Starved into Submission

Editor’s note: After the story was published, the Ministry of Manpower wrote to us that the cases in this article were being investigated. They also informed us that they would investigate complaints from FDWs about inadequate food.

You’re probably sitting down to read this article. At your desk or on the sofa. Somewhere comfortable. For domestic worker Amina, sitting down is now painful. She is so thin that it hurts her pelvis. She weighs a mere 29kgs, 20kg less than when she started work in Singapore. After Amina finally found the courage to run away from her employer, she was hospitalized for 3 days due to severe malnutrition. Amina is now recovering and has started gaining weight.

Amina’s case may sound extreme, but in the last year HOME has seen more cases of domestic workers suffering health problems caused by poor nutrition. In another case seen by HOME, domestic worker Shanti lost 7 kgs in 6 weeks because she was given only one small bowl of rice and one small bowl of vegetable curry per week. She prepared large meals of meat and vegetables for her employers, but was not allowed to touch their left-overs or even food they had thrown away. She was served her food on the floor. As she did not get a day off and received no salary as she was still paying off her agency fee, Shanti had no access to other food. She worked long days on an empty stomach.

0725 - nutrition pic 2

I took this photograph of my employer’s dinner one night.

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This is my food… it had to last me a whole week.

Government guidelines state that employers must provide ‘adequate food’ for their live-in domestic workers. But they do not define what amount, or type of food is adequate. The extent to which employers are taken to task for not providing adequate food is also not known. HOME has spoken to several domestic workers who were never given meat or vegetables, and had to live for long periods on just bread, rice or instant noodles. Many said they regularly went to bed hungry.

Failure to provide adequate food often coincides with abuse and denial of other basic living requirements. In Shanti’s case this included physical abuse by her employer. Amina was given limited access to washing facilities, was not allowed to brush her teeth and was allowed only two showers per week. To save money she was woken in the night to use the condominium showers rather than a bathroom in her employer’s apartment. Her employer, and sometimes even her employer’s husband, watched her shower, in order to make sure she did not use hot water.

Foreign domestic workers are legally required to live with their employers, which makes it hard to regulate their living circumstances. In cases where the employee works seven days a week, and has no opportunity to complement her diet elsewhere, she is left to the mercy of her employer.  Clearer guidelines and regulations on what comprises ‘adequate food’ for domestic workers would help to ensure that cases such as Amina’s and Shanti’s do not occur in future.

Names in this story have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy

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