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‘A disposable population’: Pregnant maids face choice between abortion, losing job in Singapore

*Names have been changed

SINGAPORE: When Vinny* discovered she was pregnant, her husband hoped it was a girl. She hoped it was not true.

Her first thought was, “should I take pills to take it out?”

As a migrant domestic worker in Singapore, being pregnant violated the conditions of her work permit, which would mean deportation and possibly a ban on working here again.

That would spell the end of a financial lifeline for her family of farmers.

“If the crops aren’t good, then we’d (have) nothing to eat, (no money) to buy things. If you don’t have work, how (do) you raise a baby?” said Vinny, who has two sons with her husband.

It did not matter that she had conceived the baby when she was home on leave in the Philippines.

Work permit holders are not allowed to get pregnant or give birth in Singapore unless they are already married to a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident with the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM)’s approval. This applies even after their work permits have expired or been cancelled or revoked.

According to the MOM, between 2019 and 2021, an average of 170 migrant domestic workers are detected to be pregnant each year.

But the actual number could be higher — the programme Undercover Asia finds out how some workers go out of their way to hide or terminate their pregnancies.

DESPERATE TIMES, DESPERATE MEASURES

The rules in Singapore are so strict that employers are expected to report their helper’s pregnancy to the authorities.

Even if employers keep it quiet, migrant domestic workers must go for health screenings every half a year to be tested for pregnancy, and the results are submitted to the MOM.

The irony is that abortion is legal in Singapore, and it extends to migrant workers. Doctors are also bound by “sacrosanct” patient confidentiality and “aren’t required by law” to report any abortion to the MOM, Wong said.

But the cost of the procedure — ranging from about S$750 to thousands of dollars in total, depending on any complications and the type of hospital — is something helpers can hardly afford when they earn about S$620 a month on average.

Contraceptives are readily available, but the cost could still be a factor. Condoms can be bought for little over S$4 (three per pack), while birth-control pills and emergency contraception are more expensive because they require a doctor’s prescription.

TWO CITIES, TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHES

The pregnancy restriction on migrant workers, which was introduced in 1986, has to do with Singapore’s “citizenship regime”, said Laavanya, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences.

The country wants highly skilled immigrants — those on employment passes and S passes, she cited. These workers are allowed to settle here, bring their families along and eventually apply for permanent residency and citizenship.

But those on work permits, like migrant domestic workers, “aren’t seen as having those skills that we desire”, she said. “They’re seen as a disposable population.”

Other classes of workers are not subject to these rules, and “it’s a right for every woman to be pregnant if she so wishes”, she added.

In contrast to Singapore, it is illegal in Hong Kong to dismiss migrant domestic workers who are pregnant. Employers will be fined up to HK$100,000 (S$16,900).

And as with every female employee in Hong Kong, if a domestic worker has been employed for at least 40 weeks, employers must provide 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Should the worker decide to give birth in Hong Kong, her employer is legally obliged to house her but not her baby.

Employers like Danny*, however, have found the regulations to be burdensome. Three years ago, his helper told him she was pregnant. “I hired her to manage the house and take care of my meals and other needs,” he said.

“So, if she’s unable to do it, and there might even be a possibility that I have to take care of her instead, I feel it’s a bit unfair.”

While his helper was on maternity leave, he had to pay four fifths of her salary as well as hire a part-time helper as a replacement.

“(At) that time (in 2015), I felt very stressed and depressed,” said the Indonesian. “I felt like I already (made a) mistake and I needed to (commit) another mistake, which is (to) abort the baby.”

Going home was not an option as she was “scared” that her parents might not accept her for conceiving a child out of wedlock.

Wanting to keep both her baby and the opportunity for employment in Singapore, she lied to her employer about missing her family and wanted to terminate her contract.

Then she stayed in Yayasan Dunia Viva Wanita, a non-profit foundation and shelter in Batam, for about 14 months.

It provides refuge for pregnant domestic workers to see their pregnancy through rather than seek an illegal abortion. Whatever Sunny needed — doctor’s appointments, vitamins, milk powder, food, toiletries — the shelter offered.

She gave birth to a boy and was eventually reconciled with her family, who are now taking care of her child.

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