Sampoorna Narayanan, 36, is happy. She works five and a half days a week as a part-time home cleaner and lives with three friends in a flat not far from central Singapore. She gets to decide what to cook for her meals and is free to move around as she pleases. Narayanan’s current life is a far cry from how she lived before 2019 when she was a live-in domestic worker.
Previously, Narayanan was at the beck and call of her employers. While she had worked for four different households in the space of six years, the job demands always seemed the same. She would wake before sunrise to prepare breakfast for the family, then spend the whole day on household chores while also taking care of children or elderly household members.
“No freedom, every week only one time [I get to] go out,” said Narayanan, whose one day off, like most of her fellow helpers, was on Sunday.
What changed for Narayanan was that the government introduced a pilot scheme under which foreign workers specialising in domestic labour could work for companies instead of households.
Under this Household Services Scheme, which launched in 2017 but became permanent this month, women from India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Thailand are hired and housed by companies, which parcel out part-time cleaning duties to them.
For these women, who would otherwise become helpers living with their employers, the scheme means greater freedom, more regular hours and better pay. They also benefit from better labour protection. As employees under the Household Services Scheme, the women are covered by Singapore’s Employment Act, which details a maximum of 44 working hours a week, at least seven days of annual leave and a broad range of other protections.
Such benefits are denied to those working as live-in domestic helpers, who are instead covered by the skimpier Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, which does not specify leave or working hours.
The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act says women should have “adequate” rest, but leaves it up to employers to decide just how much sleep a day qualifies as “adequate”. The act’s only requirement for accommodation is that it must “adequately protect” the women from environmental elements such as sun, rain or strong winds, and be “sufficiently ventilated”.
Another perk for those under the Household Services Scheme, according to Singapore’s Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, is that women are shielded from the physical abuse helpers sometimes suffer at the hands of their employers.
Narayanan and many other workers like her say working under the new scheme is preferable to their lives as domestic helpers. “Lwin”, a former live-in domestic worker from Myanmar, said the change had boosted her bottom line.
“[Working as a] cleaner is better because it’s a part-time job, I can stay outside and get more salary,” she said.
After switching to the scheme she worked both as a part-time cleaner and later as an assistant in a nursing home, but is thinking of returning to cleaning to make more money.
As a live-in domestic helper she made $450 to $500 a month, while as a cleaner under the Household Services Scheme she makes about $1,300 (though a few hundred dollars of this would go towards her accommodation, which she did not need to pay for as a live-in helper). Narayanan’s finances are similar: she made $450 to $500 as a live-in domestic helper and now makes $1,150 (with $280 going to housing).
The popularity of the scheme is growing. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower said it had expanded from 15 companies in 2017 to 76 companies now. The companies provide cleaning services for more than 10,000 households. Under the pilot scheme, only cleaning services could be provided, but the companies can now also provide services such as grocery shopping, car-washing and pet-sitting.
However, at present, the companies cannot provide child and elderly care – services that many households ask foreign domestic workers to provide. Companies under the Household Services Scheme can also employ local cleaners.
Narayanan’s employer Clean Lab said it had hired 12 women from abroad and was looking to hire five more. Business had increased by 50 per cent last year, said Kelvin Chang, Clean Lab’s business development and human resources manager.
Still, migrant worker groups said schemes like this were unlikely to be able replace live-in help entirely, either in Singapore or Hong Kong.
As of June, there were 245,600 foreign domestic workers in Singapore, with almost one in five households employing a helper. Hong Kong has about 360,000 foreign domestic workers, representing one in seven households.
The migrant worker group Home said many live-in helpers were hired by households who required them to provide child and elderly care in addition to cleaning, often overwhelming them with tasks.
“Domestic workers have to double as babysitters, carers for children or the elderly, cooks, housekeepers, car cleaners, for some, even dog keepers. Given how employers have become accustomed to enjoying help on-call almost all day and night, in multiple roles for a very low fee, there is no way the Household Services Scheme can replace domestic workers,” said a Home spokesperson.
Eni Lestari, a live-in domestic worker in Hong Kong and the chairperson of International Migrants Alliance, who has advocated for those in her industry for close to two decades, said there was a similar situation in Hong Kong.
Hongkongers tended to work long hours and needed a live-in helper to take care of young children or elderly parents, Lestari said.
“Some families need part-time help but those are high-class families, or singles and couples with no children or elderly,” she said.
The Hong Kong government’s policy requiring all helpers to live with their employers has been challenged in court, with workers saying it has heightened their risk of being abused by demanding bosses.
But the government maintains that lifting the rule could have serious repercussions for Hong Kong’s economy and society, including potentially putting pressure on the already strained housing market.
Both Lestari and Home said that despite some positives there were flaws in the Household Services Scheme too.
Both said the workers would have paid high agent fees in their home countries to have landed their jobs.
The former live-in domestic worker from Myanmar said a similar thing: for her to return to being a part-time cleaner (and earn a salary of $1,250 before overtime) she would first have to pay her agent $1,800, a sum she said was “so much”.
“Lacking the right to switch employment, workers will still face an imbalance of power and unreasonable demands from their own employers,” Home said.
Lwin, who is using a pseudonym because of disputes with her employer, had worked as a part-time cleaner under the Household Services Scheme but was subject to demands she found unreasonable. These included being sent to clean a factory at the far Eastern end of Singapore everyday where bus services were limited, meaning she sometimes had to fork out for a taxi.
She also wasn’t paid for overtime. When she raised these issues with her employer, they terminated her employment and were going to fly her back to Myanmar when Home intervened.
Lestari said the women working under the Household Services Scheme were still “not free” and were under the thumb of employers and agencies. “It becomes a trap and you’ll have to stay on and stay on,” she said.
However, she agreed that the scheme did have a silver lining in that its workers came under the Employment Act. Lestari said her organisation had asked for similar legal safeguards for domestic workers in Hong Kong “many, many times”.
“The first solution is really not whether we are live-in helpers or employed by a company, it is that governments include us in the labour law – I think that’s the best protection everyone should have,” she said.
And this, for Lestari, should include the right to change jobs. “Who wants to be a domestic worker for the rest of their lives? But many countries don’t recognise that right. Once you become a domestic worker you can be one for 20 years, 30 years, but you can’t change to other professions even if you’re eligible and qualified.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.