SINGAPORE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — The promise of a salary five times what she could make at home prompted Nabila to leave Indonesia and her family for a job as a domestic worker in Singapore.
What she did not realize was that it would be eight months before she earned a cent because of deductions made by the employment agency that brought her to Singapore.
With a 17-hour working day that started at 5 a.m., a "very demanding" employer and dinners that consisted of leftovers, the 30-year-old said she was driven to despair.
"I was desperate when I realised that I wouldn't get paid for such a long time," said Nabila, whose monthly salary was S560 (US$424). "I came to Singapore because I need money for my two children so that they can go to school. I need every cent."
Employment agencies are part of a complex web spun across Southeast Asia by brokers and agents that allow the domestic workers virtually no say in their working conditions.
Reports of domestic workers being burned, beaten and raped have sparked outrage in Asia, which has the largest share of the world's domestic workers at more than 21 million.
The Philippines is the only Asian nation to have ratified the International Labour Organisation's convention on domestic workers, which bans recruiters from taking money from workers' wages to recoup placement fees, among other measures.
The ILO says recruitment fees should not be charged to any worker.
"Despite this, charging and overcharging of recruitment fees is prevalent across the region and governments need to do more to ensure that recruitment agencies are punished when they overcharge and workers reimbursed," Max Tunon, a senior ILO project officer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Trapped by fees
In the wealthy city state of Singapore, charging for recruitment services is not illegal but the government has put a cap on the amount local agencies can deduct at two months' salary.
Many agencies get around the law by saying they need to charge more to cover fees with agencies in Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar where most of Singapore's estimated 220,000 foreign domestic workers come from.
"It's a practice that traps women with a lot of debt and makes them endure all sorts of abuses to eventually get their salary, from emotional to physical and sometimes even sexual abuse," said Jolovan Wham of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a charity supporting domestic workers with legal assistance, training and basic medical care.
HOME says employers withholding payment is the second most common complaint they deal with after emotional abuse.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) says foreign domestic workers are fully protected by the law in the country of 5.4 million people, and errant employers and agencies are subject to scrutiny, fines and imprisonment.
"Singapore has numerous measures in place to ensure the welfare and protection of foreign domestic workers here, including legal protection, education, safeguards and dedicated avenues for redress," a spokesman said in emailed comments.
Long list of abuses
At Singapore's Katong Shopping Centre, domestic workers push each other in wheelchairs, whilst others change nappies on dummy babies, displaying their skills in public view at one of the many "maid agencies" in the building.
"It's a degrading way to put them on display, like they're a commodity," Wham, HOME's executive director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Activists say another example of discrimination against foreign domestic workers is their exemption from Singapore's Employment Act, which regulates working conditions for locals.
Instead they are covered by a law for foreign workers that puts the onus on employers and agencies to make sure they are not exploited.
"It's a 24/7 job - always on standby, no guaranteed resting hours and often no privacy," said Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, president of the Transient Workers Count Too(TWC2) charity.
Many domestic workers still work seven days a week even though the government introduced a compulsory weekly day off for them in 2013. Employers can opt out of this by offering to pay.
Often, workers dare not say 'no' even if they only get paid an average of S$17 if they work on their day off, Ummai Ummairoh, president of the Indonesian Family Network (IFN) said.
"What we really want is better protection by the law," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Singapore's maids are forbidden to live away from their place of work, which for many means being on call all the time.
Some said they have to share rooms with their employer's children or elderly relatives and sleep in the hall or the living room, unable to sleep until the employer goes to bed.
Poverty a key driver
At HOME's shelter for domestic workers, a Filipina said she was dismissed without notice by her American employer after four months because she did not know how to cook Western food.
Still owing money to the employment agency, she now faces having her work permit cancelled and being forced to return to Mindanao, a particularly poor region of thePhilippines.
"I can't make enough money at home to support my kids, so I will have to go abroad again, pay all the fees again," said the 29-year-old, who declined to be named, fighting back tears.
Unlike in Hong Kong, another top Asian destination for domestic workers, those in Singapore are not allowed to form a union and must rely on informal networks and charities for help.
Ummairoh is proud that the IFN and its counterpart, the Filipino Family Network, provide classes in English, computer studies, hairdressing and make-up skills.
"We hope this will help to give them some useful skills for getting better jobs, especially when they return home," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A plan by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to stop domestic workers from working abroad is unlikely to succeed unless there are better jobs available at home, said Ummairoh.
"It will just lead to more women leaving illegally, which will make them even more vulnerable because they won't be documented with the authorities and have no redress if things go wrong," Ummairoh said.
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