Can Singapore’s Invisible Workers Cope and Flourish Post COVID-19?
Picture this: you are stuck at home, discussing work over a Zoom call; your family members are all at home and making a ruckus in the background.
Seems familiar? For most Singaporeans, adapting to work-from-home arrangements has become a shared experience during the COVID-10 pandemic.
Now imagine this: your work is increasingly scrutinised by your employer; you are overworked and underpaid. You feel anxious alone. You are far from home but cannot contact your loved ones, and you still have debts to pay.
This is the harsh reality for many migrant domestic workers. The pandemic has indeed shone a harsh spotlight on the unfair working conditions among migrant communities. While there was an initial outpouring of public goodwill and legal action, more can be done to integrate Singapore’s migrant workforce into larger society.
Singapore’s contemporary workforce is highly reliant on exported labour; the number of foreign workers had amounted to 1,424,200 in 2022 (Ministry of Manpower, 2023). Despite their significant numbers, their contributions remain largely undervalued. This is particularly poignant for migrant domestic workers, whose labour is contained within a private, domestic sphere.
Invisible work and invisible people
While many Singaporeans basked in the luxury of being able to work from the comfort of their homes, migrant domestic workers have faced the extended burden of meeting the needs of more people at home, and negotiating new dynamics with their employers. COVID-19 did not create these precarities in the working conditions of migrant domestic workers, but rather “exacerbated existing social structural features of the host societies”. (Pitaloka & Nabanan, 2022).
This was amplified during Singapore’s lockdown, where calls to a local migrant worker helpline had increased by 25% after COVID-19 restrictions were implemented; their "plight [was] invisible in the private sphere of their employers’ households." (Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics, 2020).
Singapore’s migrant domestic workers are invisibilised from the public sphere in two senses: first, they carry out care work; the effect of this is not publicly seen, but carried out in the private sphere of one’s home. Care work is typically associated with unpaid domestic chores done out of love and obligation; it is hence perceived as lower in value and unimportant (Ferrant, 2014).
Migrant domestic workers are also invisibilised as a community, existing in silo from the rest of the population. While there have been advancements in regulations to protect and integrate Singapore’s foreign workers, permit holders remain subjected to differentiated treatments as compared to a normal Singaporean; these differences and their implications have been greatly amplified during the pandemic.
Singapore excludes domestic workers from the Employment Act, which protects labour rights such as a minimum of one rest day per week (Human Rights Watch, 2005). Migrant domestic workers must also undergo a medical examination and pregnancy test every six months; if a woman is found to be pregnant this can result in immediate repatriation (Bortel, 2019). Migrant domestic workers are coerced to deal with such non-negotiables, along with power dynamics with their employers. Such institutional loopholes render our essential domestic workers as less of a valued worker and member of our population.
Significant proportions of the public continue to have negative perceptions of migrant workers, in contrast to the invaluable contributions they have made. More than half of the Singaporeans polled in a survey still think that migrant workers increase crime rates, and threaten the country’s culture and heritage (International Labour Organisation, 2020). Greater institutional protection, as well as more efforts in promoting acceptance and integration of migrant domestic workers remains quintessential in ensuring their wellbeing post-pandemic.
Can care workers flourish in a post-pandemic world?
Lucky Plaza, a shopping mall in central Singapore which is popular among migrant domestic workers.(Source: Property Guru)
With the relaxation of COVID-19 safety measures, we have witnessed the revitalisation of migrant communities. Places like Lucky Plaza and Little India are now often filled with the hustle and bustle of countless migrant workers meeting up with their friends on their off-days. Such spaces are more than mere convenient places for migrant workers to gather; they create a valuable sense of community away from home, housing a myriad of shops and amenities that cater closely to their tastes and needs.
Near Lucky Plaza, crowds of migrant domestic workers gather to spend time with their friends. (Source: The Straits Times)
However, while these are public spaces, they are a far stretch from the common hangout places that Singaporeans usually go to grab a coffee and catch up with friends. Furthermore, as part of Singapore’s decentralisation areas, certain areas such as recreation centres have been demarcated for migrant workers to gather, as compared to other public spaces. While recreation centres are set up for migrant workers to meet their leisure needs, most are located in obsolete locations located away from heartland areas (Fig 1). As compared to our usual shopping malls and recreational facilities, these recreation centres are scarcely publicised to the rest of the population, making them even more unknown to the public.
Fig 1: Map of Singapore showing the eight recreation centres in industrial regions on the outskirts of the city. (Goh & Lee, 2022)
Terusan Recreation Centre, one of Singapore’s eight Recreation Centres for migrant workers located in Jalan Papan. Recreation Centres are typically located in close proximity to migrant worker dormitories, as seen in the background. (Source: Xu Siqi)
While Singapore is seeing rising advocacy for its migrant domestic workers, public education and integration efforts can still be improved to enhance collective perceptions. Compassion among Singaporeans, and reinforcement of institutional regulations would be the right step forward to protect and recognise Singapore’s invaluable migrant domestic workers.