News reports and non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) accounts on maid abuse and mistreatment in Singapore are neither few nor new. The paucity of protection for maid abuse has triggered a move by the Singapore government to step up measures against the most extreme forms of mistreatment – sexual and physical abuse. However, when it comes to extending the rights of foreign domestic workers (FDWs), Singaporeans appear to be much less forthcoming.
In a photo essay on CNN titled “Little rest for Singapore’s silent army,” Beijing-based journalist Sim Chi Yin has placed the issue of rest days for FDWs in the international spotlight.
In 2010, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) says it took action against 26 employers for failure to provide adequate food, rest or medical care. In the first half of 2011, nine were held to account. “Most FDW employers are responsible and treat their FDWs well,” a government spokesperson said.
Yet, according to a survey released this year by Transient Workers Count Too, only 12% of Singapore’s foreign domestic workers, mostly women from Indonesia and the Philippines, were granted a day off each week. Just over half had a day off each month.
While the standard contract asks parties to nominate one day off a month (to be paid in lieu, if the maid chooses to forgo it), the Act only requires employers to provide “adequate rest.”
Employers who fail to comply can be fined up to $5,000 (US$3,900) and jailed for up to six months.
Although recognized under Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, FDWs are not protected by any legal provision that regulates their pay and working hours, and are most certainly not included under Singapore’s labor law, as reported by CNN.
“One of the things we noticed from the responses of employers is a kind of panicked reaction when we start talking about a day off,” says TWC2’s executive director Vincent Wijeysingha.
“I think that’s based on the fact that we’ve come to depend so much on our domestic workers for everything. You see them running the household, shopping, paying bills and looking after vulnerable people in the family.
“The key reason why we need them is because there are no affordable childcare services and no affordable elderly daycare services. So this represents the cheapest social policy option,” he says.
And that’s not the only reason why.
An article in Global Post in June reported that many Singaporeans were dismayed by the prospect of giving maids a day off.
From Global Post,
“Do they not rest in the course of their work every day? … Are maids really that overworked? The many maids congregating and chatting away happily at my condominium on weekdays present a different picture.”
Worse yet, she writes, “my previous maid met her boyfriend on her day off and even while we were at work.”
A social life? The horror.
Maids in Singapore raise kids, cook food, clean, run errands and more for Singapore’s Type A workaholic parents. Sometimes, when their kids are drafted into military service, the maids even carry their rucksacks.
The author is referring to a picture that depicts a maid carrying the rucksack of a Singaporean youth enlisted in the army. That picture had created a furore amongst netizens and the general public a few months back.
In a book published by the Human Rights Watch, “Maid to Order,” a common perception seems to pervade the community of employers that believes that the “women will use a day off for activities such as second jobs, dancing, forming relationships with men, or even prostitution.” In the book, a labor agent reportedly said, “[Giving maids a] rest day is a problem in Singapore…People think it will create social problems. They think maids will get pregnant, [they ask] who will be responsible for the S$5,000…”
Are Singaporeans really mistreating their maids?