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Call for action as Singapore maids fall to their deaths

By Liz Neisloss, CNN
updated 9:51 PM EDT, Wed May 23, 2012
  • Ten domestic maids have died after falling from buildings in Singapore so far this year
  • Many had been carrying out dangerous tasks such as cleaning windows in high-rise buildings
  • Rights groups and Indonesia's government want more protection for workers
  • Singapore says it is "committed to safeguarding the well-being" of foreign domestic workers

Singapore (CNN) -- It's an annual tragedy in Singapore: domestic maids falling to their deaths from high rise apartments, often while carrying out duties such as cleaning outside windows.

This year's grim tally swiftly ticked up to nine, when an Indonesian worker died on Thursday and then in the early hours on Tuesday, a Burmese worker fell 13 floors to her death.

While the cause of those latest deaths is still under investigation, the other eight deaths occurred while the women were cleaning the outside of windows or reaching out to hang laundry from poles inserted outside the apartment window -- a common sight on the Singapore skyline.

One maid, identified only as Sunarti worked for a family in Singapore for less than three weeks before fleeing because she was asked to clean the outside windows of her employer's apartment daily. She had heard about the deaths but was afraid to anger her employer by saying no.

"I never worked before in a high building," she said. "When I cleaned the windows I just prayed nothing will happen."

So far the number of deaths this year has eclipsed last year's total of four fatalities, according to government figures. Singapore's Ministry of Manpower calculates that since 2000, 75 women have fallen to their deaths while working.

Workers rights groups and the Indonesian government have called for a ban on this kind of dangerous work.

Indonesians make up roughly half of Singapore's domestic workers and nearly all the women who've died this year were Indonesian citizens. The Indonesian government has already created new laws within contracts between employers and workers preventing such dangerous duties. But enforcement is ultimately up to the authorities in Singapore.

Singapore has so far resisted an outright ban. The government will instead offer more safety training and is weighing more penalties for employers -- currently a US$4,000 maximum fine and/or six months in jail for providing "unsafe" conditions. It is also calling for citizens to send in photos when they spot a violation.

I think Singaporeans seem to think that domestic workers are not workers as in other workers.
Bridget Tan, founder of HOME

The city-state's Ministry of Manpower says that between 2007 and 2011, nine employers were given the maximum fine and permanently barred from hiring domestic workers.

The recent spate of deaths has also drawn calls for more rights for workers from workers' rights activists. But comments to local newspapers and posts from netizens show that there is also a great deal of unease within Singapore about extending rights to domestics.

The number of domestic workers has risen rapidly in recent years in Singapore, as growing numbers of women join the workforce and its aging population requires care. The Singaporean government says compared to other countries, Singapore has a very high number of domestics -- roughly one in every five households in a country of around five million people.

Despite an array of employment regulations, the country provides few rights to its domestic workers relative to other categories of workers, including specific limits on working hours or overtime. According to the government guidelines for employers, those aspects of work would be "difficult to define and regulate in the same way as employees working in offices or factories." This is part of the problem, activists say.

"I think Singaporeans seem to think that domestic workers are not workers as in other workers, and that is the difficulty because they cannot see their home as a workplace," said Bridget Tan, founder of HOME, a domestic workers rights organization.

In response, a Ministry of Manpower spokesperson said Singapore is "committed to safeguarding the well-being" of its foreign domestic workers, and called its current legislation "comprehensive."

In 2011, Singapore mandated a day off for domestic workers starting in 2013. But many Singaporeans complain about the prospect of losing their helpers. One online posting on singaporemaid.blogspot read, "The fact is that many maids come to Singapore to enjoy life, not to work hard. Most of us must go out to work because of the high costs of living in Singapore."

Singapore's government may have a long road ahead to change attitudes.

In a recent poll conducted on Singapore's Channel NewsAsia network during a program on the mandatory day off, viewers overwhelmingly felt employers' concerns were being "overlooked." Nearly 80% agreed Singapore is "pandering too much to maids and NGOs."

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