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Commentary: Why a respectful relationship between foreign domestic workers and employers is in everyone’s interest

Much focus has been on the letter of the law. But employer’s best interests are served if they safeguard the working relationship with their foreign domestic worker, says Centre for Domestic Employees’ executive director Shamsul Kamar.

Commentary: Why a respectful relationship between foreign domestic workers and employers is in everyone’s interest

File photo of a domestic worker (Photo: AFP/Noel Celis)

SINGAPORE: The employment relationship between employers and foreign domestic workers, or FDWs for short, is a labyrinthine maze many fail to navigate.

The average man on the street may assume employers and FDWs generally share a tumultuous relationship, with his perception shaped and reinforced by media reports which, from time to time, highlight misdemeanours committed by employers and FDWs against each other as part of regular news coverage of charges prosecuted in court and the sentence meted out.

Over the past year, several high-profile convictions of employers who had abused their FDWs were reported in the media, with the most recent being an employer who had inflicted such unbearable abuse on a FDW, the latter risked her life by climbing 15 floors down from her employer’s housing unit to the ground floor to escape further beatings.

There were also corresponding reports of sentences meted out to FDWs who had committed offences against their employers or dependents under their charge.


These reports may have given many the impressions that the relationship between employers and FDWs is a necessarily tense and uneasy one, where both parties are on tenterhooks, constantly on the lookout for potential wrongdoings from each other. The truth couldn’t be further.   

In 2017, the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) undertook a large-scale study involving 1,004 employers of FDWs and 1,012 FDWs to understand the FDW landscape in Singapore. Among our findings, 75 per cent of FDWs surveyed said they were satisfied with working in Singapore and 70 per cent of them enjoyed cordial relationships with their employers.

It is CDE’s longstanding position that a harmonious employer-FDW relationship is key in ensuring FDWs have a home away from home while employers receive good help from them.

In a study of 30 FDWs conducted by CDE and students from NUS Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre in 2018 to 2019, we found that a respectful and harmonious relationship between employers and FDWs has been the most crucial factor that lead to the successful completion of employment contracts, even ahead of whether FDWs have requisite skills for the job and how similar Singapore’s culture is to their home countries’.

File photo of a foreign domestic worker.

This further underlines the importance of employers and FDWs getting along well with each other. Contract completion would translate into employers spending less time and money seeking replacement FDWs.

This begets the question: What can employers and FDWs do to build strong harmonious relationships?

CDE believes this can be done by strengthening the psychological contract between employers and FDWs, and ensuring that violations of trust and breaches of psychological contracts do not occur. 

The Manpower Ministry’s announcement on Monday (Oct 5) it will review the framework for the illegal deployment of FDWs is to be welcomed but beyond the letter of the law, employers’ best interests are served if they focus on developing a productive, trusting working relationship with their domestic worker.

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A psychological contract is a collection of an individual’s beliefs about the terms and conditions in a reciprocal exchange relationship between two individuals, often, in an employment setting.

Different from an explicit contract, psychological contract is perceptual and comprises perceived obligations and unspoken beliefs of entitlements between employers and employees.

In other words, it is an employee’s beliefs and perceptions of what they owe to their employers and what their employers owe to them, and vice versa.

These perceived beliefs underlie social exchange relationships and form norms of reciprocity where employers and employees discharge their obligations towards each in anticipation of reciprocal benefits that they believe they are entitled to.

(Photo: Unsplash/Volha Flaxeco)

The concept of psychological contract has been widely applied to study employment relationships in organisations. 

Extensive research in Singapore and around the world consistently demonstrate that violations of psychological contract, perceived or otherwise, lead to negative outcomes such as decreased obligations, reduced commitment, lower satisfaction, and reduced extra-role behaviours like being helpful or acceptance of additional responsibilities without fuss both ways.  


Given the nature of migrant domestic work, understanding psychological contracts and how breaches could lead to a relationship breakdown between employers and FDWs can help uncover early warning signs and help alert employers and FDWs when mediation may be a better course of action.

Like psychological contracts between any employers and employees in every other organisation, employers and FDWs may have a different understanding and interpretation of their obligations and what they perceived as reciprocal benefits.

For instance, a FDW may perceive uninterrupted adequate rest (say six to eight hours) at night as part of reciprocal benefit for having performed a full day of household chores and caregiving duties.

This expectation could have been formed when they were briefed by their employment agents on rest arrangements or during conversations with fellow FDWs.

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An employer, however, may expect the FDW to continue caregiving throughout the night, especially if the family has a disabled elderly or a young child.

The employer may expect the FDW to change the child’s diaper or give the child a drink of milk in the middle of the night.

The FDW might not perform such duties well because she may perceive these duties as beyond her obligations and as encroaching into her perceived entitled benefits.

When this happens, the employer might interpret the FDW’s poor performance of caregiving duties at night as failure to discharge what the employer believes as the FDW’s job obligations.

This might lead to the FDW being reprimanded for poor work ethics or worse still, the curtailment of other perceived benefits such as the use of mobile phones.

Over time, repeated incidents could lead to a downward spiral in the relationship between employer and FDW as they both believe that it’s the other who has violated the unspoken psychological contract between them.

A family holding hands. (Photo: Unsplash/Liv Bruce)

Other instances where discrepancies arise include whether FDWs should perform household chores before they leave for their off-day or after they return home, plus the quantity and type of food that FDWs are provided with.


Trust is the bulwark against the negative spiralling of a relationship. Research has shown that trust in social relationships will influence people’s behaviours towards each other.

When employers and FDWs both trust each other, they are less likely to make negative attributions about each other’s intent and actions and bean-count.

Should there be instances where violations in psychological contracts have taken place, employers and FDWs in high trust relationship are less likely to react negatively towards each other.

CDE believes the best way to build trust is for employers and FDWs to have clear and explicit communications to reduce hidden assumptions and unspoken expectations about what their perceived obligations and entitled benefits are. This is especially important when the needs of the family changes.

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Clear and explicit communications from employer to the FDW about changing job scopes is critical in ensuring that FDWs do not perceive those changes as a violation of the psychological contract.

Employers and FDWs need to find a way to maintain an open channel of communications and have a clear understanding of what each other’s psychological contracts are. This will help employers and FDWs build strong lasting employment relationships that benefit both parties. 

Shamsul Kamar is Executive Director at the Centre for Domestic Employees.

Source: CNA/sl