Wed. Oct 20th, 2021

Singapore, Singapore Poe Ei San, a migrant from Myanmar, could not find work as a nurse in prosperous Singapore. So she cleaned houses instead.

The 25-year-old graduate of Yangon University cleaned toilets, scrubbed floors and wiped kitchens every day. “Because of the low salary and instability in Myanmar, many young people are looking for work overseas,” she said.

Poe is one of a small but growing number of domestic cleaners employed by the city – state’s Domestic Services Scheme (HSS), a four-year pilot program that allows companies to employ migrant workers from countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. cleaning services for households. Companies offer part-time household cleaning at about 20-25 Singapore dollars ($ 15-19) per hour, with locations ranging from two to eight hours.

The scheme is primarily intended to meet the demand for part-time assistance, and to reduce Singapore’s dependence on foreign domestic workers, mentioned by many families. In 2019, about 250,000 women were employed in homes in Singapore, covering about one in five households, compared to one in 13 three decades ago.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to recruit domestic workers from abroad, so Singapore made the HSS permanent this month and expanded its scope to include more part-time services, such as shopping, car washing and pet care. It also allowed businesses to hire cleaners from Cambodia.

The Ministry of Manpower announced the decision last month, saying the scheme was ‘useful in supporting the demand for part-time domestic services’.

Burmese immigrant Poe Ei San (25) is one of a small but growing number of domestic cleaners in Singapore hired under the HSS [Zachary Tang/Al Jazeera]

Many of the city-states’ largely double-income families have become heavily dependent on resident assistance for chores, cooking, and caring for elderly family members, children, and pets; the women themselves work long hours with little time off for meager salaries.

They are mainly confined to the household and also run the risk of being abused. Between 2017 and 2020, there were approximately 270 police reports of domestic workers’ abuse annually.

While the HSS is not aimed at reducing abuse, formalizing household chores as job cleaners provides better pay and rights than domestic workers.

Enter the cleaner

Cleaning companies say the demand for part-time cleaning has increased as households have found it more difficult to attend domestic helpers.

According to the manpower ministry, the number of businesses registered with HSS has increased from 50 in 2019 to 76 in 2021. HSS cleaners now serve more than 10,000 households.

Unlike domestic workers, cleaners serve multiple homes, live in their own housing and are protected under the Employment Act, which stipulates a maximum of 44 contractual working hours per week, at least 1.5 times overtime pay, seven days annual leave, 14 sick days and one rest day per week. They can earn up to 1,600 Singapore dollars ($ 1,193) per month.

Domestic workers, meanwhile, are subject to regulations that require only ‘acceptable’ accommodation and ‘adequate’ rest. Most earn no more than 650 Singapore dollars ($ 485) a month and work seven days a week, sometimes as long as 14-16 hours a day. They are not legally entitled to annual leave, sick days or overtime pay.

The manpower ministry, which refused interviews, said earlier on its website that it is “difficult to enforce the provisions of the Employment Act for domestic workers as they work in a domestic environment and the habits of households vary”.

Experts believe that the benefits of HSS are higher salaries, stronger protection and a lower risk of abuse because women do not have to live in the household. HSS eliminates the incoming factor that makes domestic workers vulnerable to abuse, as they may be isolated and denied access to a telephone.

Amarjit Singh Sidhu, a lawyer who handles cases of helper abuse, says because cleaners ‘have more interaction with society’, there are ‘more opportunities’ to report abuse.

Eugene Tan, associate professor at the Government University of Singapore, agrees that the living arrangements are better for the migrant worker.

“If they live separately from the families they work for, it leads to fewer opportunities for abuse and misuse of cleaners. With a clearer distinction between their place of residence and workplace, the rights, welfare and interests of cleaners can be better protected. ”

Cleaning supervisor Phyo Phyo Ei (36) worked as a domestic worker in Singapore for almost 10 years before moving on to house cleaning. [Zachary Tang/Al Jazeera]

However, these benefits are limited by the small number of people involved.

No statistics are publicly available, but Zhong Jingjing, managing director of Helpling, an HSS cleaner booking platform used by about 40 businesses on the scheme, estimates that Singapore has about 1,000 to 2,000 cleaners.

Myanmar women who were previously domestic workers make up about 90 percent of the cleaners on the platform, she adds. Most domestic workers in Singapore come from Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Dominic Lim, sales and marketing manager of the cleaning company Fresh Cleaning, adds that the Myanmar community in Singapore prefers cleaner roles over the life of a domestic worker.

Domestic abuse is a danger Poe is well aware of, after seeing news in February the death of Piang Ngaih Don. The fellow migrant from Myanmar endured 14 months of torture and starvation by her employer in Singapore; Piang was burned, beaten and suffocated, lost 15 kilograms and slept on the floor on her last nights, chained to a window grille.

Poe was in Myanmar, looking for work on the sovereign island, when she saw the headlines. “After that, I did not want to be a servant,” she said. “No one will know if your employer is harassing you.”

Still in danger

While domestic workers have a fixed salary, the salary of cleaners consists of basic salary, allowances for food and transport, overtime pay and incentives. Consequently, their income can be two or three times the income of a resident worker.

But despite the improved conditions, HSS cleaners remain at the mercy of their employers.

(Al Jazeera)

“Although cleaners under the HSS are less isolated than domestic workers, workers covered under the Employment Act are still subject to depressed wages, high recruitment costs and problems changing employers,” said Jaya Anil Kumar, research and advocacy manager. for welfare group Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics.

The organization helps between 10 and 20 cleaners a year on issues such as overtime and unpaid or underpaid wages.

There are also risks on their way to work, which are little different from those of a domestic worker and exacerbate the power imbalance between the business and the migrant workers, Jaya said.

The women are recruited mainly by agencies in source countries that charge fees to place them at a Singapore company and send them to the island.

Interviews with cleaners appear on complaints such as excessive recruitment costs, passports taken away by cleaning companies for ‘safekeeping’, and employers not paying for overtime.

HSS also does not address the Singaporean perception of migrant workers as inferior and domestic work so low, which is one of the main reasons for domestic worker abuse, she added.

‘Many employers feel that migrant workers should be grateful to get a job. There is a sense of ownership of the worker, ‘she said. “Abuse arises because employers devalue both homework and domestic help.”

Cleaning companies say they have not yet seen cases of physical abuse, although some acknowledge that oral abuse occurs. There are about 700 customers on Helpling’s blacklist for abusive behavior and failure to pay bills, while cleaning firm United Channel Construction & Facility Services says 30 percent of customers shout at cleaners.

Jaya says more effort needs to be made to play the domestic work and its important role in making Singapore’s society run smoothly.

The Singapore Ministry of Manpower has already said it will evaluate whether it can further expand the scope of services for HSS. Earlier this year, former manpower minister Josephine Teo said care could be such a service – but there are concerns from some quarters about the risk of abuse.

The HSS scheme will be extended to groceries, pet care and car wash, in addition to domestic cleaning [Zachary Tang/Al Jazeera]

Margaret Thomas, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research, says domestic workers caring for the elderly are often overworked and vulnerable to abuse of their charges, especially those with dementia.

Flora Sha, manager of United Channel, says dementia patients can be violent, throw things and pull caregivers’ hair.

Despite these warnings, Poe is excited about the possibility of working in care. She still dreams of becoming a nurse and hopes that the experience will help her get a job in a Myanmar hospital when she returns home.

“I know the elderly can abuse me, but I will be patient with them,” she said. “Under HSS, the company is responsible for the staff, so I am confident that it is still better than a maid.”

This story was supported with funding and training by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

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