Remarks by then TWC2 president, John Gee, at a forum organised by students at National University of Singapore, 9th November 2007: ‘The Maltreatment of Migrant Workers: Myths, Causes and Consequences’.

Today, I want to speak particularly about the issue of a regular day off for domestic workers.

Around half the women from other countries who are now domestic workers in Singapore do not receive any day off throughout the time of their two-year contracts here. Many others receive less than one day a week off -sometimes one day a month, or every two weeks, but today, I’m going to be focusing on those who do not have any time off at all.

Everyone needs time off: the medical profession tells us so, scientists tell us so and our own bodies tell us so. The idea of a weekly day of rest is an old one: it is now embedded in the practice of every state in the world for all kinds of paid workers, with the exception, in many, of domestic workers. In almost all developed countries, a weekly day off is provided for in law, along with maximum working hours and freedom of movement for all workers, irrespective of whether they are citizens or foreigners.

Historically, in Singapore, the general custom, in the later colonial period at least, was to give time off to domestic workers. Many were women who came from China. The last of them retired in the 1980s, but before that, they successfully insisted upon their weekly day off, although it was not guaranteed under the law.

Standards changed when, after a period when no foreign domestic workers were recruited, the doors were opened to them in 1978. A growing skilled labour shortage led to the government taking this decision in order to release into the labour force educated and skilled Singaporean women who were tied to the home doing housework, raising children and looking after elderly family members.

Domestic work was seen as low grade – women’s work; if done by a family member, it would be unwaged work, so when an outsider – a foreigner, moreover, usually from a poor rural community – came to do it, she might have to be paid, but there was a perception that she could legitimately be paid very little. On top of this came the assumption that she could be on call all the time for the hiring family, like a wife or mother was. Some employers had a ‘value for money’ mentality: if she was being paid, better keep her working day in, day out, even doing jobs that the female head of household did not do before.

Employers themselves advance various arguments for giving no day off.

Some argue need: an elderly parent who has to have constant care, for example, would seem like the strongest case, and yet, wouldn’t a care worker dealing with such a person be in acute need of a break? Can’t this work be shared on one day of the week between other family members? Others who claim ‘need’ say that they work all week and want to rest at the weekend, so why should they give the worker time off? I suggest that, with a little planning – having food prepared a day earlier, arranging to go out for a meal, having clothes washed and ironed the next day – it is not difficult to dispense with a worker’s services one day each week, even for those least inclined to do housework themselves. This can have positive social consequences when it comes to children; by giving their full care and attention to their children one day a week, in the absence of the domestic worker, parents can build stronger bonds of affection, trust and mutual understanding with their younger family members.

Some employers say that if they give their worker a day off, she might ‘fall into bad company’ and become pregnant, which will mean that they stand to lose their $5000 bond. Let me say, first of all, that these are grown women, who now, by law, must be over 23 years of age: it is quite unjustified to try to regulate any adult’s behaviour in this way, whoever they are. There is an age of consent in Singapore and all domestic workers are over it: employers should not have any right to prescribe their workers’ sexual behaviour, except in so far as access to their property by other people or negligence towards duties is concerned.

These are generally responsible women who want to earn money for their families; they know that if they become pregnant, the consequences will be bad for them – if they decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, they will be sent home and be unable to earn money here. Worse, if they are in the early months of employment, they will go home bearing a burden of debt from the recruitment process: they do not want to become pregnant or lose their jobs.

Employers do not lose their security deposit if a worker becomes pregnant – only if she disappears or does not leave Singapore before having a baby. Their fears may be real, but they are exaggerated: in 2005, only 64 employers – 0.04 per cent of the total – lost their security deposits.

As I said before, domestic workers need a regular day off like everyone else. They need to relax, to have a change of scenery, routine and company. A day off can be a chance to meet friends, to eat together, to do a course of study or training: the possibilities are many and growing.

But there will be other consequences if a regular day off becomes standard practice, protected by law. Abuse is a problem and the evidence can be seen in hostels and newspaper reports with great regularity. In the great majority of abuse cases, the abused worker is employed in a household that does not give her a day off. This is surely not coincidental. Those households are more likely to be the ones that treat their workers with less consideration in the first place. They are also places where, when tensions build up, it is all too easy for an irritated employer to vent them on a domestic worker, knowing that she can’t go out and escape and that it is very hard for her to seek help from anyone. If she could go out regularly, even if she did not speak up, any injuries and bruises she had would be likely to be noticed and reported by someone. A day off each week would be one of the surest deterrents to abuse: how many employers would dare to strike a worker, or worse, knowing that in a few days’ time, their action could be reported to the police and exposed to the world?

When TWC2 was first launched, we quickly realised that securing a regular day off as a recognised and implemented right was vital to improving the position of domestic workers, both here and throughout the world. We have never wavered in that conviction and I appeal to you to do your utmost to help bring about a Singapore in which every working person has a day off once a week, guaranteed and maintained by law.