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Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies

ISSN: 1556-2948 (Print) 1556-2956 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wimm20

The Workplace-Entitlements Knowledge of Filipino

and Indonesian Domestic Workers in Singapore

Stacey Yuen Xin Er & Anju Mary Paul

To cite this article: Stacey Yuen Xin Er & Anju Mary Paul (2019): The Workplace-Entitlements
Knowledge of Filipino and Indonesian Domestic Workers in Singapore, Journal of Immigrant &
Refugee Studies, DOI: 10.1080/15562948.2019.1571657

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/15562948.2019.1571657

Published online: 08 Mar 2019.

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The Workplace-Entitlements Knowledge of Filipino and

Indonesian Domestic Workers in Singapore
Stacey Yuen Xin Er and Anju Mary Paul
Division of Social Sciences, Yale-NUS College, Singapore, Singapore

Awareness of her workplace entitlements augments a migrant work- Labor rights; rights
er’s ability to assert her employment rights. Using an original survey awareness; migrant
instrument, we construct a composite index of workplace-entitle- domestic workers;
ment awareness among 98 Indonesian and Filipina migrant domestic Philippines; Indonesia
workers employed in Singapore, assessing their knowledge of their
rights to retain their personal documents, receive regular salary pay-
ments, and receive a weekly rest day. Multiple regression analysis
reveals that awareness levels remain low across both nationality
groups though Filipina domestic workers are significantly more
rights-aware than their Indonesian counterparts due to a variety of
information sources.

Most host countries grant migrant domestic workers (MDWs) limited labor rights and
require them to live in their employer’s residence (International Organisation for
Migration, 2010). The live-in requirement heightens MDWs’ vulnerabilities since abu-
sive or exploitative behavior by employers is more easily concealed when workers are
out of the public eye (International Labour Office, 2013, 2010; Demetriou, 2015). Often,
guestworker programs tie MDWs’ visas to their employment contract, such that MDWs’
legal migration status is revoked if their contract is terminated (Varia, 2005, 2007). This
situation creates disincentives for an MDW to report her employer’s abusive behavior
or attempt to negotiate for better employment conditions (Demetriou, 2015; Varia,
2007). While such structural disincentives prevent MDWs from asserting their labor
rights, less is known about whether MDWs are even aware of their workplace entitle-
ments. Since ignorance of one’s workplace entitlements restricts one’s capacity to claim
those rights (Green & Ayalon, 2015; Basok, Hall, & Rivas, 2014; McDonald et al., 2013),
assessing MDWs’ knowledge about their workplace entitlements can clarify an alterna-
tive set of reasons for the continued exploitation of MDWs.
The Philippines and Indonesia represent two major source countries for MDWs
within Asia and the Middle East (Hugo, 2012). Prior research suggests that, compared
with Indonesia, the Philippines provides a more robust education program for its
citizens who become overseas domestic workers (Setyawati, 2013). However, these
studies have compared the content and delivery of both countries’ training programs
rather than directly assessing the workplace-entitlement awareness levels of the MDWs

CONTACT Anju Mary Paul anju.paul@yale-nus.edu.sg Yale-NUS College, 10 College Avenue West, #01-101,
138609, Singapore, Singapore.
ß 2019 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

who go through these programs. Studies suggest that, compared to Indonesians, Filipino
MDWs are more familiar with legal conventions and rights discourses, spurred by a
longer history of migrant activism (Francisco-Menchavez, 2018; Paul & Neo, 2018;
Piper, 2004a, 2004b; Rother, 2017; Sim, 2009). This could translate to Filipino MDWs’
greater attentiveness and ability to comprehend information about workplace entitle-
ments regardless of predeparture training programs.
Several migrant-receiving states (including Singapore) engage in their own education
campaigns for temporary migrant workers employed within their borders. These universal
education programs may have a leveling effect, ensuring that migrant workers of different
nationalities are equally exposed to information regarding their workplace entitlements in
the host country. Thus, the first question to ask is, Are there nationality-based differences
in MDWs’ awareness of their workplace entitlements. The second question is, If there are
differences, what are the source(s) of this variation? Given earlier research documenting
Filipino MDWs’ greater rights consciousness in other contexts and the Philippines’s
stricter regulations on the delivery of predeparture programs for MDWs, we hypothesized
that Filipino MDWs in Singapore are more aware of their workplace entitlements com-
pared to their Indonesian counterparts even after controlling for differences in educational
attainment, duration of work experience, strength of social networks overseas, and other
demographic variables. We test this hypothesis using original survey data on the degree of
accurate information that 98 Filipino and Indonesian MDWs employed in Singapore had
about their workplace entitlements. Multiple regression analysis revealed that Filipino
MDWs are more aware than their Indonesian counterparts in Singapore, calling into ques-
tion the efficacy of Singapore’s current mandatory Settling-In Programme for rights educa-
tion. But this nationality-based difference cannot be primarily explained by the
Philippines’s more robust predeparture education program given that respondents over-
whelmingly did not attribute their knowledge to their home country training but attrib-
uted their rights awareness to other sources instead. Our findings highlight the
possibilities and challenges for rights education programs.
In the remainder of this article, we first discuss the theoretical literature on the sour-
ces of rights consciousness among workers and then provide background information
about the workplace protections available to MDWs in Singapore and the types of train-
ing on rights awareness provided by Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. From
there, we move on to explain our study design, the data collected, and the findings
from our regression analyses. We conclude by discussing the theoretical insights gained
about the varying sources of rights consciousness and how intentionally overlapping
information sources may be required for the sedimentation of workplace-entitlements
knowledge among marginalized workers.

Workplace-entitlements knowledge as rights consciousness

Any discussion of workplace-entitlements knowledge should be situated within the
broader literature on rights consciousness, “the dynamic process of constructing one’s
understanding of, and relationship to, the social world through the use of legal conven-
tions and discourses” (McCann, 1994, p. 7). Rights-conscious individuals are familiar
with legal norms and can actively deploy them to challenge parties who infringe upon

their rights (Piper, 2004; Wong, 2011). Thus, it is worth noting the factors affecting
rights consciousness.
Research suggests a link between membership in a political organization and rights
consciousness: Migrant workers’ participation in formal and informal modes of
organization (such as grassroots movements, unions, and support networks) activates
a migrant class consciousness and solidarity that critique neoliberalism and govern-
ments’ role in promoting it (Francisco-Menchavez, 2018; Liu, 2015). The resulting
networks promote dialogue that reshapes ideas about issues such as migrant rights,
women’s rights, and indigenous concerns and empowers migrant workers to engage
in activism individually and collectively (Francisco-Menchavez, 2018).
Filipino MDWs have a longer history of and greater exposure to political organizing
compared to Indonesian MDWs. High-profile controversies concerning Filipino
MDWs—Flor Contemplacion in 1995 and Mary Jane Veloso in 2015—ignited trans-
national activism and solidarity among the country’s migrant-worker community
(Battistella & Asis, 2011; Francisco-Menchavez, 2018; Guevarra, 2006). Both women
received death sentences under contentious circumstances while laboring as MDWs in
Singapore and Indonesia, respectively. Their plights generated wide media coverage and
public outrage and in Contemplacion’s case these culminated in significant policy shifts
toward greater migrant rights protection (Rodriguez, 2010). Notably, there has been no
obvious corollary inflexion point in the history of migrant-rights consciousness
in Indonesia. It was only relatively recently, in 2014, that news of abuse suffered by
Indonesian MDW Erwiana Sulistyaningsih at the hands of her Hong Kong employer
similarly sparked extensive media coverage and protests among the Indonesian MDW
community in Hong Kong (Rother, 2017).
Overseas Filipinas are also better equipped to organize for greater workplace
protections as they speak better English, enjoy higher educational-attainment levels, and
have possibly engaged in some form of political activism if they went to university in
the Philippines (Rother, 2017). In contrast, Indonesians primarily come from poor rural
areas, possess limited English skills, and lack familiarity with political organizing (AMC,
2007, pp. 22–23; Rother, 2017). These factors suggest that Filipino MDWs coming
to Singapore are advantaged when it comes to forming support networks that facilitate
discussions about their rights. In Singapore, where the state bears down on civil society,
these workers may still form informal networks facilitated by nongovernmental
organizations that conduct weekend classes, and they could learn about their rights
through these more informal channels (Kemp & Kfir, 2016; Koh, Wee, Goh, & Yeoh,
2017; Piper, 2006).
Indeed, migration scholars and activists familiar with Singapore agree that Filipino
MDWs are seen as more vocal and self-assured than their “docile” Indonesian counter-
parts, reflecting their greater rights consciousness (Piper, 2004; Sim, 2009, p. 59).
Rights-conscious individuals may be more attentive to and capable of grasping issues
related to workplace entitlements. Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether MDWs’
familiarity with broad legal conventions translates to accurate knowledge of workplace
entitlements in their specific host countries. It is therefore pertinent to study on-the-
ground processes that directly contribute to the formation of workplace-entitlements
knowledge among MDWs. The next section investigates how variations in the quality of

the Philippines and Indonesia’s compulsory predeparture education programs and other
demographic factors relating to workers and their employers could influence MDWs’
workplace-entitlements knowledge in Singapore.

Migrant domestic workers in Singapore
Singapore is a major importer of MDWs from both Indonesia and the Philippines
(Kaur, 2010; Paul, 2017). As of June 2018, 250,000 MDWs were employed in Singapore.
The majority of these women originate from Indonesia, the Philippines, and more
recently Myanmar, with smaller numbers coming from India, Bangladesh, and Sri
Lanka (Paul, 2017). In Singapore, MDWs are covered by the Employment of Foreign
Manpower (Work Passes) Act of 2012 (EFMA), which requires employers to provide
their MDWs with sufficient food, rest, medical treatment, lodging, and medical
insurance coverage of at least S$15,000 per annum.
Crucially, domestic workers are excluded from the Employment Act, which legislates
weekly rest days and paid sick leave for employees, and limits salary deductions and
weekly working hours (Varia, 2005). The state also imposes a S$5,000 security bond on
MDW employers, which employers may forfeit if their MDW runs away. The threat of
forfeiting the security bond encourages employers to restrict their MDWs’ movements
(Devasahayam, 2010; Varia, 2005).
In 2012, in the face of mounting pressure from civil society, the Singapore government
implemented a mandatory weekly rest day for MDWs. Despite this new rest day
regulation, a survey revealed that only 41% of MDWs in Singapore enjoy a weekly rest
day in practice (Ng, 2015). This inconsistency partly arises from the loophole that allows
workers to receive compensation in lieu of their weekly rest day, such that the number of
rest days actually taken by MDWs depends on a series of complex and unequal negotia-
tions between the MDW, her placement agency, and her employer (Schumann, 2017).
From May 2012, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also implemented a com-
pulsory Settling-In Programme that seeks to equip them with basic knowledge about living
and working safely in Singapore. During the program, MDWs are also given a handbook,
“A Guide for Foreign Domestic Workers,” containing information about their protections,
duties, and the MOM helpline number for MDWs. This handbook is available in English,
Bahasa, Tagalog, and Burmese versions. Despite these positive measures, the Settling-In
Programme lasts only a day and focuses primarily on explaining physical safety measures
such as how to hang laundry outside a window and how to clean windows in a high-rise
apartment. The workplace-entitlements information conveyed through the program lacks
crucial details such as how to calculate the compensation in lieu of a rest day, though this
information is detailed in the handbook MDWs are provided. Again, a local NGO leader
reported to the first author that some MDWs have had this booklet immediately confis-
cated by their placement agencies upon returning from MOM’s Settling-In Programme.
The MOM also sends out a biannual newsletter called “Inform” via mail to MDWs,
and this newsletter provides employment advice and features stories of MDWs currently
employed in Singapore. The newsletter is a useful source of information for important
updates on MDWs’ workplace protections. For example, the April 2013 issue contained

a section explaining the conditions of the rest day law. Again, it is not clear if
all MDWs receive this newsletter since it is mailed to the employer’s residence. In
a context where employers and recruitment agencies can obstruct MDWs from gaining
information about their workplace entitlements, it is critical to assess MDWs’ prevailing
levels of knowledge about their labor protections under Singapore law.

Migrant domestic workers from the Philippines

The Philippines deployed about 183,000 MDWs in 2014, while Indonesia deployed over
210,000 in 2012 (BNP2TKI, 2015; POEA, 2014). Together, the two countries account
for the vast majority of MDWs currently employed in Singapore (TWC2, 2011). The
execution of Flor Contemplacion in 1991 marked a watershed moment in the develop-
ment of rights and protection policies for MDWs in the Philippines. Contemplacion
was a Filipino MDW sentenced to death by the Singapore Court for a double murder
in Singapore amidst controversial circumstances. She was hanged despite then
Philippine president Fidel Ramos’s appeal for clemency to the Singapore government
(Guevarra, 2006). Protests surrounding Contemplacion’s death triggered the adoption
of the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Act of 1995 (also known as the
Republic Act 8042), which aimed to bolster the protection of overseas Filipino workers
(Battistella & Asis, 2011). In 2006, the Household Service Worker (HSW) Reform
Package was issued in response to “chronic cases of abuse and exploitation” of MDWs
(Battistella & Asis, 2011, p. 9). The Reform Package comprises several policies to bolster
the welfare and protection of MDWs, including increasing the minimum deployment
age to 23 years, waiving placement fees, and raising the minimum monthly salary from
US$200 to US$400 (Battistella & Asis, 2011). A 2010 amendment requires mandatory
insurance for MDWs and seeks to enhance ties with host countries to promote the
protection of Filipino MDWs.
Predeparture training for MDWs in the Philippines consists of the mandatory
Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar (PDOS). This is a one-day seminar lasting six hours
that was first implemented in 1983 to provide departing domestic workers with
information on “working and living overseas, the culture, laws and regulations of the
host country, and programs and services for migrant workers” (Battistella & Asis, 2013,
p. 90; Ali, 2005, p. 106). The PDOS has a standardized syllabus determined by the
government that produces and disseminates audiovisual materials, general references,
and country-specific handouts aligned with the standardized curriculum. The PDOS
is currently conducted by various government branches and 260 accredited recruitment
agencies and NGOs throughout the country.
PDOS trainers are required to undergo training to obtain accreditation and comply
with the national curriculum (Ali, 2005). The PDOS educates MDWs on important
rights-related information, actions to take in case of contract violations, and possible
challenges during employment. It includes health and safety tips and briefs MDWs on
government services they can access abroad. In 2009, the Comprehensive Pre-Departure
Education Programme (CPDEP), focusing on language and culture familiarization, was
implemented to improve the PDOS (Battistella & Asis, 2013). The CPDEP is mandatory

for MDWs and includes “country-specific culture and language” and stress-management
training (Battistella & Asis, 2011, p. 20; Orbeta, 2012, p. 2).

Migrant domestic workers from Indonesia

It was only in the late 1990s that Indonesia began to direct its labor emigration policies
toward greater worker protection. Even so, progress has been slow. In 2004, the
Indonesian Parliament passed Law No. 39/2004, which comprehensively regulates
migrant worker protection. This legislation established a national agency: the National
Authority for the Placement and Protection of Overseas Indonesian Workers, known as
BNP2TKI. The agency oversees the placement of all Indonesian migrant workers from the
pre-departure phase to their time of return (Setyawati, 2013). Together with Indonesia’s
Ministry of Manpower, the BNP2TKI also conducts monitoring visits to agencies to
“review agency documentation, verify staff certifications, and ensure compliance with acts
and laws” (Morgan & Nolan, 2011, p. 11). However, Indonesia’s law fails to clearly delin-
eate the duties and responsibilities of the relevant government agencies. Existing legal litera-
ture “lack[s] clarity about the division of jurisdiction” among state actors (IOM, 2010, p.
15). There is also a “lack of transparency in the general performance of the bureaucracy”
(IOM, 2010, p. 15). These legal and institutional shortcomings have had negative repercus-
sions on the ability of the government to secure migrants’ welfare.
Indonesia requires all documented MDWs to complete the mandatory Final Pre-
Departure Briefing (known as PAP) before departure (Asis & Agunias, 2012). The law
requires all prospective MDWs to register with a private recruitment agency, which is
responsible for all legal documentation and placement procedures and for delivering the
PAP briefing (Killias, 2009). Recruitment agencies are expected to follow a PAP curricu-
lum, which includes general topics such as the laws and customs of host countries,
workers’ employment conditions and entitlements, and how to obtain assistance while
abroad. But there is no training plan, and recruitment agencies exercise a high degree
of autonomy in planning and implementing their own programs (IOM, 2010).
Recruitment agencies have little incentive to provide comprehensive predeparture train-
ing, especially if these services increase their operational costs. Given the lack of com-
prehensiveness in the curriculum list and the Indonesian government’s weak regulation
of PAP’s implementation, it is unsurprising that the program has been inconsistent in
both quality and content (IOM, 2010). Although Indonesian law requires the PAP to be
delivered over a period of 20 hours or two days, a 2007 survey revealed that the PAP
was often covered in less than eight hours, with a significant proportion of Indonesian
migrant workers not receiving the briefing at all (IOM, 2010; Setyawati, 2013).

Comparing Indonesia and the Philippines

In instituting a standardized syllabus and restricting the PDOS’s delivery to government
agencies and accredited private bodies, the Philippine government has taken practical
measures to control the quality of the program (Asis & Agunias, 2012). The PDOS also
includes country-specific material that educates MDWs on legal and cultural aspects of
their host countries, which may raise workers’ eventual awareness of their workplace

entitlements abroad. A PDOS video educates Singapore-bound MDWs about their

entitlement to rest days (OWWA, 2015). Nonetheless, these materials primarily focus
on regulating workers’ behavior and do not always raise MDWs’ full suite of workplace
entitlements in the destination country. A brochure includes a list of “Don’ts” that
detail the penalties associated with offenses like drug trafficking, smoking indoors, litter-
ing, and spitting in Singapore, but little is mentioned about workplace protections. As
of April 2017, the Singapore-focused PDOS video also includes inaccurate information
about MDWs’ labor entitlements, stating that MDWs are entitled to maternity leave
under the Employment Ordinance, which is true of MDWs in Hong Kong but
not Singapore.
The primary weakness of Indonesia’s predeparture education program is the high vari-
ance in the quality and consistency of the PAP (IOM, 2010). It is also unclear whether
the PAP includes host-country-specific education. The extent to which either country’s
program actually educates MDWs about their workplace entitlements in specific host
countries remains unclear. The PDOS’s inclusion of country-specific information on laws
and culture is a good first step but can be improved, given its incompleteness and even
misrepresentation of MDWs’ entitlements in Singapore. Nonetheless, in articulating a
nationally standardized syllabus, the Philippines’s education program is likely to be more
robust than Indonesia’s. We therefore posit that Filipino MDWs in Singapore will demon-
strate greater rights awareness than their Indonesian counterparts.

Other factors influencing knowledge of workplace-entitlements

Writing in the context of Indonesia, migration scholar Bassina Farbenblum (2013)
argues that a dearth of formal education hinders workers’ ability to read and understand
documents. Furthermore, English-language limitations might create greater hindrances
for Indonesian MDWs to understand and claim their workplace entitlements. Many
migrant care workers labor under contracts they do not understand because they are
drafted in unfamiliar languages (Green & Ayalon, 2018; UN Women, 2017).
Indonesians tend to be less familiar with English than Filipinos, and this difference is
more pronounced in new MDWs (Kaur, 2010; Rother, 2017). Commonly, employment
agencies in Singapore facilitate the signing of employment agreements based on an
English-language standard template, which details some workplace entitlements of the
worker and normative expectations of her employer (Singapore National Committee for
the United Nations Development Fund for Women et al., 2011). Although the standard
template states that a translated copy should be provided to the MDW, it is unclear
whether translation usually happens in practice since drafting and translating MDW
contracts is not a legal requirement (MOM 2018).1
Prior overseas work experience might correlate with greater rights knowledge.
Through exposure to formal organizing in destinations such as Hong Kong, some
MDWs have gained familiarity with legal conventions and discourses, with some subse-
quently becoming migrant-rights activists in their home countries (Francisco-
Menchavez, 2018; Rother, 2017). Plausibly, these individuals may be more attentive to
and capable of grasping workplace-entitlements-related issues in their future countries

of employment. At the same time, prior overseas work may encourage MDWs to
assume that the same legal rules in their first destination apply to their new destination.
Within the context of Chinese internal migration, governmental efforts that encour-
age migrant workers to seek redress through arbitration committees and the courts also
appear to strengthen workers’ awareness of their rights and their legal consciousness
(Chen, 2010). In this regard, concrete efforts by the Singaporean government to educate
all newly arrived MDWs about their workplace protections should help.
Length of employment is also likely to increase MDWs’ knowledge of workplace enti-
tlements. Paul and Neo (2018) found that each additional year spent working in Hong
Kong exerted a positive, statistically significant impact on MDWs’ awareness of preg-
nancy-protection laws. Education level and premigration status were also found to have
a highly significant positive effect on Chinese internal migrants’ awareness across mul-
tiple areas of rights, while age exerted a significant negative effect on awareness
(Wong, 2011).
Expert interviews with local migrant-rights activists were employed to uncover add-
itional factors. One activist observed that suppression of rights-related information
appears more prevalent among lower-income employers who may fear that rights-aware
MDWs might become more assertive about their rights and “cause trouble,” thus, cost-
ing the employer the S$5,000 security bond (see also Tan, 2010). Lower-income employ-
ers may be unwilling to tolerate this risk and therefore impose restrictions on their
MDWs’ freedom of movement and access to rights-related information, thereby, limit-
ing their workplace-entitlements knowledge.
In general, however, the factors influencing the workplace-entitlement awareness of
MDWs, and migrants more broadly, are not well understood. This study therefore aims
to fill this gap, serving as a first step in quantifying the information-awareness levels of
different nationality groups of MDWs in Singapore and identifying the various sources
that could positively impact MDWs’ knowledge of their workplace entitlements.

Data and method

This study involved an original survey of MDWs’ workplace-entitlement awareness,
with supporting expert interviews with local migrant-rights NGOs, employment-agency
founders, and a lawyer who works on migrant-rights issues in Singapore. The survey
instrument was designed to ask MDWs a series of eight questions about various work-
place protections they are entitled to in Singapore. From these questions, a composite
workplace-entitlement awareness index was constructed. Awareness of workplace enti-
tlements was operationalized as accurate knowledge about the protections a MDW is
entitled to within Singapore. The survey instrument aimed at assessing respondents’
actual knowledge of their workplace entitlements (as opposed to self-reported familiar-
ity) and also contained questions on their demographics, current employment situation,
and the sources of their entitlement-related information. Entitlement questions were
based on MOM’s “A Guide for Foreign Domestic Workers,” an illustrated booklet given
to all newly arrived MDWs that includes a segment detailing employers’ legal obliga-
tions to MDWs. Four broad categories of workplace entitlements were identified: reten-
tion of personal documents, salary payment, rest days, and accommodation/welfare. The

survey questions covered the first three categories because they could be linked to a
selection of statements that could be quantified and framed as survey questions. The
fourth category—accommodation/welfare—was left out because of the vagueness in the
official language used to describe this entitlement. For example, distilling the right to
“sufficient sleep at night and sufficient breaks during daytime” into a survey question is
problematic due to the ambiguity surrounding the terms “sufficient” and “breaks” in
Singapore’s regulations (see also Poh, 2017). Therefore, this entitlement was not
included in the survey. In contrast, workplace entitlements like “a weekly rest day” and
“compensation in-lieu” refer to tangible employment-related protections that can be dir-
ectly quantified and so were included in the survey.
The questions took two forms: direct questions and hypothetical scenarios.
Hypothetical questions introduced the respondent to a particular scenario and asked the
respondent to make a judgment about what she is legally entitled to do under that situ-
ation. Respondents were told to answer according to the MOM’s guidelines and not
what they personally thought was right or fair. With the exception of one free-response
question, all questions were multiple choice. Of these, five questions had only one cor-
rect option, while the remaining two had two correct options. For the questions with
two right answers, respondents were asked to select all the options they thought were
correct. A respondent’s awareness score was calculated based on a simple summation of
her number of correct answers.
For the right to retain one’s personal documents, we asked, “According to
Singaporean law, is it okay for your employer to keep your passport?” Several options
were given to the respondent: “Don’t know,” “Yes, always,” “Only if I agree to it,” “No,
never,” and “Singaporean law does not say anything about this.” The correct answer is
“Only if I agree to it.” For salary payments, one of the two questions asked was
“According to Singaporean law, how often should your employer pay you your salary?
Choose all the options you think are correct.” The options given were “Don’t know,”
“Once in 2 weeks,” “Once a month,” “Once in 2 months,” and “Once in 3 months.”
There were two correct answers for this question (“Once in 2 weeks” and “Once a
month”) and each correct answer garnered the respondent one point. Regarding rest
days, one of the four questions was “According to Singaporean law, how many off-days
should you get every month?” with the options given including one to four days and a
final option of “Singaporean law does not say anything about this.” The correct answer
was four days. (The full survey instrument is available from the authors upon request.)
Recruitment of MDW survey respondents was conducted in public spaces frequented
by MDWs on weekends from July 2016 to January 2017. A team of six trained univer-
sity students administered the survey. All surveyors were briefed on the purpose of
the survey and trained how to ask the survey questions and record respondents’
answers. A total of eight distinct locations were covered including the areas outside
some popular train stations and shopping centers, public parks, and a private skills-
training school for Indonesian MDWs employed in Singapore.
Only Filipino and Indonesian MDWs currently employed in Singapore and over the
age of 21 were eligible to participate in the survey. Surveyors introduced themselves as
students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and explained that they were
involved in a project to survey MDWs about whether they knew their legal protections

in Singapore. Potential respondents were told that the survey would take about
20 minutes. A participant information sheet in English was provided to each participant.
Participants were assured that the surveys would be anonymous and that they were not
obliged to answer any question they did not wish to answer. An oral consent script was
followed to ensure consistency across all six surveyors. All survey questions and answer-
options had been translated into Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog to aid the comprehen-
sion of participants with limited English language skills. Still, there was wide variation
in the total time respondents took to complete the survey, ranging from 11 to
49 minutes, corresponding to disparities in respondents’ familiarity with English and
their eagerness to share their experiences. The average response time was 22 minutes. At
the end of the survey, each respondent was given a one-page handout (in Bahasa
Indonesia or Tagalog) explaining the protections they were legally entitled to in
Singapore and a ball-point pen as a token of appreciation. One hundred responses were
collected, but the final sample size used for the analysis was 98, with 47 Indonesians
and 51 Filipinos. Two respondents were dropped as they had provided responses about
their mobile phone access and the number of their Singapore-based relatives (two inde-
pendent variables used in our regression) that were unsuitable for the purposes of statis-
tical analysis.2

Independent and dependent variables

The dependent variable Awareness of workplace entitlements was operationalized as the
total count of correct answers that respondents provided for all eight questions in the
survey, with respondents earning one point for each correct response. The minimum
and maximum possible scores were 0 and 10, respectively. To introduce greater nuance
into our assessment of respondents’ levels of workplace-entitlement awareness, respond-
ents’ scores across each of the three subcategories of workplace entitlements—retention
of personal documents, payment of salary, and rest days—were compiled. No points
were deducted for incorrect answers.
Respondents’ nationality was the primary independent variable. Given the existing lit-
erature on greater rights consciousness among Filipinos and greater consistency in the
implementation of predeparture education programs in the Philippines, we expected to
find Filipino MDWs to be better informed than their Indonesian counterparts about
their workplace entitlements, after controlling for other demographic variables. We also
expected that respondents who had more general education would possess a higher level
of literacy and be better able to understand and remember information about legal pro-
tections. We controlled for the length of time respondents had been employed in
Singapore, since a longer period of employment in Singapore would increase the likeli-
hood of exposure to Singapore-based sources of information about workplace entitle-
ments. We controlled for whether respondents had previously worked as MDWs in
other overseas countries in case knowledge of the legal norms and provisions of other
host countries may have influenced an MDW’s understanding of her workplace entitle-
ments in Singapore (though we did not hypothesize the direction of this effect). We
controlled for employer’s income by using their housing type (public housing ¼ 0, pri-
vately-owned housing ¼ 1) as a proxy. Lastly, given that social networks serve as a

source of labor rights information, we also controlled for the number of close friends
and relatives respondents had in Singapore, their ease of access to a mobile phone, and
whether respondents were attending or had previously attended weekend classes
in Singapore.
Two different sets of multiple linear regressions were conducted. In the first, respond-
ents’ overall workplace-entitlement awareness index was regressed on nationality, control-
ling for other possible predictors. In the second, the three workplace-entitlement
awareness subindices were regressed on nationality and the same set of control variables.

There were distinct demographic differences between the Indonesian and Filipino
MDWs surveyed for this paper. Filipino MDWs experienced a significantly longer dur-
ation of schooling on average as compared to Indonesian MDWs (mean of 11.25 versus
9.62 years; see Table 1). Indonesians were significantly more likely than Filipinos to
have had prior employment experience as an MDW in an overseas country other than
Singapore. There were also significant differences between Filipinos and Indonesians in
the proportion of MDWs currently staying in public housing apartments versus pri-
vately owned condominiums and houses. The majority of Filipino MDWs surveyed
worked in private housing, while the majority of Indonesians worked in public housing.
These results reflect likely differences in the average income levels of employers of
Indonesian MDWs versus Filipino MDWs.
Indonesian MDWs were significantly more likely to be attending or to have attended
weekend classes, with 51% of Indonesian MDWs having attended classes as compared
with 26% of Filipinos. It is likely that this difference was driven by the fact that a num-
ber of surveys were conducted at a skills training school targeting MDWs and other
workers from Indonesia. On average, Indonesians reported having only 0.21 relatives in
Singapore whom they felt they were close to, while Filipinos reported having 2.1 such
relatives in Singapore, with closeness being defined by the workers’ willingness to share
their problems with these relatives.

Workplace-entitlements knowledge
Table 2 reveals that Filipino MDWs were significantly better informed than Indonesian
MDWs about their overall workplace entitlements. Filipinos scored an average of 5.15
points (SD ¼ 1.05) out of a maximum possible score of 10; Indonesians scored 4.42
points on average (SD ¼ 1.69). This difference is highly significant at the 1% level, how-
ever both nationality groups still only displayed “average” workplace-entitlement aware-
ness (averaging between 4 and 5 points out of a maximum of 10), raising questions
about the general efficacy of the training programs in both sending and receiv-
ing countries.
Filipino MDWs also showed significantly higher workplace-entitlement awareness in
the subindices for retention of personal documents and salary rights. For awareness of
their right to retain their personal documents, Filipinos scored 1.09 points on average
out of a maximum possible score of 2; Indonesians averaged 0.83 points. This difference

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for Total Sample and by Nationality

Total Sample Indonesians
Demographic Statistics Description Mean (SD) Percentage/Mean (SD)
Percentage/Mean (SD)
Age1 Respondent’s age in years
21–32 19% 26% 13%
33–39 55% 51% 58%
40þ 26% 23% 28%
Present employer’s house1 Present employer’s type
HDB flat (public housing) 37% 51% 25% of housing
Condominium (private) 37% 34% 40%
Landed property (private) 26% 15% 36%
Access to mobile phone1,3 Freedom granted by
Always 52% 55% 49% employer for respondent
Sometimes 45% 40% 49% to use her mobile phone
at home
Never 2% 4% –
Have not asked to use 1% – 2%
house phone
Years of formal schooling 10.49 (2.30) 9.62 (1.88) 11.25 (2.37) Number of years of
schooling completed
after kindergarten
Close friends 6.51 (14.11) 4.17 (5.21) 8.58 (18.60) Number of friends in
Singapore with whom
respondent is willing
to share her problems
Close relatives 1.20 (2.71) 0.21 (0.55) 2.10 (3.48) Number of “close rela-
tives” in Singapore
with whom respond-
ent is willing to share
her problems
Attended classes2 0.38 (0.49) 0.51 (0.51) 0.26 (0.45)
1 ¼ attended skills,
hobby, and/or language
classes in Singapore
Years in Singapore 8.25 (5.31) 8.30 (4.25) 8.21 (6.14) Number of years
employed as an MDW
in Singapore
Prior overseas 0.46 (0.05) 0.55 (0.07) 0.38 (0.07)
work experience 1 ¼ previously employed
as an MDW other than
in Singapore
N ¼ 100 N ¼ 47 N ¼ 53
Note. To identify significant differences in demographic statistics between Indonesians and Filipinos, t tests and chi-
squared tests were conducted for continuous and categorical variables, respectively.
p < 0.05.
p < 0.01.
Values are indicated as percentages.
This significant result is attributed to the fact that nine of the Indonesian respondents were recruited at a skills-training
school targeting Indonesian MDWs and workers. The difference between Indonesians and Filipinos is not significant
when these individuals are excluded.
All respondents surveyed indicated that they possessed mobile phones, but could not always access them during
the day.

is significant at the 5% level. For salary-rights awareness, Filipinos scored an average of

1.43 points out of a maximum possible score of 3, with Indonesians averaging 1.15
points. This difference is highly significant at the 1% level. Interestingly, Indonesian and
Filipino MDWs displayed relatively high and equal awareness of their rest-day rights.

Table 2. Scoring Index for Overall Rights Awareness and Specific Sets of Rights
Total sample Indonesians Filipinos
Area of rights Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD Maximum possible score
Overall 4.81 1.42 4.42 1.69 5.15 1.05 10
Document retention 0.97 0.59 0.83 0.67 1.09 0.49 2
Salary 1.3 0.54 1.15 0.55 1.43 0.50 3
Rest day 2.54 0.95 2.45 1.02 2.62 0.88 5
N ¼ 100 N ¼ 47 N ¼ 53
Note. T tests were conducted to identify significant differences in labor-rights-awareness scores between Indonesians
and Filipinos.
p < 0.05.
p < 0.01.

Table 3. Linear Multiple Regression on Overall Labor-Rights Awareness and Three Subcategories of
Labor-Rights Awareness
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Overall labor Document
rights awareness retention rights Salary rights Rest-day rights
Nationality (1 ¼ Filipino, 0 0.738 (0.369) 0.228 (0.151) 0.227 (0.140) 0.282 (0.261)
¼ Indonesian)
Years of formal schooling 0.137 (0.072) 0.063 (0.029) 0.029 (0.027) 0.045 (0.051)
Years in Singapore 0.038 (0.030) 0.017 (0.012) 0.006 (0.011) 0.016 (0.021)
Overseas work experience (1 0.251 (0.312) 0.007 (0.127) 0.066 (0.118) 0.178 (0.220)
¼ Yes, 0 ¼ No)
Employer’s current housing (1 0.066 (0.312) 0.168 (0.127) 0.136 (0.118) 0.034 (0.221)
¼ HDB, 0 ¼
Private housing)
Access to mobile phone1 (0
¼ Never)
Sometimes 1.07 (1.00) 0.857 (0.408) 0.548 (0.379) 0.334 (0.709)
Always 1.09 (1.01) 0.586 (0.411) 0.670 (0.381) 0.168 (0.713)
Number of close friends 0.002 (0.011) 0.000 (0.004) 0.004 (0.004) 0.003 (0.007)
in Singapore
Number of close relatives 0.061 (0.058) 0.027 (0.023) 0.025 (0.022) 0.009 (0.041)
in Singapore
Attended classes (1 ¼ Yes) 0.455 (0.335) 0.186 (0.136) 0.044 (0.127) 0.225 (0.237)
N ¼ 98 N ¼ 98 N ¼ 98 N ¼ 98
Note. Standard errors in parentheses.
p < 0.05.

Using standardized ratios for each category reveals that MDWs displayed the highest
awareness of their rest-day rights (standardized awareness score ratio ¼ 0.508), followed
by awareness of their document retention rights (0.481) and, finally, their salary
rights (0.433).
Table 3 presents the regression coefficients of overall labor rights awareness and the
three subindices. Model 1 shows that, on average, Filipino MDWs score 0.738 index
points, or 7.38 percentage points, higher than Indonesian MDWs on the overall aware-
ness index. None of the control variables proved significant in influencing overall
awareness of workplace entitlements.
Meanwhile, Models 2 to 4 display the coefficients from the regression of nationality
and other control variables on the subindices of personal document retention, salary,
and rest day rights, respectively. Model 2 reveals that the length of formal education sig-
nificantly and positively affects an MDW’s awareness of her document retention rights.

An additional year of formal education increases the document-retention-rights-aware-

ness score by 0.063 index points, on average, out of a maximum obtainable score of 2.
Despite its significance at the 5% level, this effect is small for each additional year of
education. Respondents who were allowed to call others on their mobile phones at any
time, compared with counterparts who were never allowed to use their mobile phones
when at home, displayed greater awareness of document-retention rights. On average,
the former score 0.586 index points higher than the latter in the document-retention-
rights-awareness index, out of a maximum obtainable score of 2. This effect is signifi-
cant at the 5% level. Models 3 and 4 reveal no significant effect of nationality or other
control variables on the awareness of salary and rest-day rights.

The MDWs surveyed possessed middling levels of workplace-entitlement awareness,
reflected by their average score of 4.81 points out of a maximum possible 10 points on
the overall awareness index. The middling rights-awareness levels among our respond-
ents highlights an immediate need to increase MDWs’ workplace-entitlements awareness
across Singapore. The existing Settling-In Programme in Singapore presents one key
avenue to directly address this issue, but its focus needs to be shifted to incorporate
more education on workplace protections and not just safety procedures.
The impact of multiple, overlapping information sources on awareness can be seen
from the overwhelming majority of respondents (90%) who scored correctly on the
question about the number of rest days they were entitled to each month. Compared to
other types of workplace entitlement, rest-day rights have been granted significantly
greater visibility in Singapore’s print and online media. Singapore civil society, in recent
years, actively campaigned for the introduction of mandatory weekly rest days for
MDWs (Schumann, 2017). The Singapore government incorporated information about
the new rest-day law in the 2014 issue of MOM’s Inform newsletter for MDWs. In the
standard employment contract to be signed by employers and MDWs, MOM also
requires local employment agencies to indicate the number of rest days granted to
workers per month and to stipulate the amount of compensation in lieu of rest days
not taken. Our findings suggest that all these interventions have significantly raised
awareness of rest-day rights among the Indonesian and Filipino workers.3 The same
cannot be said of MDWs’ other workplace rights, despite the various training programs
these workers go through, because the other rights are not given the same degree of
coverage by multiple overlapping sources.
The results yielded in this study thus support the initial hypothesis that Filipino
MDWs employed in Singapore tend to be more knowledgeable about their workplace
entitlements than their Indonesian counterparts even after controlling for their educa-
tional attainment level, the employer’s income level, length of time in Singapore, and
other variables. One direct explanation for these differences is the predeparture educa-
tion programs conducted by state and private agents in Indonesia and the Philippines.
It would appear that, on the whole, the Philippines’s PDOS is more effective than
Indonesia’s PAP at educating Singapore-bound MDWs concerning their labor rights in
Singapore. However, respondents overwhelmingly did not attribute their learning of

workplace entitlements to the predeparture programs in their home country. On aver-

age, respondents said predeparture programs had informed them of 0.296 (SD ¼ 0.887)
out of the eight entitlements-related questions asked.4 Likewise, nationality-based dif-
ferences in predeparture-program attribution remained small and statistically insignifi-
cant. Instead, respondents more frequently attributed their workplace-entitlements
knowledge to the newsletters they received from the MOM, their employment contract,
Facebook and other webpages maintained by MOM and their embassy, their friends,
and, interestingly, their own employer. These insights highlight the variety of sources in
the destination country that MDWs rely on to learn how to navigate their overseas
workplace and how these overlapping sources of information need to support each
other in spreading accurate information about workers’ rights.
Filipino respondents also reported a significantly larger number of relatives in
Singapore whom they felt close to, suggesting stronger social networks and a greater
familiarity with informal organizing. However, in Models 1, 3, and 4, none of the meas-
ures of Singapore-based social networks (mobile phone access, number of close friends
and relatives in Singapore, and a class attendance dummy variable) proved to be signifi-
cant predictors of overall labor-rights awareness. This finding is surprising, given that
two expert interviewees had separately pointed out the significance of networks in dis-
seminating entitlements-related information to MDWs. Still, the findings support, in a
limited way, these interviewees’ assertions. Mobile phone access is found to exert a sig-
nificant positive effect on a respondent’s awareness of document retention rights.
Education also plays a significant role in raising awareness of document-retention
rights. Why it does not do so for other areas of rights is puzzling. Nonetheless, its sig-
nificance as a predictor of this one area of workplace-entitlements knowledge should
not be overlooked. More attention should be paid by both sending and receiving coun-
tries to educate MDWs who may have had less formal education about their labor
rights in the host country. In this regard, we mirror Asis and Aguinas’s (2012) call for
customized predeparture orientation programs that are tailored to fit MDWs of varying
Awareness of workplace entitlements was not significantly correlated with employer’s
income but this might be an outcome of the choice of proxy (residence in public hous-
ing). Given that 80% of Singaporean resident households live in public housing, this cat-
egory contains employers with a wide range of incomes (Singapore Department of
Statistics, 2017). But only 37% of our sample indicated that they worked for employers
living in public housing, showing evidence of a nonrepresentative sample.
We faced considerable obstacles to obtaining a representative sample of respondents
as the Singapore government does not maintain a publicly available database of all for-
eign domestic workers currently employed in the country. That the surveys were con-
ducted in public spaces means our sample excludes MDWs who are not allowed to
leave their employers’ homes. While door-to-door sampling might have gotten around
that issue, it would have presented other difficulties: Abusive or exploitative employers
might have been unlikely to grant interviewers permission to conduct the survey with
their MDWs and, even had employers given permission, respondents might not have
been comfortable answering questions candidly with employers nearby. Green and
Ayalon’s (2015, 2018) approach of obtaining a random stratified sample of elderly

financial aid recipients from the National Insurance Institute of Israel and then recruit-
ing these recipients’ migrant careworkers indirectly via the care recipient or his or her
family members offers some ideas for getting a more representative respondent sample.
However, such a method would still be constrained by the problems associated with
door-to-door sampling (Green & Ayalon, 2018). Another limitation to this study is that
the survey instrument was not psychometrically evaluated.
Despite the practical obstacles to obtaining a representative sample, this study has
important merits. The survey’s multiple-choice question structure and straightforward
questions allowed for labor-rights awareness among MDWs in Singapore to be quanti-
fied in a direct and scalable way. Similar studies could be conducted with other
migrant-worker populations in Singapore and other MDW host countries to allow for
structured comparisons of the efficacy of overseas settling-in programs.

The key takeaway from our study is that even Filipino MDWs, who benefit from a better-
articulated curriculum and government-accredited predeparture orientation and higher
education levels and greater social network support in Singapore, tend to be somewhat ill-
informed about their workplace entitlements in Singapore. Our findings are in line with
those of Paul and Neo (2018), who report that the majority of Filipino and Indonesian
MDWs in Hong Kong are not well informed about their maternity protections under
Hong Kong law, even though in Hong Kong, as in Singapore, Filipinos tend to be more
rights aware than Indonesians. Without information about their workplace entitlements—
whether these protections concern their right to maternity leave, their right to retain their
personal documents, their right to a weekly rest day, or their right to regular salary pay-
ments—the likelihood that MDWs will report exploitation by their employers is negligible.
In other words, civil and state actors must continue innovating to increase MDWs’ aware-
ness of their labor rights abroad, considering alternative channels for the dissemination of
rights information. Our study indicates that targeted, multichannel rights-awareness cam-
paigns (such as the communications approach taken about the mandatory-rest-day law in
Singapore) that incorporate repeated communications from the host-country government
and civil-society actors, and reliance on overlapping sources of information, are the surest
way to increase MDWs’ accurate knowledge of their workplace entitlements overseas. The
90% awareness level of the mandatory-rest-day provision and the lack of statistically sig-
nificant differences between Indonesians and Filipinos in their answers to these questions
(despite their demographic differences and varying levels of predeparture training) indi-
cates that it is possible to reduce the knowledge disparities between migrant groups from
different backgrounds. This is the silver lining that state and civil-society actors must focus
on as they work to increase MDWs’ awareness of their workplace entitlements.

The authors are grateful to the various NGO experts and academics who provided advice during
the initial stages of the project. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at Yale-NUS College
and the authors are grateful to audience members for their feedback. The authors alone are
responsible for any errors.

1. In contrast, the MOM requires MDWs to sign a copy of a safety agreement in their native
language. The agreement includes specifics about safety conditions employers must fulfill
and guidelines about safe workplace practices. Employers and employment agencies are also
required to sign the agreement.
2. One respondent claimed that she had never asked to make calls on her mobile phone while
at home. She was dropped to avoid creating a separate category under the “Access to Mobile
Phone” variable with only one data point. Another respondent insisted she was unsure how many
close relatives she had in Singapore and so she was also dropped. Both these variables had been
included in the survey form because they were presumed to positively impact rights awareness.
3. At the same time, the fact that the majority of MDWs in Singapore continue to not enjoy
a weekly rest day indicates the limitations of rights awareness when migrant workers are
situated within a broader sociostructural environment that discourages them from asserting
their workplace entitlements (Paul & Neo, 2018; Schumann, 2017; Basok et al., 2014).
4. Still, the Philippines’ effort to entrust the PDOS to governmental bodies with trained-and-
accredited private agencies and NGOs is a prudent starting point to better safeguard
migrants’ welfare.

The fieldwork for this project was supported by a Summer Independent Research Project grant
to the first author from Yale-NUS College and the Alice and Peter Tan Endowment Fund.

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