Sunday, June 26, 2005

Singapore debates exploitation of maids

By Kalinga Seneviratne
Inter Press Service
Friday, 24 June, 2005

SINGAPORE, Jun 22 ­ A rare passionate public debate on a social issue is
raging in this tiny affluent Southeast Asian nation on how the country
treats the thousands of maids or "foreign domestic workers" (FDWs) here.

While some focus on whether the women should get a mandatory day off per
week, others argue it is more important to clean up the maid agency
industry, which appears to be exploiting poor women from neighboring
countries by charging them exorbitant fees to work here.

The debate started over two months ago when local newspaper Today began
publishing letters from FDWs complaining about ill treatment and lack of
off days.

It gathered steam three weeks ago when Association of Employment Agencies
(AEAS) President Angland Seah said in an interview with the paper that his
organization would like to see a provision for four off days a month
incorporated into all new FDWs' job contracts.

Since that call was made, Today claims that employment agencies have been
deluged with calls from maids who want the weekly off day incorporated into
their contracts immediately, while many employers have threatened to take
their business to agencies that are not AEAS members. There has been a
mixed response in letters to newspapers here.

Maids are slightly lesser breed?

"For goodness sake, these people are maids," wrote letter writer Edwin
Wong. "They are from other countries and have willingly accepted our terms
and conditions to be a FDW. We didn't force them."

"For a civilized country Singapore seem to have a disproportionately large
number of maid abuse cases," observed another writer, Stephanie Thio.
"I think this is because Singaporeans have allowed themselves to accept the
idea that foreign domestic helpers are a slightly lesser breed. So we don't
accord them the same standard of humanity that we do to others in our
lives. This mindset needs to be changed," she added.

Recently, courts have started jailing maid abusers (all women) including a
teacher who was sentenced to six weeks. Previously those found guilty only
received fines.

Police say the number of reported abuse cases have dropped from 157 in 1997
to 59 last year because of the court cases. But activists argue those
numbers are only the tip of the iceberg because many FDWs are afraid to
report abuse to the police.

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