MOM found that among full-time workers aged between 25 and 54, the unadjusted gender wage gap was 16.3 per cent in 2018. When the differences in age, education, occupation, industry and the number of hours worked are stripped away, Singapore’s gender wage gap stands at 6 per cent in 2018.
Workforce participation in Singapore steadily climbs and peaks for women in their late 20s. The figure then declines after women hit the age of 30, without rising in their late 30s and 40s as in other First World countries. Among other small countries at the same income level (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland), more than 85 per cent of women aged 45-49 are in the labour force, compared with only 75 per cent of women in Singapore.
There have been various suggestions to reduce the gender wage gap:
A study titled "Make Care Count” found that ageing population, coupled with persistent inequality between the genders, are a burden on women’s retirement finances in Singapore.
For example, on average, respondents whose work situation changed because of caregiving suffered a 63 per cent loss in income, or an average annual loss of S$56,877. The study also found that caregivers could spend an average of up to S$1,917 a month, or 64 per cent of their average monthly household income, on care-related expenses. Doing less paid work also meant smaller contributions to the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Respondents lost an average of S$7,705 a year in CPF contributions due to caregiving. “This has negative implications for the caregivers’ own retirement adequacy since Singaporeans are expected to rely on their CPF savings for retirement and healthcare needs,” the study said.
Recommendations by Aware included introducing the statutory right for employees to request flexible work arrangements. It also recommends six days of paid leave for the care of older relatives, on top of the six days of childcare leave available to those caring for children. Those caring for both children and aged parents should be eligible for 12 days of paid leave, the report said.
Aware also called for a new caregiver support grant, with both cash and CPF components for family caregivers. It noted that some respondents of its study felt strongly that they should be given an allowance to recognise their work, especially as they had to give up their jobs to do so.
Women primarily taking on the role of caregiver has implications for their career trajectory, future earnings, and retirement savings.
Organisations such as AWARE, the Singapore Alliance for Women in Ageing (SAWA), and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) have suggested policy proposals to encourage gender-neutral policies and compensation for women who have to forego working.
Housing is not just about a roof over your head. Unreliable housing seriously undermines a parent’s ability to stay employed, to protect their children from abuse, and to have the time and space to plan for their family’s future.
With changes introduced in 2020, HDB now accepts applications from all unwed parents for up to a 3-room flat, in addition to resale flats. This will certainly ameliorate the situation for those who can afford such flats.
However, Parliament had previously revealed that the median monthly employment income for unwed mothers below the age of 35 is S$600. Most, therefore, are likely to need subsidies, so their choice of housing will still be limited despite this change. HDB policy also does not allow unwed, single parents and their children to count as a “family nucleus”, without which, they are ineligible for flats and housing grants under the Families Grant scheme.
More broadly, although the changes now provide more options and have lowered the age of eligibility, single parents will still need to make these requests through HDB where their needs will be assessed, or through their MPs, rather than through the usual sales channels. Requests for rental housing also remains on a case-by-case basis.
Aware’s experience tells us that such an approach has historically failed to meet the housing needs of unwed mothers. National-level data shared in Parliament reveals that when it comes to rental housing applications from single unwed parents, rejections outnumber approvals. From 2014 to May 2019, MND has only approved 380 rental applications out of the 1,014 requests received. Similarly, from 2014 to 2016, only about 20 per cent of the 100 single, unwed mothers under 35 who appealed to buy a flat had their applications approved.
Policies such as the below will help ameliorate the housing situation for single parents:
For all our top rankings in the world, gender equality is not one of them. In a 2018 World Economic Forum Report that assessed countries' efforts to achieve gender equality, Singapore ranked 67 out of 149 countries. Under the specific sub-index of political empowerment, Singapore ranked 103 out of 149 countries.
Currently, about 23 per cent of our parliamentarians are women, and women make up only around 16 per cent of the Cabinet (3 out of 19).
The most recent figures released by the Council for Board Diversity in September also found that women make up just 15.7 per cent of board members in the top 100 primary-listed companies on the Singapore Exchange. The marginal increase of 0.5 percentage point in the first half of 2019 also raised doubt on whether the council's target of hitting 20 per cent, or about 171 directorships, by end-2020 could be achieved.
In 2019, governments around the world voted overwhelmingly for a new International Organisation (ILO) convention. This treaty recognises that employers must be responsible for ensuring that everyone, regardless of contractual status, enjoys working conditions that are free from violence and harassment. Disappointingly, Singapore was one of six governments — along with Russia, El Salvador, Malaysia, Paraguay and Kyrgyzstan — to abstain.
Last year, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) handled 192 cases of workplace harassment of women. These comprised sexual and non-sexual harassment. These cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Cases are likely under-reported to the authorities because employers’ obligations are poorly defined.
Violence or harassment may carry individual criminal liability, but that is beside the point. Not all workers wish to pursue legally punitive action. Many simply want their employers to step in and stop the harassment, and provide safe conditions. At present, employers are not obliged to do so.
A key recommendation would be mandating employers to have Workplace Sexual Harassment (WSH) policies instead of relying only on the civil suit regime. This has several key advantages:
Report by Aware finds that migrant wives are more vulnerable than Singaporean women to family violence, and face disadvantages in divorce, as they lack the independent right to reside in Singapore.
Women make up 70% of all migrant spouses in Singapore. Unless they have a work visa, these non-residents depend entirely on their citizen spouses for the right to reside in the country. The power imbalance that arises can lead to abuse and violence on the citizen spouses’ part. AWARE found that migrant spouses called the Helpline about family violence at twice the rate of local women (27.5% vs 13%).
Migrant wives meet additional obstacles in the areas of housing (e.g. ownership of public housing flats after the citizen spouse passes away) and divorce (e.g. contesting claims and obtaining custody). Migrant mothers who undergo divorce often face the painful prospect of separation from their children.
To provide greater protection, AWARE recommends that the government allow abused migrant spouses to renew their Long-Term Visit Passes independently of their citizen spouses.
In the face of the COVID-19 economic crisis, many migrant workers have expressed the largest source of their stress comes from worrying about whether they will be able to keep their jobs as migrant workers are usually the first to go during such challenging times. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong also said that the job security of migrant workers who return to work after quarantine will depend on their employers and the state of the economy. However, returning home in debt could have devastating consequences for them and their families, especially given current circumstances. Migrant workers should also not be treated as disposable goods having the least law protection under the law.
Currently, migrant workers are only allowed to work in the occupation and for the employer specified in the work permit card. This means that they face restrictions on changing jobs should they face job insecurity.
One sliver lining is that there are temporary measures set up by MOM to allow inter-sectoral transfers of Work Permit holders. They recognise the merits of hiring an existing worker: employers will benefit from experienced workers with a faster deployment time, as well as save on the cost of bringing in new workers. This is also crucial as Singapore's dependency on foreign manpower is as high as 80% with more than 50% of the demand coming from critical public sector infrastructure projects.
However, supply side bottlenecks remain, including reluctance of current employers to give consent for transfer, information asymmetry on available jobs in the market, and limited digital literacy and language barriers. According to TWC2, even if migrant workers find a vacancy, they typically have to pay thousands of dollars to recruiters within Singapore to secure the new job. Otherwise, an employer with a new project might be more keen to hire a fresh worker with no experience but willing to pay a greater amount in recruitment fees.
Not retaining existing migrant workers also makes it harder for Singapore to retain skills and experience, which affects our productivity.
A win-win solution would be for MOM suggested by HOME would be to allow workers in such circumstances to switch employers without having to obtain permission of their current employers, and facilitate job matching at a national level to ensure manpower is available where needed. TWC2 also suggests strongly incentivising re-hiring of migrant workers who are already here but face redundancy and repatriation while strongly dis-incentivising importation from abroad. This way, workers stand a good chance of getting a new job after losing one, thus boosting their career security. Singapore gains through better skills retention.
Since Singapore's circuit-breaker, HOME has seen a 25% increase in the number of calls to their helpline for domestic workers. This is due to several reasons, such as: increase in household and caregiving duties, additional verbal abuse, having to work on their rest days, restrictions in mobility to leave the house for essential errands, lesser access to their phones, faced delayed payment of salaries, or asked to take a pay cut as employers are facing financial difficulties.
According to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, MDWs should be given adequate rest and food, and acceptable accommodation. However, these are just guidelines that are not clearly defined. Based on HOME's experience, there are many domestic workers who work more than 12 hours a day, and the duration of a rest day is not defined as 24 hours. Domestic helpers also accept poor sleeping arrangements and end up paying for their own food due to lack of bargaining power with their employers and fear of losing their jobs.
In June 2011, the international labour organisation (ILO) adopted the convention on decent work for domestic workers. This treaty requires signatory countries to guarantee domestic workers the same rights as other workers on daily and weekly rest periods, working hours, overtime compensation, paid annual leave, as well as adequate protection against violence. More than 20 countries have ratified the treaty, but Singapore is not one of them. Despite having the second-highest domestic worker population in Asia, Singapore is lagging behind in conferring labour protections against them.
As a start, HOME recommends that Employment of Foreign Manpower Act should define the duration of a rest day as 24 hours for domestic helpers to properly rest and recuperate. This erases ambiguity on whether domestic workers are entitled to rest day compensation for work done. Furthermore, domestic workers should be covered under the Employment Act so that the basic rights such as statutory limits on working hours, public holidays, sick leave, and paid annual leave, can be extended to them.
The enhanced isolation of migrant workers have left many of them feeling depressed and anxious. For domestic helpers, many are stuck in their employers house with little recourse to leave; for migrant workers, they are being quarantined in their dormitories.
Beyond the stress of managing their workload and meeting the needs of their families back home, their anxieties have been heightened by the lack of rest, poor living conditions, and stress of losing their job. However, counselling and psychological services are not easily available for migrant workers to help them cope with such stresses. In a survey, 68% of migrant workers said they somewhat agreed/agreed/strongly agreed with the statement "I feel depressed."
Hence, HOME recommends we implement readily-available and free helplines and counselling centres that address the mental health needs of our migrant workers.
Typically, if a current employer of a domestic worker wishes to transfer her to a new employer, he/she would have to provide the new employer with a letter of consent for the new work permit application, and continue to pay for the helper's upkeep during the transition period if she has been returned to the agency.
Recently, MOM announced a new rule to make the transfer of domestic helpers easier: employment agencies will be able to help clients cancel their helper's work permit even if she does not have a new employer, in hopes that she can be transferred to other households. This means that the employment agency would be responsible to pay for the helper's upkeep and maintainance, and pay for the travel ticket to send her to an international airport to return home should she be unable to look for a new employer.
However, domestic helpers only have a 14-day window to find a new employer, or be repatriated home if unsuccessful. This new rule incentivises an employer to transfer a domestic helper instead of sending her home, which alleviates their financial responsibility of the upkeep and repatriation of domestic helpers if they no longer wish to employ them. There may also be instances where agents compel a domestic worker to take up employment she does not wish to, so that the employment agency does not continue to incur upkeep costs, bearing in mind that current travel restrictions around the region make it difficult for domestic workers to be repatriated.
Fundamentally, the fact remains that domestic workers do not have any authority over their employment status. Employers are able to dismiss and repatriate a domestic worker without giving any prior notice, or without her desire or regard to leave the employment. This deportability and labour immobility are fundamental factors influencing migrant domestic workers to stay in such highly exploitative situations, as well as not report instances of abuse and violation.
Hence, HOME recommends we should move towards establishing the right for domestic workers to switch employers freely, with clearly defined notice periods that employers and domestic workers are to abide by. As a start, domestic workers who have finished their contracts should be allowed to look for alternative employment without their employers’ consent. This will effectively help them to negotiate their salary commensurate with their experience and skill sets.
Currently, Singapore's migrant workers face multiple financial hurdles:
Excessive Recruitment Loans
According to HOME, migrant workers typically have to borrow huge sums of money at exorbitant interest rates to pay their recruitment agents - sometimes as high as $8,000 SGD. This is due to the many middleman between them and the job, and means that before they even begin the job proper, they already face increased debt burdens and long loan repayment periods. This is a significant factor in their compliance with degrading working and living conditions.
No Minimum Wage or Wage Protection
We recognise that the amount each migrant worker is paid differs for each company. Based on HOME's research, migrant workers in the construction and marine sectors can earn as little as $300-$400 a month, despite long working hours and travel time to get to work sites from the city fringes. Meanwhile, migrant workers who work as conservancy cleaners earn on average $500-$800 a month, and are not part of the Progressive Wage Model like Singaporean cleaners who are guaranteed a minimum wage of $1,200. This lack of a mandatory minimum wage for migrant workers mean that they are unprotected from vulnerable long term economic exploitation, as their wages remain low and do not take into account increased cost of living or inflation.
Withholding of salary, unlawful salary deductions, late payments and unfair dismissals
Migrant workers have also expressed untimely payment of salaries by employers, and may resort to borrowing from unlicensed or licensed moneylenders as a consequence. They face pressures to send money home to assist with family finances, or manage sudden emergencies regarding education, health, or reconstruction of their homes due to natural disasters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 53.5% of migrant workers in a survey strongly disagreed with the statement "I am confident that I will get my salary although I have not been working because of COVID19." Only 1% agreed with the statement.
While MOM has released an advisory on salary payments to employers regarding migrant worker salaries, employers are still able to terminate workers whose wages they are unable to pay. HOME has already seen numerous cases of workers who have been laid off overnight, losing their access to accommodation and food. This advisory also only applies to migrant workers living in dormitories, and do not apply to the majority of migrant workers who rent bed space on the open market.
As such, HOME recommends the following:
Moving towards a zero recruitment fee model, starting with better regulation of recruitment practices to prevent excessive recruitment fees
Conduct a review of all laws pertaining to the employment, wellbeing and living conditions of migrant workers and ensure that they comply with international standards
An accreditation system that allows migrant workers to be under the progressive wage model
Setting up of minimum wage for workers, to allow sense of financial security despite dehumanising working conditions
For this period of COVID-19, migrant workers' wages, like local workers’, can be government-subsidised to reduce the financial burden on employers, in turn helping them keep more workers employed and ensuring their welfare is taken care of.
HOME has found that many Singaporeans adopt the belief that it is acceptable to discriminate against migrant workers because it is a privilege for them to work in a first-world country like Singapore. A study by International Labor Organisation (ILO) and UN Women reported that 52% of survey respondents from the general population in Singapore thought hate crime had increased due to migration. This is reinforced by our environment as there are heightened police presence in areas where migrant workers congregate; barricades which prevent them from entering residential zones; and banning domestic workers from using facilities in condominiums.
Dr Matthew Mathews, head of the Institute of Policy Studies' Social Lab, also points out that migrant communities are largely segregated from the resident population in dormitories or construction sites. He says that "Singaporeans have, at various times, expressed their concern that they do not want to be living near the foreign worker population because they are seen as culturally very different and sometimes dangerous. This greatly reduces opportunities for interaction and the fostering of mutual trust and understanding." For example, in 2008, about 1,400 out of 7,000 residents signed a petition to object a workers' dormitory in Serangoon Gardens. In response, Foreign Minister (back then) George Yeo said that the Ministry of National Development would seriously consider how to create foreign worker communities that are sustainable and self-contained. Since then, more large purpose-built dorms have come up with facilities like cinemas, cricket fields, and vendors providing services like remittance and sale of phone cards nearby. This encourages workers to stay within these communities rather than congregate elsewhere. According to the same study by ILO, the lack of interaction could contribute to the negative views of migrant workers, and further drive a wedge between both groups.
Furthermore, the recent reporting of the COVID-19 situation in migrant worker dormitories reinforces these attitudes. In the article "Coronavirus: Figuring out what to watch," the Straits Times author mentions that the exact number of those being infected within the dorms "are not of critical importance in terms of policy decisions," which suggests that migrant workers are not individuals with equal worth as the rest of the population. Subsequently, local news coverage of the virus began separating our daily infection numbers into migrant workers living in dormitories and 'community cases'. By equating our success of tackling the virus with how many 'community cases' there are, we are inevitably dehumanising the migrant workers.
Overall, these attitudes are discriminatory and result in perpetrating the negative stereotype of migrant workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that migrant workers are very much indispensable to the functioning of our country. However, due to their lack of bargaining power (fear of deportability, long loan repayments, job insecurity, etc) it is impossible for them to advocate for their own well-being and speak up without fear of persecution. In a survey, 33.3% of migrant worker participants indicated that they "strongly agree" with the statement "I feel scared to bring up any issues I am experiencing."
For a start, HOME recommends we ensure workers can raise concerns freely without fear of punishment. Particularly, foster a climate of open communication which encourages workers to speak freely to their employers, dormitory operators and to the authorities, and which strengthens workers’ voices. In the long-term, a framework for worker-led, and worker-owned unions and groups that represent the needs of low-wage migrant workers should be legalised.