Following the debate that is swirling around Singapore on the government’s announcement of a day off for foreign domestic workers, I thought it about time someone went into bat for these girls and started talking more about what they do.
Sitting here watching May (our maid) take my son off to school today (he’s two years old) and nurse our baby, who is just 10 days old it would be wrong of me not to offer an wavering endorsement of her work. As her employer, I give her a day off every week to recognise that. That is set in stone. You’re probably not going to like this if you’re among the Singapore employers that don’t give their domestic helpers a day off, but very occasionally she gets two.
I give her a day off because she works hard, but more importantly, because she is part of my family and I think she deserves it. When I arrived in Singapore I presumed that national laws would provide labour rights protection for migrant domestic workers and was appalled that no such protections existed. I presumed most of my fellow employers would give their domestic workers a day off, and I was quite shocked, firstly, to hear people admit that they didn’t, and secondly, to hear their skewed reasoning.
One of the first people I spoke to claimed it was for his maid’s own benefit, which I found strangely paternalistic, given these girls are of adult age. But then I spoke to some local mums and I began to see a theme developing around distrust. The main reason for not granting their workers a day off was largely based not on how hard she worked, but what they had heard and read about what might happen if she were given a day off. I found this odd.
Employers I spoke to often base their decisions on anecdotal evidence, sourced from other Singaporeans — the kinds who have taken to online forums to vent at this policy announcement: “They go to Lucky Plaza and talk to their friends, then come back and want more money,” one employer told me when I asked why he was against a day off. “They’re too young to know how to behave properly when they’re out, and get into trouble,” said another.
I have always given my maid a day off – I give her Sunday off; often I give her Saturday afternoon off too, if I’d like to be alone with my family and her help isn’t required. Occasionally I have given her an evening off to go to the cinema; although I find her taste in movies questionable, I’ve no gripes about affording her this very small token of appreciation. It lets her know that we value her. I also sent her home twice to see her family last year—she’s a mother of three—despite repeatedly being advised not to. Let me repeat that for the sake of clarity: I was repeatedly advised not to let my maid go home to visit her family.
Does it annoy you that I give her a day off? Sometimes a day and a half? Am I undermining other employers?
Perhaps you’d like to know why?
It is because every day I leave home knowing that, next to my wife, she is the only person I trust with my children. She has helped teach my son his ABCs, 123s and, much to the amazement of locals, how to greet people as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. When he cries, she comforts him and when he’s naughty she disciplines him — she is, for all intents and purposes a surrogate parent rather than merely a domestic helper, because her role is so extensive.
So, in my eyes, May has earned her day off through all of the above.
I have seen how some helpers get treated here; as one agent very succinctly put it to me: “There are homes here where the girls are just part of the furniture.” But I’ve struggled to find anyone who can put a coherent argument together against a day off that is not either sourced anecdotally, from newspaper articles or is just plain absurd. The reason for that is because there is not one good reason to deprive these girls of that most basic of rights.
Our campaign a few years ago found that among more than 2000 employers surveyed 81% wanted a day off for domestic workers. But in letters, columns and in online forums we’ve seen the standard bearers of the campaign against a day off railing against the policy. Well, I don’t buy it: it’s needlessly mean, it’s unfair, it does no favours to Singapore’s self-image and, above all, it shows that we don’t value hard work as much as we should.
There is, of course, an elephant in the room in this debate which far too many employers of domestic workers have failed to acknowledge: that in making the long, arduous journey to find work overseas, these girls make the ultimate sacrifice. May left her three children behind (they are aged from six to nine years old) to look after my two kids in Singapore.
And that is not worth a day off?
Editor’s note: The photo above is not the domestic helper May mentioned in the article