The Silent Help: Examining the Physical and Mental Health of Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore

In Singapore, there is an army of women who have traveled to the small island country in search of work.

UN Sustainable Goals

3.4 By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.

5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation

8.8 Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment

There’s a woman I know. She’s a mother of two, an excellent cook, a wonderful seamstress and a very caring person. She loves her scarves and brightly coloured hijabs. She moved from a small town on the island of Borneo in Indonesia nearly a decade ago in search of work and a better life. Her English may not be perfect, but she can do the weekly shopping. She knows where to get the best fruit for the best price. Every day, she washes my clothes, cleans my bathroom and cooks dinner for me. She’s been employed by my family for the past two years as one of the thousands of women who currently work in Singapore as foreign domestic workers.


FDW’s make up 14% of Singapore’s 1.4 million non-resident population, or around 3.5% of Singapore’s total population.

With a population of 5.6 million, Singapore has over “201,000 female foreign domestic workers” (FDW), colloquially called helpers or maids, working inside its borders at any given time (UWCSEA). Hidden inside homes nearly all year round, the only time you can really see how many FDW’s there are is during Sundays when they rush out of condominiums and houses and into malls, parks, and any other available public space to mingle on their one day off. Providing 1 in 5 families services such as cleaning, cooking, childcare and other domestic duties, FDW’s are a common sight for much of Singapore’s middle and upper class. Yet, this silent workforce of indispensable individuals are commonly brushed aside by both their employers and the government.

Nearly half of FDW’s originate from Indonesia, which is geographically closet to Singapore. Filipinos FDW’s are popular because many already speak English, but are often the most expensive. Burmese (Myanmar) FDW’s are popular because they are usually cheaper than any other group.

Nearly all FDW’s are women from poorer regions of SE Asia, mainly the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia, with a much smaller proportion coming from Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries in Asia. Potential FDW’s are usually approached by representatives from maid agencies in their home countries which scout out potential FDW’s to send overseas, mainly to Singapore and Hong Kong. FDW’s are promised job security, a monthly salary several times more than in their home countries, and financial independence. Once sent overseas, most FDW’s live with their employer full time in their house, getting paid a standard wage and having one day off a week. Employment contracts typically last two years, but FDW’s will stay with their employers for a little as a few months to a few years, and in some cases even decades.

A projected 300,000 FDW’s by 2030 are needed to sustain Singapore’s demand. The number of FDW’s has been steadily growing over the past two decades and continues to increase as the country’s population grows.

FDW’s perform all the domestic duties around the house. These include, but are not limited to, cooking, cleaning, childcare, taking care of the elderly, running errands and doing the grocery shopping. They wake up early to prepare breakfast and stay up late cleaning up after dinner. Most families who have FDW’s only have one, so they usually perform a large amount of work. Working and living conditions are decided by their employers, with bare minimums set forth by the Singaporean government. They have basic insurance which is purchased by employers. In theory, they are regulated and protected workers in Singapore. But in practice, it’s sometimes much grimmer than that.

The Problem

In recent years, stories of suicide, underage workers, improper advertisement, mental abuse and physical abuse have littered the headlines of Singaporean newspapers. The Singaporean government has been pushing public information campaigns in recent years promoting safe treatement of FDW’s, although these mainly focus on creating a safe work environment for FDW’s. The problem is that conditions are different in every single household and with every single family, and with a 1 in 5 families having an FDW, it’s nearly impossible for the government to constantly and properly monitor each family.

Here are a handful of cases in Singapore over the past few years:
(Please be warned while some of these stories are unsettling, do take your time to properly read through these news articles in respect of these FDW’s.)

There are many more stories which circulate around the Singaporean community about FDW’s which aren’t covered by the news. Some of these include FDW’s who are forced to eat pork or non-halal items despite being devout Muslims, go on hunger strikes, endure verbal abuse from employers or are brought overseas to work in family’s houses outside of Singapore (which is illegal). You ask nearly any helper in Singapore and they either personally have or know someone who has horror stories of previous employers. Those who are trapped are very often unable to leave because their passports and ID cards are held by their employers. Many just simply work until their employers choose to let them go, hoping their next employer will be better. The unlucky ones endure it until the last moment, and a very unlucky few sadly decide they just can’t take it any more.

The taxing workload and verbal abuse take a heavy toll on the mental health of FDW’s. It slows down their own work, which causes more backlash from their employers, causing a toxic cycle. They are separated from their families for months on end, often leaving behind elderly parents, spouses and children behind. They get one day off a week, which is the only time for them to interact with any friends that they form. Switching employers can also take a toll, adapting to an entirely new environment, often having to relearn certain tasks according to the preference of their employer. All of these things can have a massive effect on FDW’s mental health both in the short run and long run.

Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) did a comprehensive study called Home Sweet Home?, full file link below, looking at the conditions of FDW’s in Singapore. Studies like these are pivotal at peeling away the skin of work conditions in FDW’s, and it showcases some extremely bad trends which seem to be occurring. Some important statistics follow:

46% of FDW’s reported inadequate medical attention and 57% reported inadequate dental attention from their employers
35% reported economic abuse, while 51% reported verbal abuse. An additional 6% for physical, 7% for moral and 7% for sexual abuse were reported.
19.9% of FDW’s reported rarely or never having privacy in their employer’s home
Only 55.7% of all FDW’s report being always or sometimes cared for
Poor mental health was reported in 24% of all FDW’s.

Finding A Solution

There is no simple solution to the problem. Instead, a set of actions and regulations which should be implemented in order for the proper changes to support FDW’s and improve the working conditions of FDW’s. Despite already having mandatory yearly physicals for FDW’s, they only check for signs of physical abuse and do properly check for mental health. In addition, FDW’s should have more than one opportunity a year to report instances of physical or mental abuse.

Better and stricter regulatory policies set forth by the government. All guidelines and regulations are set by the Singaporean government, but they are not sufficient enough. The general public should push for the government to take responsibility for monitoring and improving the requirements living conditions and standards of FDW’s. FDW’s, along with all the other low-wage workers, deserve the same working rights as any other foreign worker in Singapore.

Promoting public awareness of proper treatment of FDW’s alongside new regulatory measures. The Singaporean government has already been publishing different campaigns for the past few years, but they are not adequate enough. They are aimed at employers, not the employee and focus on just the working environment instead of the FDW herself. As more FDW’s enter Singapore year by year, the government is responsible for increasing their scrutiny of working conditions of FDW’s inside their own borders. More importantly, the government should be pushing for both employers, workers, and any other individuals of the public report any abusive behaviour to officials immediately.

The creations of public resources and spaces made available specifically for FDW’s to use, separate from the general public. These serve as both centres where FDW’s can mingle, but also easily and safely report any physical or mental abuse from their employers. They should provide emotional and informational support for FDW’s, offering free mental health scanning for FDW’s. Currently, there are only a few locations like this in place in Singapore. Individuals from these spaces should go out into the public on Sundays to inform and spread easily accessible phone numbers to FDW’s in Singapore in order to spread awareness of these resources.

Creating strict and proper education for both employers and the general public. Currently, the government requires all employers to take an online course on proper working conditions and has an employer guide for FDW’s, outlying everything from salary to proper conduct. The problem is, these are extremely easy to avoid, ignore or bend. And this education is only given to an employer, not the entire family. Educational programs should be put forth for the entire family to take, including employers and their children. They should be required to physically attend seminars on proper training like any other employer would.

Videos such as these are used to teach the public how to treat FDW’s properly. Created by private and government individuals, these are essential in changing the attitudes and behaviors of the public.

One of the simplest things which one can do to change this behaviour is for employers simply changing how you treat your FDW. Recognizing that FDW’s are not objects, instead, they are workers employed in their own home. Employers must recognize their own responsibility as an employer to provide safe and humane working conditions for their employees. And most importantly, for employees and other individuals to be responsible for their behaviour and actions.

I personally have seen the toll an improper employer had on my helper’s mental health when she came to work for my family. Her last employer for several years brought her illegally overseas to Indonesia on the weekends to care for her employer’s elderly grandmother and clean their second home. She was consistently overworked caring for the family’s several kids. Fortunately, her employer was moving overseas and decided to let her go, eventually making her way to work for my family.

When she initially came to work for us, she was very quiet, reserved, and deathly afraid of making any mistakes. As my mother is out of town most of the time, my helper is mainly left in charge to take care of me and I am left in charge of managing her. She wakes me up in the morning, makes sure I always have a clean school uniform and cooks delicious dinners. At time same time, I make sure she has her days off, isn’t overworked, eats properly, and keeps in touch with her family frequently. My family even signed her up for sewing classes during the weekdays.

In the last two years that she’s been with us, I’ve seen her open up to us, smile more, laugh more, and become a happier person. She says she is much happier with us, even refusing the idea of leaving us if we relocate. She’s an integral part of our family and treats us well. She brings back Indonesian snacks and foods for me to try and has been teaching me Bahasa Indonesia and Indonesian cooking. She’s not just a helper, she’s part of our family. She takes cares of us and helps us along the way. And I am thankful that she is there. I take it at my duty to make sure she’s happy, and I am proud of it.

We take care of her because she takes care of us. It should be that simple.

Find More Information

ILOILO is a Singaporean movie about a Filipino domestic worker who comes to work for a family in Singapore. It touches on treatement of FDW’s in the family by both the employer’s, but also the children of the family.

How do you think FDW’s should be treated?

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