The Straits Times’ headline read: “Most maids here are happy”, citing a survey conducted by the Ministry of Manpower last year. Common sense will tell us there must surely be a grain of truth in it. We have 200,000 domestic workers here, and generally speaking, if they were all that unhappy, they would have long found ways to work elsewhere.
And yet, if one looks closely, the survey is not worth very much. Specifically, we can’t tell from the survey if they really are happy. The questions that then follow are:
1. Why do we conduct surveys that look dishonest?
2. Why does the Straits Times not point out to readers that the conclusions so reached may be unreliable?
To create a thinking society, we must first develop critical faculties, among which is that of always asking: How do we know what we think we know? By reporting surveys that are questionable as some kind of conclusive truth, we are doing a disservice to the public, dumbing down our collective intelligence.
As I mentioned at the start, it is entirely possible that most maids in Singapore are reasonably happy. That being the case, there’s really nothing to fear from doing an honest survey. It may not show us as paradise for foreign domestic workers (FDW), but on the whole it shouldn’t show us as hell-on-earth either. In any case, if we are genuine about making people happy — not just Singaporeans, but anyone who contributes to Singapore — we’d want to know where we fall short in order to take corrective action.
Instead, Singaporeans are fed this kind of thing that the media just reported.
What’s wrong with it? On the face of it, you wouldn’t have too much reason to suspect anything amiss about the survey. Neither did I until I dug deeper and saw one chart.
However, let me first summarise the reported findings:
The ministry said they polled 900 maids and 450 employers last year — the first large-scale study of its kind here. As reported by the Straits Times,
Almost nine in 10 say the workload is ‘just right’ for them – only 3 per cent of the maids interviewed felt they could not cope with the chores assigned.
— Straits Times, 12 August 2011, Most maids here are happy: Poll, by Amanda Tan
In a side bar, the newspaper also reported that:
Ninety per cent of maids polled said they were satisfied with working in Singapore. They all indicated a satisfaction level of ‘7’ or above over a 10-point scale, where ’10’ was ‘extremely satisfied’.
A total of 99.2 per cent of maids have ‘sufficient food to eat every day’, while 96.8 per cent said they have ‘adequate rest each day’.
Some 52.6 per cent of maids polled are given at least one rest day or day off a month.
Me being me, I had to poke around looking for the source data and the survey method. I found more information at this link on the Manpower Ministry’s website which was useful. For example, it said that responses from maids were obtained from “face-to-face interviews, through translators if necessary”, while responses from employers were obtained online.
Notably however, it did not explain how the 900 maids and 450 employers were chosen for interviewing or online participation — something I consider critical to assessing the value of any survey. More crucially, I came across a chart on the ministry’s website that related to satisfaction levels:
What’s striking about it? Over 50 percent of the maids surveyed gave a “10” rating to their satisfaction levels — “extremely satisfied”. This is utterly incredible, especially when pay is low — Singapore’s foreign maid salaries are lower than in many destination countries for Indonesian and Filipina maids — and 48 percent of maids (from the survey itself) reported they did not even get one day off a month.
Also, a typical pattern from polling data involving wide ten-point scales is that respondents tend to give slightly conditional answers not quite at one extreme or another, the result looking like a kind of bell curve. The bar on the right — employers’ satisfaction levels — demonstrate exactly this.
That the maids’ responses were so strongly skewed to the “extremely satisfied” end strongly suggests that they aren’t honest answers. Perhaps the maids were interviewed in front of their employers? Or if they were interviewed privately, most of them had no faith that their replies would be kept confidential?
Whichever way it was, that single chart alone demolishes whatever faith one wishes to put on the data collected. If they could not give honest answers for this question, were other answers honest too?
As Vincent Wijeysingha, Executive Director of Transient Workers Count Too, posted on Facebook:
It is a basic practice of research that the research report, including the research protocol, is released in full, so that the scrutiny of the research and academic community is brought to bear on the strength of the findings. This is otherwise known as ‘peer review’, whereby the methodology of a research programme can be assessed.
My view? Don’t put your money on that happening.