Maid Cameras: Naughty Or Nice?

By Ian Lim
and Gordon Lim

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

Santa Claus, it’s said, magically knows whether every boy and girl has been naughty or nice. As noted in a recent Straits Times article though, quite a few Singapore employers also seem to want a Santa-like ability to tell if their foreign domestic helpers have been ‘misbehaving’, only not by magic, but through CCTV cameras. The article tells of a maid horrified to discover a CCTV camera installed in her toilet, ostensibly so her employer could check why she was taking such ‘long’ toilet breaks. It’s hopefully uncontroversial that having CCTV cameras in bathrooms is not right, and indeed possibly an illegal outrage of modesty. What about CCTVs in other parts of the house though? The ethical and legal issues of that are wider and more involved.

Workplace CCTV surveillance has become quite commonplace, and most employees no longer bat an eyelid at the sight of office CCTV cameras. Unlike other employees though, domestic helpers work, eat and sleep in their workplace. Living under near-constant CCTV monitoring must be stressful to say the least. To exacerbate matters, the current generation of internet-enabled cameras allows real-time viewing of CCTV feeds on smartphones, so employers can really be watching live at any time.

From the employers’ point of view though, hiring a domestic helper does mean inviting a complete stranger to live in your home, prepare your food, and take care of your young children, elderly parents and valuables, all while you’re away at work. And in fairness, there have certainly been wayward maids who’ve swiped valuables, abused children, or let shady characters into the house. CCTV cameras can help to detect and deter such misconduct, giving employers more peace of mind when they leave the house.

At the same time, CCTV cameras can sometimes also help maids. The footage may exonerate maids wrongly accused of misdeeds, say where it reveals that ‘stolen’ items were simply misplaced.  The co-author of this article handled a pro-bono case where a domestic helper faced criminal charges for allegedly ‘beating’ her employer’s son. The accusations were proven highly exaggerated: the CCTV footage just showed her patting the boy to sleep.

Also, video monitoring might help deter maid abuse. One might ask: couldn’t a guilty employer simply delete the incriminating evidence? Well, if complaints can be made and investigations done swiftly enough, deleted data might be forensically retrieved. Even if not, unexplained gaps in CCTV records can be telling in Court.

Either way, whatever the merits or ethics of installing CCTV cameras at home, employers should be careful their use of CCTV does not break the law.

The Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) protects personal data, including video footage of individuals, and the collection and use of such footage requires informed consent. That’s why it’s now common to see signs at the entrances of buildings and carparks warning of CCTV monitoring. There are exceptions for purely domestic collection and use though, and employers may also collect and use employees’ personal data for evaluative purposes without informed consent. It is not clear if domestic workers would necessarily fall under such exceptions.

The PDPA also requires that the collection and use of personal data (including CCTV footage) be reasonable. Even if the bathroom is out, it’s likewise unclear if it would be considered reasonable to have CCTV cameras in other areas of the house, particularly in the maid’s bedroom. Given that many domestic workers change in their bedrooms, having CCTV cameras there could also even amount to illegal outrage of modesty. Guidance from the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) and possibly the police on these issues would be helpful.

Separately, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) states that keeping a victim under surveillance can be unlawful stalking where this causes harassment, alarm or distress. POHA even provides the illustration of a perpetrator who surreptitiously plants a video camera in his victim’s apartment. This suggests employers should at least keep their helpers fully informed of CCTV cameras at home.

In any event, all the statutory and regulatory protections are essentially academic if domestic helpers do not come forward to complain of excessive surveillance. Being strangers in a strange land, domestic helpers may not know their legal rights, or who to go to for help. Further, even well-informed maids might hesitate to come forward for fear of being branded troublemakers and sent home. Groups such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) can provide safe havens and advocacy for mistreated domestic workers, but their resources are limited.

Perhaps the best way to help employers strike the correct balance with CCTVs would be for the authorities and regulators to provide relevant guidance, in tandem with outreach efforts to educate employers and maids on their respective rights and responsibilities and provide readily accessible help.

Meanwhile, as we sit down with our families to festive spreads this Christmas season, let’s spare a thought for the maids who helped prepare the meal. Like Santa’s elves they are often overlooked, even while some are constantly watched.


TSMP law corporation