Many foreign women working as maids in Singapore endure harsh working conditions, as well as severe abuse such as physical and sexual violence, and aren't protected adequately by labor laws, a human rights group said in a report yesterday.
Singapore said the report was grossly exaggerated.
The analysis by US-based Human Rights Watch said at least 147 migrant domestic workers have died in Singapore from workplace accidents or suicide since 1999, mainly by jumping or falling from residential buildings.
"Many domestic workers labor without pay for months to settle debts to employment agencies, work long hours seven days a week, or are confined to their workplace," Kenneth Roth, executive director of the international rights group, said in a statement.
"Singapore's refusal to extend ordinary labor protections to domestic workers is leaving them open to abuse," he said.
In a statement, Singapore's Ministry of Manpower disputed the report, saying foreign domestic workers receive "full protection" under the law, and that employers who abuse or exploit maids can face fines and jail terms of up to six months.
The ministry said it had stepped up efforts to educate maids about their rights, had raised the minimum age of new maids from 18 to 23 years, and that first-time employers were required to attend a compulsory orientation program.
Contrary to the rights group report, most maids enjoy "meaningful and safe employment in Singapore," the ministry said.
The Human Rights Watch report was based on more than 100 interviews with maids, government officials and employment agents. About 150,000 women, mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, work as maids in Singapore.
The rights group acknowledged that Singapore has instituted reforms in the past two years, including the creation of mandatory orientation programs for employers and domestic workers and prosecution of cases of unpaid wages and physical abuse.
But it said wages and work hours are left to employers and agencies, and maids have little or no bargaining power.
Human Rights Watch said authorities have excluded domestic workers from the country's main labor laws.
Beginning in January, domestic workers signing new contracts will be entitled to a single day off each month, it said.
"One day off a month is a poor solution," Roth said. "Domestic workers deserve a weekly rest day and protection under Singapore's Employment Act like other workers."
The group said Singaporean workers in similar occupations, such as cleaners or gardeners, earn double the wages of migrant domestic workers.