19 September 2014edge review

A domestic worker and her elderly charge in Singapore (Jerry Wong/Flickr).

Myanmar bans domestic workers from going abroad, pending new standards

Every year, thousands of impoverished women from across Southeast Asia migrate to the glittering cities of Hong Kong and Singapore, sacrificing the familiarity of home for the promise of higher wages and stable employment as domestic workers.

Although thousands of women from Myanmar are already employed as maids and helpers abroad, the government only officially allowed its citizens to work as foreign domestic workers in 2013.

Last week, however, Myanmar’s labour ministry abruptly issued a suspension on would-be domestic workers migrating to both cities, due to fears of mistreatment and a lack of labour rights. Prior to this, Singapore and Hong Kong were the only destinations to which Burmese domestic workers were officially allowed to travel, although thousands more work in Malaysia, Thailand, and elsewhere.

The Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation (MOEAF) – an umbrella organisation representing more than 100 placement agencies in Myanmar – is currently negotiating the terms of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with its Singaporean counterpart, after which the official trade in maids will resume, claims Soe Myint Aung, the federation’s vice-chairman. He said he expects the process to take “a few months.”

“We want to make sure [of] their salaries and agency fees… and [define] the responsibilities on both sides for worker protection,” he said. “After we’ve reached an agreement, we will submit a draft to our [respective] ministries of labour. If it is approved, we can begin.”

The MOEAF is pushing for a minimum salary of S$450 per month (US$357) for Burmese domestic workers in the city-state. Those in Hong Kong would earn more, with salaries starting at HK$4,010 (US$515).

In most of the world’s developed, high-wage economies, full-time, live-in help is seen as a luxury only the wealthy can afford. But in Singapore and Hong Kong, having full-time domestic help is a mainstay of middle-class life. Salaries of domestic worker salaries in both cities – among the world’s wealthiest and most expensive – are appallingly low.

“The oversight from the MOU will not guarantee domestic workers international labour standards,” Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of HOME, a Singaporean non-governmental organisation dedicated to the protection of migrant workers, said in an email. “The MOU will not provide any rights or benefits to the domestic workers any more than what is already available in Singapore law. Singapore currently does not provide equal protection to domestic workers.”

In Hong Kong, domestic workers are exempt from regular minimum-wage laws, and they are not protected under Singapore’s Employment Act, the legislation that provides protections for most of the city-state’s labour force, including foreigners.

Until last year, Myanmar had no formal mechanism in place to licence, regulate or monitor employment agencies; the MOEAF – which is independent but works closely with the government – is itself just one year old.

“Migrants have been moving for several decades, but now the government is really trying to put a legal framework to protect [them],” said Jackie Pollock, a technical officer with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Yangon.

The ILO is currently working with various stakeholders to implement new standards under the Greater Mekong Subregion TRIANGLE project, a regional initiative involving the countries of mainland Southeast Asia as well as Malaysia. It seeks to modernise migrant-labour arrangements between states, and to develop monitoring and reporting mechanisms to address abuses.

While employment agencies in Myanmar are now required to register with the government, the ILO is also pushing agencies to voluntarily adopt a code of conduct that compels them to limit placement fees charged to workers themselves, provide adequate pre-departure training, and guarantee that foreign employers are living up to their contractual obligations.

The placement fees foreign domestic workers are forced to pay out of their wages – reminiscent of the feudal bonds outlawed in the West centuries ago – are perhaps the most blatant example of the exploitative nature of the migrant maid economy. The terms of the MOU between Myanmar and Singapore are expected to cap fees at four months’ salary.

Soe Myint Aung claims this constitutes an improvement. In the past, he says, “sometimes [agencies] would deduct seven or eight months’ salary.” But the new framework will still foist excessive debts on the workers, the most vulnerable players in the multibillion-dollar domestic worker industry. Under the new MOU, foreign domestic workers will still have to work for months without pay. It is not in the MOEAF’s interests to do away with these fees, because its member agencies profit handsomely from them.

The human cost of Southeast Asia’s maid industry is on full display at HOME’s 60-bed shelter for female migrants; roughly one third of its residents are domestic workers from Myanmar. “Some of the abuses encountered are egregious and have been identified as trafficking in persons,” Wham said. “We have assisted workers who have had to endure unpaid wages, sexual and physical assault, threats to them and their families, and recruitment debts of up to 8 months of their salary.”

But any sort of formalised labour arrangement, even if it has the blessing of both the Singapore and Myanmar governments, is unlikely to stop blatant instances of worker abuse, and may ultimately serve to institutionalise abusive practices.

“While the MOU may lay out the principles for worker protection, the challenge will always be in enforcement,” Wham said. “Unless this is accompanied by specific plans or actions to enforce these protections, the principles in the MoU will simply remain as that.”

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