Singapore government urged to give maids the day off
If you’re a domestic maid in Singapore, there’s no such thing as the weekend. Since employers are not legally bound to grant days off, the weeks never end.
In the country that officially works the longest hours in the world, where one in six families has domestic help, the legal right to a day off has long seemed unthinkable for maids.
But a government minister’s suggestion that a mandatory rest day could minimise stress has reignited a long-standing debate in Singapore over workers’ rights.
Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s minister for community development, health and sports, says domestic workers need one day a week to “rest and recuperate”. The government has said it is “studying the suggestion”.
But no legal right to a day off isn’t the only problem for Singapore’s 201,000 domestic workers, for whom there is, perhaps not surprisingly, no minimum wage either. It’s the attitudes of their employers – and indeed the country at large – that stands in the way of progress.
“Are maids really that overworked?” asked schoolteacher Low Ai Choo,in a letter to the local Straits Times. “My maid has a day off once a month. Every time she comes back from her outings she appears even more tired and listless, and needs to recuperate from her outing.
“My maid is the one who goes to bed by nine every night and my husband and I are the ones still up way beyond nine to tuck in our children and catch up with school work.”
Low is one of many employers reacting angrily to Yacob’s suggestion, which came after the International Labour Organisation (ILO) agreed last week to give domestic workers a day off every week, as well as other basic labour rights. Singapore, along with the UK, was among 63 member states that abstained from the vote.
For some domestic employers such as Choo, the real issue lies in Singapore’s “workhorse” mentality, whereby everyone – not just maids – could do with more time to relax.
Singaporeans work the longest hours in the world according to the ILO, clocking up an average of 46.6 hours a week.
New parents often struggle with the work-life balance, as statutory maternity leave in Singapore is limited to 16 weeks and there is no right to paternity leave. In the UK new mothers can take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave and fathers up to two weeks.
Many domestic workers in Singapore are hired as live-in cooks, cleaners and nannies, and some agencies, such as Best Maid, capitalise on Singapore’s strong work ethic. “In Singapore, [a] maid is not a luxury, but a necessity,” reads the company’s website.
But not everyone can afford domestic help. On top of the salary, employers are required to pay a £2,500 security bond on their maid, as well as a monthly fee of around £135 throughout the standard two-year contract.
Such rules can encourage employers to be less concerned about the welfare of their workers than “getting value for money”, says Vincent Wijeysingha of the charity Transient Workers Count Too.
“Unlike more liberal countries where your rights are protected by law, here it all comes down to the personal goodwill of the employer, he said. “Many think, ‘I already pay so much for her, I don’t want to let her out of the house where she might find a boyfriend, get pregnant and make me lose my security bond.’”
While physical abuse of domestic workers has decreased in recent years, psychological abuse is very common, says Bridget Tan of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, which counsels some 1,000 runaway domestic workers every year.
“Newcomers usually have their mobiles taken away, aren’t allowed to communicate with family or neighbours and get no day off. The working conditions here are making people go crazy.”
Domestic helpers – nearly one-third of which come from the Philippines – work an average of 14 hours a day, with only 12% given one day off per week, according to a new report.
Employers negotiate contracts directly with their workers, with many offering a monthly payment of around £25 if no rest day is taken. Salaries range from around £125 to £350 a month, although many workers receive no pay for the first six to 11 months of their contract due to agency fees.
Mandatory rest days are already enshrined in employment law in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and it seems Singapore’s domestic employers may soon have to follow suit in allowing their employees some relaxation time, says Edmund Pooh of Universal Employment Agency. “It will be difficult for them to attract good workers if they don’t.”
For Filipina worker AJ, 40, who uses her weekly day off to attend computer classes and socialise with friends, more time to rest can only be a good thing.
“I came here for a better life – we all did,” said the former agricultural worker.
“But you cannot work from 6am to 9pm every day with no rest and so little pay. Sometimes I really do think they just consider us a commodity, like we are for sale.”
[published by The Guardian 8 July 2011 http://gu.com/p/3ve4f]