More data could help prevent crimes involving maids

More data could help prevent crimes involving maids
As aspirations, opportunities and incomes rise in neighbouring countries, women applying to come here as domestic workers may be less educated and come from more remote rural regions, which may lead to adjustment problems.

A domestic worker was arrested recently on charges of setting her employer's Serangoon North Housing Board flat on fire.

Another was jailed for repeatedly hurting her employer's dementia-stricken octogenarian mother; a third was found guilty of pouring eucalyptus oil into the breast milk stored by her employer.

A fourth is believed to have jumped to her death from a Bedok condominium block after pleading with her employer not to be sent home and then hitting her with a hammer.

Two employers, meanwhile, were sentenced for viciously attacking their maids.

One stamped on the chest of her hapless victim, who was lying on the floor.

Another kicked, slapped and punched both maids she employed.

These human tragedies all hit the headlines in recent weeks.

They make sad but riveting reads, but there is not enough data to assess whether such cases are indeed on the rise.

Are more maids being involved in crimes? If so, are most of them victims? Or is there a growing trend of them being the perpetrators, too?

There are no clear answers. The police say they do not maintain such statistics and neither does the Ministry of Manpower.

The ministry says it received 2,159 complaints last year regarding "foreign domestic worker issues" and the number has remained stable in recent years.

But it does not "track the source of complaints" and there is no data on the number of maids who lodge complaints against employers, and the number of employers who are victims of crimes or misdemeanours committed by maids.

Cases are classified according to the type of complaint, with salary disputes, illegal deployment and unsafe work environment being the most common ones.

To be sure, 2,000 or so complaints are just a drop in the ocean given the number of foreign domestic workers here.

The majority of these complaints could not be substantiated, which is not surprising, given that most take place behind closed doors.

There are many reasons why more data would be useful.

For one thing, Singapore's dependence on foreign domestic workers continues to grow.

There were 218,300 such workers here last June, up from around 196,000 five years earlier.

Anecdotal evidence shows that both the type of foreign workers bound for Singapore and the nature of their jobs are changing fast.

These - and their potential links to serious crimes or complaints - should be tracked to better inform policies.

For instance, if a disproportionate number of complaints from employers involves new entrants from newer source countries such as Myanmar or Bangladesh, we may need to revisit the policy of recruiting from those countries - or, at the very least, train newcomers better.

Similarly, if there is a rise in complaints from maids about unfair dismissal, there may be a need to relook notice-period clauses in contracts.

Labour violations aside, serious crimes involving domestic workers, such as physical or sexual abuse, arson, suicides and murders should be tracked rigorously.

If employers are to be believed, the quality and competence of domestic workers here are falling.

A decade ago, it was not uncommon for female university graduates from the Philippines to seek employment here as domestic workers.

But opportunities have increased back home and graduates can now earn far more by working in the food and beverage or retail sectors.

They can even migrate to developed Western nations as caregivers for the aged, being guaranteed far better pay, rights and perks.

These days, women applying to come here as domestic workers may be less educated and come from more remote rural regions - which could lead to adjustment problems in high-tech, fast-paced Singapore.

The problem may worsen with the Philippines - Singapore's most established source country - deciding to impose a quota on its nationals coming here as domestic workers.

With dwindling numbers of workers from such "traditional source countries", the Government has been tapping new markets for maids, such as Myanmar and Bangladesh.

But this comes with its own own risks.

In the case where the maid from Myanmar was suspected of setting her employer's flat on fire last month, the employer acknowledged having communication problems with the woman who had worked with the family of nine for only 11 days.

Investigations are ongoing, but if, indeed, she did set the flat on fire, what caused her to snap? Was it her inability to communicate? Or the fact that she worked for a family of nine?

Given Singapore's rapidly ageing population, there is also an urgent need to track cases of abuse involving maids and the frail or sick older folk they have been tasked to take care of.

Eldercare professionals are already seeing more of such cases, given that it is very difficult for untrained caregivers to deal with people suffering from severe dementia, where patients may exhibit irrational, even violent behaviour.

In one case narrated to me by a homecare doctor, a maid tied an elderly dementia patient in a painful "crucifixion pose" because the old woman would often try to pull out her feeding tube.

She did not mean to hurt the patient, but just did not know how to handle her, the doctor said.

In another case, a stroke patient left alone in the care of her maid was found to be severely malnourished and with contusions on her body.

It is important to track such complaints and study whether there is a need to create a higher-paid category of "caregiver domestic workers" who are trained to handle such cases.

As aspirations, opportunities and incomes rise in neighbouring countries, it is unrealistic to assume that Singaporeans will continue to be served by efficient young women who are willing to work long, unstructured hours in a tough job with low pay.

More data could help prevent some crimes by better informing policy.

And the sooner we know, the better it is for the victims - and for Singapore.

This article was first published on Feb 15, 2015.
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