Safety@home – We All Play a Part
04 June 2012
There were 9 work-related foreign domestic worker (FDW) deaths with 3 FDWs injured in the course of work so far this year. Over the weekend, one more FDW came dangerously close to losing her life, until she was saved by her neighbours. Most died cleaning the exteriors of windows in high rise apartments. They are not merely statistics. Each one matters, especially when the person is injured or loses his or her life in an accident which could have been prevented in the first place.What more can and must be done to prevent such unnecessary loss of lives?
After my previous blog post on the same issue, we received many suggestions. We also saw an active discussion on MOM’s Facebook as well as at a recent gathering of employers, concerned members of public, NGOs, employment agencies and FDW trainers. FDWs were also individually interviewed for their views.
Unsurprisingly, there were differing views on both ends of the spectrum. On one side, there were some who preferred a ban to prevent FDWs from cleaning windows, regardless of precautions taken, and thus prevent more mishaps. On the other side, many employers and other stakeholders felt this would be an over-reaction that would not address the root of the issue. There are safe ways to clean windows. According to a recent MOM door-to-door survey involving some 600 households, most households do clean their windows (including the exteriors) regularly. We included families without FDWs in the survey and found that they cleaned window exteriors themselves at least once a month. Banning window cleaning also won’t stop fatalities from hanging laundry. It really boils down to how aware we are of risks and how we practice safety at home.
Discussions with stakeholders also brought out another important issue: the importance of communication between employers and FDWs. Some FDWs may be used to a culture of not saying “No”, especially if they are new. This group could be afraid to say “No” to their employers or be eager to show they are a good domestic helper. For example, some FDWs may take a passing comment that ‘the windows are dirty’ to be an instruction to clean both window interiors and exteriors straightaway.
On the whole, while many stakeholders held differing opinions, there was overwhelming consensus on the need to “do more of the same thing more intensively” - educate, enforce and legislate – which MOM has already put in place. This helped to guide the decision-making process.
A Must - Supervised Cleaning of Window Exteriors, with locked window grilles as safeguard
The outcome: going forward, FDW employers shall not allow their FDWs to clean the exteriors of windows except where two conditions are met -
a. The employer or an adult representative of the employer is physically present to supervise the FDW; and
b. Window grilles have been installed and locked at all times during the cleaning process.
The new rules will apply to all homes, except for windows that are at the ground level or along common corridors.
Understandably, employers will have many questions. For instance, if my FDW has already been cleaning my window exteriors with no issue, why must the employer now be around to supervise her when she does so? Does this mean we care more about the lives of the FDWs rather than the Singaporean employers? Employers can find the answers to these questions and more at this link (sg.sg/M3HjFb).
So what does this move mean? We recognise that the cleaning of window exteriors from height is a risky household chore, whether for Singaporean employers or FDWs alike. A Singaporean did fall to her death earlier this year while cleaning windows. Anyone who performs household chores that may risk their lives from falls from height is strongly urged to follow the same safety requirements.
The fact remains that many FDWs do not come from high-rise environments and may not be used to the urban living environment here. Despite the training received during the Settling-In Programme, they may still not be wholly familiar with the risks inherent in a high-rise setting the way locals are. They may sometimes be complacent or careless, or blindly follow what they perceive to be the employer’s instructions. Thus, employers need to play a more active role to ensure their FDWs’ safety. They should be present, or at least ensure another adult member of the household is present, to ensure that safe working conditions are in place at all times while exterior window-cleaning is being carried out. Employers should take the trouble to communicate to FDWs what they can and cannot do, and take responsibility for the safety of their FDWs.
FDW employers will soon receive a circular explaining the stricter safety requirements. They will also receive a safety pamphlet reminding them of the safety Dos and Don’ts when performing household chores. We will also educate existing FDWs through our FDW newsletter INFORM and newly-arrived FDWs through the Settling-In Programme.
For added deterrence, we are reviewing the penalties for endangerment, from the current $5,000 fine and/or six months’ jail to a $10,000 fine and/or 12 months’ jail, as part of the ongoing review of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and its subsidiary legislation later this year. If you see any FDW working dangerously, do report to MOM by emailing us (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through the new free application SNAP@MOM (search for “SNAP@MOM” at iTunes Apps Store or Google Play).
These measures underscore the importance of safety at home when doing everyday household chores. This should never be taken for granted, whether it’s about cleaning windows or changing a lightbulb.
My final appeal is for FDW employers to ensure the safety of your FDW, as you would ensure yours or any of your family members. Let’s work together to keep our home safe, for everyone in the household, FDWs included.
Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin