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Caring about Migrant Care Workers through Ethics of Justice and Ethics of Care

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Increased women’s participation in the workforce in recent years has seen a rise in demand for low-paid migrant care workers (MCWs) as surrogate caregivers. Home-based MCWs in Singapore perform a dual role as both a care worker and a domestic worker “as they provide child care/eldercare within home-space… [and] other household responsibilities.” (Yeoh, 2009, pg 75) Datta theorises that other than caregiving, care work contains an element of nurturance that involves emotional investment and attachment. Care work entails a diversity of skills including physical, cognitive, mental, and emotional labour that should be recognised and compensated for. Scholars have raised two main moral perspectives- an ethics of justice approach and an ethics of care approach, to address the injustices endured by MCWs. An ethic of justice approach bases ethical decisions on universal principles of equity and fairness that subjects all to impartial treatment against verifiable human rights (Botes, 2000, pg 1071). Eckenwiler proposes solutions to meet the basic needs of domestic MCWs (Eckenwiler, 2009, pg 176-178) that upholds these principles. Conversely, Sahraoui posits that care ethics provokes a re-examination of the daily practices of care work and offers a critical evaluation of how care work is understood and managed in care homes and in society (Sahraoui, 2019, pg ix). Current discourse surrounding live-in MCWs mainly adopts an ethics of justice perspective that pertains to expanding their rights, while little research has been done on the incorporation of an ethics of care approach to migrant care work in Singapore.

This paper will answer the questions of how Eckenwiler’s ethics of justice approach be broadened to include Sahraoui’s ethics of care approach, and how the two frameworks be applied to the Singapore context to achieve transnational justice for live-in migrant care workers (MCWs). It will explain how Eckenwiler’s focus on rights targets the tangible needs of live-in MCWs, but is inadequate in meeting their other intangible, emotional needs which instead requires a consideration of the relational aspect of care work as proposed by Sahraoui. The paper will argue that Eckenwiler’s ethics of justice approach must be supplemented with Sahraoui’s ethics of care approach to achieve a holistic understanding of the needs of live-in MCWs. Using the theoretical recommendations made by both authors, this paper proposes possible measures to address the everyday injustices faced by live-in MCWs in Singapore.

The needs and injustices faced by live-in MCWs in Singapore

Within their work, stay-in MCWs require sufficient wages, health benefits and a safe working environment to meet their basic physical needs. They also desire an emotional connection with care recipients and an appreciation for their work. The everyday injustices faced by live-in MCWs in Singapore arise in relation to their unmet needs such as inadequate or delayed wages, a “lack of legal… rights… and access to health care, extended separation from their families and the physical and emotional toll that care-giving implies.” (WHO, 2017, pg 32) The value of reproductive work is not fully translated into monetary rewards and often involves work with little pay. Furthermore, MCWs may be subject to hostility from their employers, “involved in care work and yet continually marked as an ‘other’.” (Teo, 2009, pg 153)

Justifications for the inclusion of MCWs’ emotional needs are two-fold with practical and ethical reasons. Firstly, from a utilitarian perspective, live-in MCWs may be more productive if their emotional needs are met. Because care work is service work, it involves compassion and patience. Live-in MCWs often create nurturing relationships with their clients that “[go] beyond the simple provision of care… [using] familial terms to refer to their clients.” (Datta, 2006, pg 15) Healthy and happy employees are more productive in the long run, and MCWs may provide better quality care and more fulfilling services for patients.

Secondly, from a social justice perspective, capabilities are fundamental entitlements of every individual. Capabilities refer to the freedoms and opportunities for people to achieve their maximum potential that are only possible when their needs are met. (Robeyns, 2016) While rights and capabilities are closely linked, basic rights are only secured when relevant capabilities to function are present. (Nussbaum, 2003, pg 37) Other than entitlements to life, bodily health and integrity, which constitute the basic needs of MCWs, capabilities also encompasses aspects of emotions, affiliation and play which MCWs are deserving of. (Nussbaum, 2003, pg 41-42) Emotions refer to the ability for MCWs to form attachments, simultaneously being protected from feelings of fear and anxiety, essentially forming supportive human associations that are crucial for their development. Likewise, affiliation in terms of engaging in meaningful social interaction grounded in self-respect and non-humiliation is necessary for human flourishing. Another capability that should be considered is play which is necessary to alleviate high stress levels that MCWs face from long work hours and exhausting tasks. Only when these capabilities are secured as well can MCWs live a life with dignity.

Ethics of justice versus ethics of care in relation to migrant care work

The strength of an ethics of justice lies in its appeal to ideals of justice to help safeguard the basic needs of vulnerable groups like MCWs against deprivation. Eckenwiler proposes solutions such as “government policies that provide equal pay, benefits and worker protection for migrant care workers with equivalent training and responsibilities,” (Eckenwiler, 2009, pg 177) demonstrating that respect for the human rights of live-in MCWs is a central feature of ethics of justice.

However, a major critique of Eckenwiler’s approach is that it neglects live-in MCWs’ non-conventional work needs for emotional connection and respect. The emotional needs of live-in MCWs may be equally important to them especially since the nature of care work necessitates an investment of feelings and genuine concern for the patient. “Stark principles and rigid rules [can] not… accommodate the complex and multidimensional nature of human society” (Botes, 2000, pg 1072-1073) and have no room for that which humans deem most valuable. In contrast, Sahraoui’s approach tackles this limitation of Eckenwiler’s approach by identifying the feeling needs of live-in MCWs derived from care work and their desire for meaningful work. Sahraoui’s proposition of an ethics of care framework accounts for the emotional needs of live-in MCWs that Eckenwiler overlooks. Care is reconceptualised as “nurturing… [emphasising] relationality and interdependence… [and] emotional dimensions of caring based on human relations.” (Datta, 2010, pg 95) An ethics of care considers the intense emotional labour that is required to cope with caregiving and the interactive nature of care work. Care ethics also does not exclusively concern their labour, but rather their “being in the world”. (Amrith, 2010, pg 424) Hence, it is imperative to incorporate an ethics of care framework given the inseparable nature of emotions from care work that is essential in the construction of care workers’ occupational identity and pride.

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Moreover, the rights framework tends to be “highly individualistic and… fails to recognise the interdependent relations (Liang, 2018, pg 227)” of care work. MCWs give care to patients, but simultaneously, through their interactions, derive feels of love and pride that meet their intangible needs of fulfilment. Again, Sahraoui’s care ethics counters the limitations of the rights perspective by drawing attention to reciprocity and mutual trust that bond migrant live-in care workers with their care recipients in the intimate setting of home-based care work. While an ethics of justice focuses solely from the perspective of either the rights of MCWs or the quality of care received by patients, ethics of care allows for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship by considering the interdependent nature of the relationship. This alternative view of care work illuminates the frequently understated aspect of domestic MCWs as care receivers who often derive their psychological needs for interpersonal relationships from their duties.

Fundamentally, an ethics of care is highly meaningful by “[providing] a vision for guiding us to revalue and prioritize care” (Crozier, 2010, pg 133) and the migrant workers that carry it out. It holds the potential to resolve issues of low and unequal wages with the recognition of care workers’ contribution to the family and to the society in which she is employed. The recognition of stay-in MCWs as an autonomous individual deserving of equality may also subject them to less abuse and discrimination by being sensitive to their subordinate position governed by asymmetrical relations that dictate all interactions. Overall, the alternative moral philosophy of care ethics reframes the nature of care as a complexity of interdependent, diverse needs that are met at a variety of levels, including individual, institutional and political, public and private.

Applying Eckenwiler and Sahraoui’s frameworks to the Singapore context

In this section, I propose four solutions that incorporate elements of either ethics of justice or ethics of care, or both. The first two proposals align with the principles of an ethics of justice, while the third and fourth proposals align with the principles of an ethics of care.

Firstly, it is of pressing importance to implement legislated measures that clearly dictate standard employment terms live-in MCWs are entitled to. Extending Eckenwiler’s proposal on formulating government policies that guarantee the basic rights of live-in MCWs, these terms must be enshrined in the law to ensure compliance with the threat of formal sanctions if they are violated by employers. Eckenwiler notes that a major limit is that they are voluntary. Currently, irregular labour practices increases the vulnerability of MCWs as “care workers often [assume] responsibility for doing more work than specified in the care plans”. (Datta, 2010, pg 17) Instead, legislated measures are backed by the law which helps correct the power imbalance between employers and domestic MCWs. Random spot checks may also be used to tackle another related problem of enforcement gaps, with workers who seek assistance at Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) “reporting cases of contract substitution… without penalty.” (Fillinger, 2017, pg 42) The inability of the state to regulate the enforcement of care plans by employers has proved to be a major barrier in ensuring equitable treatment of stay-in MCWs. Home-based MCWs often become victims overwork and abuse especially because they are “confined to the intimate spaces of the home…opaque to the outside world”. (Yeoh, 2009, pg 83) This social quarantine increases the vulnerability of home-based MCWs because employers face little recourse if they violate existing agreements. Since monitoring households may be cost and time inefficient, random spot checks could be conducted by the officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to ensure households are meeting employment standards. Given the high turnover rate in the care sector and live-in MCWs viewing Singapore as a stepping stone to jobs in other countries with better pay and job prospects (Lien Foundation, 2018, pg 32), improving working conditions may be necessary for the attraction and retention of foreign workers. Overall, advocating for political recognition of care ethics as the heart of life sustainability would improve the status and valuation of care work within society. Besides changes to current legislations, strengthening related enforcement mechanisms is of equal importance to protecting vulnerable stay-in MCWs and achieving ethics of justice.

Secondly, the translation of contracts to a language familiar to MCWs should be mandatory since language barriers may be a significant hindrance that prevents live-in MCWs from protecting their interests when signing contracts. Presently, contracts presented to domestic MCWs may not be in their native language and thus prevents them from securing fair contracts, leaving MCWs vulnerable to exploitation. Prior to their arrival in Singapore, employment contracts should be translated to a language MCWs are familiar with to ensure they have a clear understanding of their duties. Consent should only be counted when MCWs have complete, accurate information about their entitlements such that they voluntarily chose to engage in care work. Recruitment agencies should provide contracts in other languages like Mandarin, Tagalog, Indonesian, depending on the country of origin MCWs are from. In addition, recruitment firms may partner with external agencies to provide legal advice to MCWs before they sign complicated documents with technical terms that may be incomprehensible to MCWs. This would avoid the situation where MCWs are unable to break free from legally-binding contracts despite a misinterpretation of employment terms. Thus, language courses may be a tool to achieving the aims of ethics of justice by improving live-in MCWs’ ability to ascertain the terms of the contract that would be conducive for their wellbeing.

Third, there is a need for government initiatives that link social workers to live-in MCWs to take care of their psychological needs and mental health issues. There is a growing concern regarding the mental well-being of live-in MCWs who are under immense stress, compounded by the extended periods of isolation they face. Migrant caregivers risk of being emotionally drained, “unable to estrange the self from the care-giving role” (Hochschild, 1983, pg 132) and “[form] deep emotional attachments to the resident.” (Johnson, 2015, pg 122) Likewise, extended periods of separation from their kin may cause deep distress to home-based MCWs. Domestic MCWs are subject to “increasing social isolation and depression, and restricted mobility as a result of the configuration of the built environment” (Eckenwiler, 2014, pg 217) Existing efforts include counselling services provided by the Institute of Mental Health which sees a small number of foreign workers annually since 2016 (Teo, 2019). Thus counselling sessions may be highly beneficial to countering negative feelings and resolving personal issues. To increase the scale of mental health programmes, the Singapore government could also consider liaising with NPOs like Transient Workers Care 2 (TWC2) who are in regular contact with MCWs. Providing outlets for live-in MCWs to improve their mental and psychological well-being would achieve Sahraoui’s vision of an ethics of care.

Fourthly, NPOs like Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) may collaborate with community centres to organise sharing sessions between neighbourhood residents and live-in MCWs. To combat the lack of interaction between live-in MCWs and locals that prevents mutual understanding and real connection, workshops have been organised by grassroot communities to establish personal connections between locals and live-in MCWs. MWC already has partnerships with schools to “co-create outreach / projects for the migrant workers’ community” (Migrant Workers Centre, 2009), which may be extended to community centres that organise neighbourhood sharing sessions. Migrant workers may express themselves through creative mediums like photography and storytelling and increased positive contact with MCWs could change the attitudes of individuals, even encouraging public discourse on migrant issues that eventually pushes the government to implement policies that benefit live-in MCWs. Hence in the short term, bonding sessions in line with Sahraoui’s ethics of care may spur long-term collective action for policy changes in line with Eckenwiler’s ethics of justice. The desire to improve Singapore’s reputation as a global city conducive for foreign workers may compel the government to rethink its treatment of migrant labour. Moreover, given the interdependent nature of care work, improving the relationship between live-in MCW and her care recipient may improve the quality of care provided, thus benefiting the employer. Ultimately, advocacy for legislation changes that better protect the rights of live-in MCWS would have limited effectiveness without fundamental social and attitudinal changes through a commitment to care ethics that requires care workers to have “equal rights and equality of voice.” (Sahraoui, 2019, pg 93)


In conclusion, the current care work regime presents a paradox where live-in MCWs are an integral component to the health systems in many developed countries, yet their own rights to health eroded. Eckenwiler’s suggestions focus on “identifying and analysing power relations… [and] forms of exploitation, in the public sphere [but] fails to address circumstances in the private domain… associated with love and care” (Liang, 2018, pg 227), highlighting the significance of Sahraoui’s ethics of care to understanding migrant care work. The incorporation of ethics of care within an ethics of justice framework captures the complexities and extensiveness of migrant care work which is critical in the transformation of workplaces such that they “protect the health of the workers, nurture, instead of constrain, autonomy, cultivate a meaningful sense of inclusion, and nurture parity of compensation, voice and participation”. (Eckenwiler, 2014, pg 220) A successful transformation of care work also depends on a renewed understanding of care as important to life sustainability to achieve fairer social relations and patterns of care work distribution.

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Caring about Migrant Care Workers through Ethics of Justice and Ethics of Care. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
“Caring about Migrant Care Workers through Ethics of Justice and Ethics of Care.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
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