With new law, better work conditions for Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore?

Photo: FlyingToaster/Wikimedia Commons

By Anastasiia Shkuro

Indonesian domestic workers coming to Singapore generally feel unprotected by the law, and are forced to do more work than they are committed to, contractually.

A woman from Indonesia tackles difficulties proposing her services to the families in search of domestic worker. The families are amazed by her recommendations from the previous clients. However, they are not eager to hire her. The placement fees of US$3,600 are too high. Only a cut in that fee would render her employable – and so she accepts a lower fee.

This is just one very typical story one hears about the plight of domestic workers hailing from Southeast Asian countries.

Since June 2016, things have changed for the better, for Indonesia’s domestic workers working abroad.

How will Indonesia’s law improve the lives of domestic workers?

Indonesia’s National Board for Placement and Protection of Indonesia Overseas Workers signed an agreement on the issues of employment with the Association of Employment Agencies (AEAS) of Singapore. According to that agreement, domestic workers would have to live separately from their employers, to avoid complaints about being subject to irregular work hours. It would also be mandatory for them to get days off. This agreement will come into effect in the ensuing months.

The Indonesian authorities have also introduced a compulsory financial scheme both for domestic workers and their employers. The Household Service Workers Industry Scheme (HSWIS) is also known as the “escaping route”. Singaporean agencies and official departments applauded the legislative changes.

Foreign domestic workers will be allowed to take a loan of US$1,700 from Maybank Indonesia in order to cover all the necessary fees related to their employment. Under the old system, Singaporean employers paid these fees upfront by subtracting money from the salaries of domestic worker.

Previously, it was compulsory for Singaporean employers to pay the monthly charge of US$265, as well as to put up a security bond amounting to US$5,000. Moreover, the hirer had to provide the domestic workers with accommodation, insurance, nutrition and medical service, one day off a week, and some annual perks.

In addition to that, many domestic workers usually ask to pay for the ticket to travel home at least once a year.

Singapore seems to be still attractive enough a place for potential domestic workers, if the numbers are anything to go by. More than 201,000 foreign domestic workers come here to seek jobs. Their exact fees depends not only on the size of accommodation, but also on the number of people living in the family, working hours, and, certainly, experience gained in the similar area.

If a domestic worker can speak English fluently, the employers are willing to fork out a higher salary to hire them, as it makes communication more convenient.

In the case of a domestic worker who is fluent in English, the fee could go up to USD$300 to US$500. Otherwise, domestic worker from Indonesia generally earn between US$230 to US$250 per a month.

But all these figures are considered measly, given the standard of living in Singapore. However, back in Indonesia, that same amount gives them far greater purchasing power. This is what still makes such menial job positions so attractive.

Unvarnished reality

Employers tend to abuse the rights given to them. For instance, everybody understands that if a domestic worker complains of inhuman attitude, the offender would be punished.

After that, however, that domestic worker would effectively be blacklisted from agencies on human resources. It makes almost impossible for them to apply with the letter of claim to employer, which does not encourage the protection of the rights that these Indonesian domestic workers hold.

The second reason to change the existing financial scheme refers to agencies that require a huge admission fees for their services. There are not many people able to pay for the stated services at once. As the result, domestic workers find themselves being embroiled in the loans. As for the employees, they should have given almost the whole salary to the agency during a half a year.

Such a form of contracted labour did not seem to be dangerous until social organisations have not spoken on frequent suicides and crimes commitments. It made the government of Indonesia mull over the problems of their citizens and to implement this new financial scheme.

The benefits of new financial system

As the new financial scheme has been approved, the wider discussion has started. Among those who are happy with the changes are employers who no longer need to pay placement fees upfront. Where it has improved for domestic workers is that they can no longer be charged fees when changing the place of work.

Yeo Guat Kwang, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, Singapore’s sole trade union, emphasised the profits from the scheme. “It will reduce ambiguity and help prevent salary disputes that may arise due to current loan arrangements, which may be handled by the respective employer”, he said. “The Indonesian domestic workers will also be able to receive their full salary from the onset of their contract. This would certainly benefit both the workers and their employers.”