Top labour officials in Singapore touted the city-state’s record of including migrant workers in unions at a recent conference, although the statements were contradicted by local non-governmental organisations who say foreign domestic workers, including those part of a Cambodian pilot program, remain “systematically” excluded from union activity.
During a speech at the International Forum on Tripartism on Monday, Minister of Manpower Lim Swee Say said that Singapore “looked out” for foreign workers because they could join unions, the Straits Times reported.
Meanwhile, Chan Chun Sing, secretary general of the National Trades Union Congress – Singapore’s sole union collective – noted positively that foreigners made up about 15 per cent of the NTUC.
But those statements do not apply to migrant domestic workers in Singapore, including the Cambodian women who began arriving in the country in 2013 as part of a 400-person pilot program, according to NGOs that work with them.
The Cambodian pilot program has struggled since its start, due to allegations of sexual abuse, forced overtime and debt bondage. Several maids have returned to Cambodia early.
Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Singapore-based Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, which has assisted seven Cambodian domestic workers so far, said in an email that union power was out of reach of migrant maids in the country.
“Migrant domestic workers are systematically excluded from forming or joining unions,” he wrote. “They have no representation and therefore no collective bargaining power at all.”
John Gee, spokesman for the Singapore-based Transient Workers Count Too, explained that while migrant domestic workers in Singapore could hypothetically join a union, the fact that they required explicit consent to do so from the government made it almost impossible.
“There’s no union options for domestic workers,” Gee said.
Gee added that bodies meant to process complaints from migrant workers, such as the NTUC-affiliated Migrant Workers Center, steered away from dealing with migrant domestics.
“The MWC has never had any programs for domestic workers, whom it seems to view as controversial territory,” he said.
William Conklin, head of the US-based Solidarity Center in Phnom Penh, said few countries in the region enabled domestic workers to organise, since they were not a natural political constituency, and were often “controlled by employers and not allowed to go out often”.
Despite the allegations of abuse, Ung Seang Rithy, director of the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies, told the Post in September that recruiters were still looking for Cambodian workers. Rithy said she was busy when contacted yesterday.
The Ministry of Manpower said it was was not able to comment in time for this story.