After HK halt, maid agencies look to Singapore

Singapore is shaping up to become a major destination for domestic workers from Myanmar, with the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation preparing to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with its Singaporean counterparts in the coming weeks.

The deal, which could see up to 1000 maids head to Singapore each month, is being signed despite concerns about migrant rights in the city-state and after the Myanmar government ordered an indefinite halt on the sending of maids to Hong Kong, pending an assessment of working conditions there.

The federation’s vice chair, U Soe Myint Aung, said employment agents in Hong Kong have repeatedly requested that more maids be sent from Myanmar, but outstanding questions about the safety and well-being of migrant workers in the former British colony have prompted them to hold off for the time being.

Several overseas employment agents based in Yangon – all of whom asked not to be identified – said the reason for stopping the flow of maids to Hong Kong was the media attention surrounding a case of domestic abuse that occurred earlier this year, just as the first group of 92 workers from Myanmar arrived in the city in February.

At the time, Hong Kong was facing protests over the alleged torture of an Indonesian housekeeper by her employer.

The scandal made headlines across the globe. The employer was arrested, and the maid, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, was later named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.

The case meant the Myanmar group received an unusually high level of media attention – enough to prompt the government to halt the legal migration of domestic workers since then, despite there being no suggestion that Myanmar domestic workers have been subject to abuse in Hong Kong.

Federation chair U Min Hlaing said future agreements with Hong Kong were still possible, but neither the union government nor the federation had any plans to restart the process any time soon. “It’s not easy to predict what will happen. Whether Hong Kong will be a safe place to work is unclear,” he said.

In the case of Singapore, U Soe Myint Aung said the federation hoped the upcoming MOU with the Singaporean Association of Employment Agencies would greatly expand the number of Myanmar maids travelling to the city-state. Currently about 300 women travel to Singapore each month to work as domestic helpers under an existing MOU, but the federation hopes the new agreement will see that figure increase to 1000, while at the same time allow Myanmar workers to find jobs in hotels and other hospitality industries.

The gap between the Hong Kong and Singapore policies has led some labour and human rights groups to question the government’s larger labour strategy. Many of the problems the government claims to be concerned about in Hong Kong are also rampant in Singapore, where about 30,000 Myanmar women already work as domestic helpers.

“There is a lot more that needs to be done to uphold just basic labour standards for domestic workers” in Singapore, said Jolovan Wham, the executive director of the Singapore-based Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.

Mr Wham led a workshop in Yangon late last month with local civil society groups and some members of the federation to create a list of recommendations for the upcoming MOU. He said the current agreement between the two nations falls “well short” of international standards.

“We are seeing more abused [Myanmar] domestic workers coming to us for help,” he said.

He said the most common problems faced by these workers are debt bondage and physical abuse, although there are also complaints of sexual assault. Many human rights groups, including the United Nations, have released reports documenting similar abuse of maids across all nationalities in Singapore.

When asked about the reports of abuse and exploitation in Singapore, U Min Hlaing said none of these reports had reached his office and declined to comment further.

U Soe Myint Aung said human rights concerns will be addressed in the new MOU, and added that the Singaporean labour industry is well-equipped to handle any problems domestic workers might face.

However, migrants in Hong Kong are afforded a number of rights denied to them in Singapore, including the right to unionise, to take at least one day off per week and to quit whenever they desired.

When more than 170 immigrant Chinese bus drivers went on strike in Singapore in November 2013, the leaders of the strike were jailed and 29 workers deported. It was the first strike to take place in the city-state in 26 years.

Mr Wham said it is the responsibility of the Myanmar government to ensure the safety of their overseas workers because bigger receiving nations like Singapore have shown little political will to address the issue of migrant rights.

“As much as we are excited that Myanmar is opening up … there’s also the danger of more exploitation and more trafficking,” he said. “As the country opens up, there’s more opportunities for those who want to exploit to do so.”


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