Research Article: Perceived stressors and coping mechanisms of female migrant domestic workers in Singapore

Date Published: March 20, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Tine Van Bortel, Steven Martin, Sabrina Anjara, Laura B. Nellums, Thomas M. Olino.


Worldwide, there are between 50–67 million migrant domestic workers, the majority of whom are women. In many countries, provisions are not in place to protect female migrant domestic workers. These women may be at risk of occupational and social stressors, including exploitation and abuse, which may negatively impact on their quality of life, including psychological health. Research examining the occupational, social, and psychological needs of FMDWs from a public health perspective is critical to guide the development of policies which ensure wellbeing, prevent abuse, and align with international priorities to improve population health. Though there have been a number of high-profile incidents of exploitation and abuse, there has been limited research on the stressors experienced by these communities, their perceived impact, or coping mechanisms.

Thematic analysis was used to analyse qualitative free-text written responses collected as part of a cross-sectional survey on the relationship between social and occupational stressors and the health and quality of life of FMDWs in Singapore. Responses correspond to open-ended questions in the qualitative component of the survey examining three domains: causes of stress, coping strategies, and what people can do to help with stress.

Responses from 182 FMDWs were analysed. Key themes were identified around causes of stress (including ‘work and agency’, ‘the pervasiveness of financial need’, and ‘family and obligation’), coping strategies, and social support. Each theme describes key factors which contribute to the occupational and social stressors experienced and reported by FMDWs.

This research highlights the stressors FMDWs in Singapore experience, as well as key coping mechanisms. There is a clear need for policies which facilitate FMDWs’ ability to utilise these coping resources, and which protect against coercive or exploitative employment conditions. Strategies are also needed to monitor and evaluate policies intended to protect FMDWs, and to strengthen the implementation of global frameworks targeted at improving workplace conditions and workers’ rights.

Partial Text

There are between 50–67 million migrant domestic workers (MDWs) worldwide [1–5], the majority (between 73.4–83%) of whom are women [2, 4–6]. Migrant domestic workers are employed in low, middle, and high-income countries worldwide, and both south-to-south and south-to-north migration patterns are seen, as there is a demand for labour in both low and high development settings, which increases as individuals migrate, creating a demand for workers in countries of origin.

This study uses qualitative data from a cross-sectional survey on stressors, social connectivity, coping mechanisms, and QoL among FMDWs in Singapore [20]. The survey was conducted in April 2012, and included FMDWs who: 1) held a Work Permit; 2) were classified as foreign (migrant); and 3) had access to a weekly rest day. Women were invited to participate in the study during their day off, and recruited using convenience and snowball sampling in public places of gathering (e.g. parks). Recruitment approaches and location were determined in collaboration with the President of Transient Workers Count Too, an organisation promoting equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore, who has extensive experience working with these groups. This ensured the approaches and locations used were acceptable and appropriate. Informed consent was obtained from all participants, who received an information sheet and were able to ask questions prior to participation. Women were informed that participation would be anonymous and confidential, and that they may elect not to participate or chose to stop participation at any point.

In total, 220 surveys were distributed, and 182 women elected to participate (82.7% response rate). Of these, 100 women responded to the free-text questions, and were included in the qualitative analysis.

Psychosocial risks in the workplace are deeply connected with the experience of work-related stress, and have been acknowledged as major public health concerns [17–20]. This study investigated the stressors and coping mechanisms FMDWs in Singapore experienced.

This study highlights the stressors FMDWs in Singapore experience, and the coping mechanisms utilised to help address these stressors.




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