Maids here are happy, survey says, but survey really didn’t discover that

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.

— ibid.

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.

21 Responses to “Maids here are happy, survey says, but survey really didn’t discover that”

  1. 1 crappy 16 August 2011 at 18:54

    WHY? Because the ST takes its role of promoting Singapore as a well run country most seriously and that includes making everything appear better than they are in reality.

  2. 2 Chow 16 August 2011 at 19:50

    The responses from the maids look almost Poissonian! Perhaps the maids were just afraid that their answers would be used to revoke their work permits so they gave very appropriate answers.

  3. 3 Sprechen Sie Singlisch? 16 August 2011 at 22:39

    Firstly, that the threat of losing ones job here is a credible one already implies that there is a preference for maids to work here instead of at home, wherever that maybe. So I’m not surprised that they like it here quite a bit considering the situation back home maybe completely abysmal. That is assuming that their pay and working conditions were advertised correctly.

    Also, I suspect that answer distribution on surveys tend fall at the extremes. Preferences (I like A more then B) are usually pretty clear but preference strength (1 like A x time more than B) maybe quite subtle.

    But really, without another survey showing complete different preferences, the transient worker rights community will only have a small number of bleeding heart cases to rest their arguments on or trying to nitpick holes in methodology. At least in the case you’ve highlight so far they do appear been forsaken by the government.

    • 4 Poker Player 17 August 2011 at 11:42

      “So I’m not surprised that they like it here quite a bit considering the situation back home maybe completely abysmal.”

      This oversimplifies.

      Back home, they either can’t find jobs or jobs that pay as well.

      In Singapore the jobs are there but they lose dignity and freedom.

      In Singapore, foreigners who work belong to to categories.
      1) Those we consider fellow to be human beings
      2) Those we don’t.

      For those in category 2)
      a) We think we have the right to keep their passports
      b) Our children can call them names like “stupid” or shout at them
      c) We can decide whether they can have friends.
      d) We think we can deduct from their wages
      e) We think they are inconsiderate if they want a day off a week

      Our Singaporean bosses won’t even dream of doing any these things to their angmoh subordinates. More likely fawn over them.

      Maids don’t have to put up with this “back home”. But they need the money.

      It’s not that back home may be completely abysmal. It’s that they need the money.

      • 5 Nicholas Liu (@n_liu) 17 August 2011 at 22:02

        Good comment.

        And y’know, even if it was the case that working here was unambiguously the better choice (rather than a difficult compromise for the worker), that would still be a far cry from “happiness”. Most people currently holding jobs will agree that having their jobs is better than being unemployed, but it doesn’t follow that everyone who’d rather be employed than not is “happy” with their work conditions.

      • 6 Sprechen Sie Singlisch? 17 August 2011 at 23:05

        Poker Player:
        “This oversimplifies.”

        Yes. I agree completely. Nonetheless, there is a clear preference to work in Singapore as opposed to back home. The “ang mohs” or someone who comes for an economically stronge country who have a much weaker preference and hence have to be treated “nicely” to stay.

        I would rephrase your argument as such. Low skill foreign workers have far less labour rights than low skill Singaporean workers. Less wages (unscrupulously deducted), less medical benefits and more time on the job (less off days). So for an employer, the preference is pretty clear.

        Now if foreign labour rights were strengthen, the local workers would become a lot more competitive. For some reason, help local local workers by helping foreign workers(making them less competitive) hasn’t crossed the mind of local labour advocates. Of course, you have to assume that these rights are enforced.

  4. 7 Tan Tai Wei 17 August 2011 at 00:06

    I recall some years ago maids protesting that some employers made them wash their cars everyday. Rightly, they queried how car-washing could be “domestic” help, which they were engaged only to do.

    Well, Singapore solved it in another “unique” way, like the unique way we solve the problem of politicians being tempted to corruption, ie. we legislate for them to get it in terms of very high pay. In the maids’ case, they have since been made to sign employment contracts that specify car washing to be amomg the chores they are engaged to do. Now, every employer, as a matter of course, make maids to wash their cars before dawn every day, universalising the exploitation.

    Government, by not intervening, consented, and so the issue was not raised in ST’s survey.

  5. 8 liewkk 17 August 2011 at 01:11

    This is not the first time that such “surveys” are being conducted by the state. But, it does however falls within certain trends especially when calls for day offs and reduction in levies get occassionally more vocal in the eyes of the government. Like the recent survey on satisfaction levels on public transport this “happiness” index will serve again to mute calls for broader labour reforms, and the ostrich, from the state to employers, continues to bury its head in the hole in the face of more humane and attractive packages from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Like the commonsensical recognition that the floods are not really acts of god once in every 50 years, it does not take much intelligence to know that life as a FDW is anything but “extremely satisfactory” and that our employment culture is anything but wonderful for both Singaporeans and foreigners. if that is the case, locals will be rushing in. But, many still believe in Happiness in Slavery. Wake up Singapore!

  6. 9 Surveyor 17 August 2011 at 01:33

    These surveys are done by private companies hired as contractors by MOM and these contractors use proper statistical methods to conduct the survey. However, unknown to many, when the survey forms reach the hands of the surveyors, which are paid by each survey they complete and are usually part timers, they will fill in the survey details themselves and submit back.
    Some of these private contractors by MOM hires smaller groups of “sub-contractors” to finish the surveys for them, and also edit them to fit a certain profile if necessary. Each survey is worth quite alot of money, ranging from $25 – $100 per survey completed. So it is quite easy for them to take the easy way out to earn big bucks for each completed survey.

    • 10 yawningbread 17 August 2011 at 09:00

      You are asserting certain facts. Source citation?

      • 11 Tan Tai Wei 17 August 2011 at 09:35

        Many years ago, a lecturer at the then Institute of Education was lecturing NUS graduates training to be teachers. He was quoting from a local social science research published by a prominent NUS sociology lecturer. He said it was “the greatest published local study in many years” or something as sonorous.

        I was auditing as a team lecturer, having to tutor a group of them thereafter. At the tutorial, they laughed, telling me they had been that NUS social scientist’s research assistants. They had helped at “data collections and interviews”, but as the days wore on and it became late, they had themselves filled in the questionaires!

  7. 12 Rabbit 17 August 2011 at 04:27

    This reminds me of a survey I took at Immigration Department when I collected my renewed passport. The counter officer handed the passport to me, she also gave me a one page survey form to rate her service. I could not bring the survey form home or fill it outside her view.

    Thus there was no other option of giving my discrete & genuine feedback except to complete the survey under her watchful eyes. Otherwise she will not move on to serve her next customer. I don’t remember I need to fill in my name on the survey form but does it make any difference when her presence was intimidating enough? I lied in the multiple choice questions to make her feel pleased that her service was either rated excellent (most of the time) or satisfactory. Thereafter she took the completed questonairs and placed it under her desk. There was no feedback box for me to throw in.

    After I left the counter, I felt sour for betraying myself when in fact her service was less than satisfactory for very simple reason – she never smiled throughout her service and was lukewarm in attitude.

    If the survey results eventually turned out to rank their customer service with high excellent score and gave these people excellent service award on National Day, please remember what I faced above and read the department statistics with huge pinch of salt.

  8. 14 anonymous 17 August 2011 at 07:28

    If MOM would not even give the unemployment data for citizens, preferring to under report and couch it under unemployment for residents, can we really take at face value the result of their surveys?

  9. 15 Gard 17 August 2011 at 10:22

    Perhaps the survey is targeted at maids who did not run away. A simple case of sampling bias.

    “More than 4,000 foreigners working as maids had ran away from the homes of their employers in the year 2010, latest official statistics from shelters for overseas workers and the Indonesian and the Philippines embassies reveal.”

  10. 16 Rabbit 17 August 2011 at 14:01

    @ Anonymous

    If you review what transpired at Wild Rice forum, you might want to drop an email to Tan Chuan Jin to walk-his-talk and than judge him from his reply.

    Skeptics existed for many reasons, one of which is the govt continuously keeping vital information under wrap from public view which posed hindrance for constructive and open discussion with affected Singaporeans. One good example when MBT was a minister under MND; he kept insisting that HDB price hike has nothing to do with foreigners. To date, such argument remained flawed without informative statistics for public to back him up. Not too long ago, LKY admitted that foreigners were also the result of our housing woe. When KBW took over the baton, immediately struggled to build more housing to keep up with our increasing imported population. Contradicting words and actions only create more suspicion for the people. PAP can’t blame the people for getting boil up with govt many bad excuses (and hiding informations) during open discussions.

    The bottom line is, Singaporeans are ready to engage with the government provided the government allows itself to be opened for scrutiny as simple as giving us assess to all their “unfixed” statistics from stat boards – eg MOM, HDB, MOE, MOH…etc

    Transparency will encourage constructive engagement and give genuine feedback to policy makers. Otherwise PAP will forever be seen as talk-the-talk regardless how sweet their words are used, and than trust is lost.

    Two options are available for Singaporeans – continue to allow PAP to be fishy or vote in the people president.

  11. 17 Chanel 17 August 2011 at 14:32

    “To create a thinking society, we must first develop critical faculties”


    It doesn’t take critically developed faculties to realise that this Government don’t want the population to be able to think at all!!

    • 18 Anonymous 17 August 2011 at 20:07

      Unfortunately, it seems that they have been pretty successful for the majority of them. I am often amazed how naive people can be. A lot of people still would take ST ‘surveys’ for real.

      Look at the recent ‘survey’ about public transport. It amazes me that the mainstream media is still pretty confident that the masses would believe that stuff…maybe they are right?

  12. 19 PatricNoNSTan 18 August 2011 at 04:38

    Excellent analysis, Alex. You have raised enough questions and highlighted enough loopholes for the researchers involved to feel embarassed. Indeed, if they have any ounce of dignity in their work, they should feel humiliated that they are presenting substandard work that cannot withstand even public – much less peer – review.

  13. 20 Anon 18 August 2011 at 10:58

    I am currently working as a research assistant in a government branch.
    Quantitative research tends to dominate as policymakers prefer numbers. However, survey questions are usually loaded or double-edged questions. Sample sizes are not that representative of demographics. Qualitative research tends to only be framed in a way that makes policies look good. Research is done to further confirm that their existing policies and procedures are working efficiently and need not be changed.
    Government research – only hear the good stuff

  14. 21 blacktryst 19 August 2011 at 03:25

    You are correct. there are fundamental mistakes in this survey. 1st and most glaring is how they conducted the polls. is it randomly selected? Done through interviews? 2nd glaring mistake. What is the percentage probability of error in this survey? Third is there is a major problem of conducting such surveys as the Maids know it is a reporter conducting such a survey and hence there is the power difference paradigm.

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