Singapore’s home help migrants face ‘hidden plight’ due to Covid-19 – dpa international


Women sending money back to the Philippines from a remittance counter inside Lucky Plaza, a mall popular with the Filipino expat community in Singapore (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — A lockdown imposed in Singapore to stall the spread of the new coronavirus has led to increased incidences of domestic helpers being overworked or abused, according to a group that operates a helpline for migrant workers.

The Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME) said on Friday that calls to the helpline had jumped by 25 per cent since the restrictions were introduced on April 7. Most businesses were closed, forcing Singaporeans to work from home.

In turn, some domestic workers – often young women from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines who cook and clean for the city-state’s well-to-do families – face “increased work hours as employers are home at almost all hours of the day, leading to an increase in household and caregiving duties,” HOME stated.

According to HOME, workers reported that employers had prevented them from going outdoors and denied access to mobile phones.

Other accounts suggest that employers facing financial or employment difficulties arising from the lockdown had withheld salaries.

Domestic helpers who have been laid off report being unable to return to their home countries due to travel restrictions.

HOME said that the pandemic and lockdown have “disproportionately affected” some of the wealthy city-state’s roughly 1.4 million foreign workers.

So-called “community cases” of Covid-19 – among Singaporeans and others living outsde the dormitories – have dropped to single figures in recent days.

After allowing hair salons and some shops to reopen on Tuesday, the government is hoping to ease more restrictions ahead of the lockdown’s June 1 scheduled end-date.

However a surge since April of cases among migrants is expected to continue.

Health Ministry data show some 26,891 people in Singapore as having been infected by Covid-19, the second-highest total in East Asia after China.

“The vast majority” of the 793 new cases reported on Friday, according to the Health Ministry, “are work permit holders residing in foreign worker dormitories.”

Almost 25,000 of the total infected are migrants – most of them young males from across Asia who emigrated to Singapore to work in sectors such as construction – but are now confined to dozens of crowded dormitories that have turned into disease breeding-grounds.

Many of the reported cases are asymptomatic or mild. Only 21 people have died in Singapore after contracting Covid-19, one of the world’s lowest death tolls.

The government has said it will test all 320,000 migrants living in the dorms and has promised to re-house them when the pandemic subsides.

And while Singapore’s foreign domestic workers have not faced the same direct exposure to the virus as their dormitory-based counterparts, their “plight is invisible in the private sphere of their employers’ households,” according to HOME.

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