazeera English 2016).

As mentioned above, employee treatment scaled from respect to contempt. Experience as a foreign domestic worker has escalated from threats to sexual abuse as a result of under-protection by both Burmese and Singaporean governments. They were beaten, sexually assaulted and kept in captivity as one former worker confesses, “I had to touch him down there…whatever I was doing, I had to go to him whenever he called. If I refused, he would slap me” (Al Jazeera English 2016). Due to their adolescence, their vulnerability becomes transparent to their employer. The agency blackmails to prevent these girls from running away or seeking assistance. As the worker admits, “The agent said if I ran away during those eight months, they would ask my parents to pay”, the agency refused release until their debt had been paid. Therefore, the debt compels the workers to remain obedient as their family may be harassed.

With the mediocre skills and little knowledge, workers are perceived with “common problems…lacking issues and a lack of efficiency in housekeeping and cooking,” stated one agent recruitment. This affected their potential to grow in life skills, thus this agent declared training to build a foundation for the freshly scouted females as she says “That’s why I’m doing this” (Al Jazeera English 2016).

Screenshot from video “101 East – Maid in Singapore”

While the laws of mutual countries are set to prevent exploitation and protect FDWs, there is a clear loophole in the work-permit system as there is little to no action in providing safeguards for these young employees. As Jolovan Wham (2016) states “It’s an issue with both sources and destination countries have to have the political will to do something about it…there has to be a lot more bilateral operation to ensure that this kind of exploitation by recruitment agents don’t happen,” exposing the corruption behind the working conditions of foreign domestic workers.


Al Jazeera English 2016, 101 East – maid in Singapore, videorecording, YouTube, viewed 16 January 2017, <;

Brenda Yeoh & Weiqiang Lin, 2012, Rapid growth in Singapore’s immigrant population brings policy challenges, MPI, viewed 16 January 2017, <;

Sharanjit Leyl, 2015, Singapore at 50, BBC, viewed 16 January 2017, <>

Michael Malay, 2014, Singapore needs to address its treatment of migrant workers, theguardian, viewed 17 January 2017, <;

Ministry of Manpower, 2017, Employment rules for foreign domestic workers, Singapore government, viewed 17 January 2017, <>




One thought on “Illegal Maids: Foreign Domestic Workers”

  1. It seems to be clear issue that needs to be addressed in Singapore. Is there any successful initiatives being taken in other cases to prevent the abuse of these foreign domestic workers? It seems that in other countries’ like Hong Kong, there seems to be less abuse and more freedom.


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