This article appeared in ‘Today’ on August 3, 2006 and is reproduced as published.

Give the maid a break

The issue of a regular rest day needs to be legislated, not left to private contract

John Gee

A new standard contract for domestic workers and employers, produced by CaseTrust and the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) (AEAS), will come into force from Sept 15.

The contract tackles some problems, but leaves room for improvement — there are issues better tackled by law than by contract.

The Government has been reluctant to intervene in employer-employee relations to extend basic protections to these domestic workers, except in the matters of physical security and, recently, regular payment of salaries.

In 1998, it amended the Penal Code to up penalties for abusive employers. Last year, the conditions set out on the work permit application form were amended to say that the employer must pay the domestic worker her salary every month by a stipulated time.

These and a series of other measures — positive as they are — leave foreign domestic workers inadequately protected. They are not covered by the Employment Act or alternative legislation that gives them increased protection while making allowances for the particular conditions of working within a family household.

As a result, over half the 160,000 foreign domestic workers employed here work seven days a week, sometimes up to 15 hours each day. Employers are told that their workers must be allowed sufficient rest and provided with adequate food, but what does this mean? There is a need for clear guidelines.

The Government has argued that it is not feasible to enforce certain measures in the home environment and that legislating would lead to “rigidities and inconvenience” for many households.

It prefers that conditions be set through a contract between employer and employee.

There are a number of difficulties with this approach. It can be argued that certain standards, such as a regular day off or a minimum number of hours of uninterrupted rest, are so fundamental to human well-being that they should not be left to a contract. The basic standard should be fixed in law, and this would determine the limits of flexibility.

Secondly, a contract should be an agreement freely made between the parties concerned, but how much choice do foreign domestic workers really have when they arrive carrying a burden of debt and their families’ expectations?

Can they say “no” to an agent who tells them that they will be sent “back home” if they do not accept a “no days off” contract?

These considerations should give pause for thought about the new standard contract. It is certainly a step forward: Instead of a variety of contracts of differing quality, there will now be one industry-wide standard that is clearly worded, and that makes a serious attempt to acknowledge the rights and requirements of employers and workers.

This contract sets out sensible arrangements for the regular payment of salaries and contains a clause that provides that “external communications shall be made available”.

The worker must be allowed to call bodies that can give her advice at all times — an important protective measure.

There are areas where it is deficient. It is on the issue of a regular day off that the standard contract is at its weakest. By providing the option of a worker having up to four days off a month, it seems to guarantee that she will have at least one day off.

But this step forward is threatened by the provision allowing for the worker to be compensated in cash for not taking her rest day. This seems fair in principle, but could easily be misused. A worker could easily be coerced into giving up all her days off.

There remains the problem of making sure that the contract is honoured. It is daunting for a domestic worker who believes she has been wronged to go through the long process of seeking redress. She needs to earn money, find somewhere to stay, or arrange to leave and return to Singapore, as well as deal with an unfamiliar bureaucratic system — even though it is one that tries to treat her fairly and with consideration.

In short, there is a strong case for further moves by the Government to ensure that foreign domestic workers receive the basic protection necessary for their wellbeing and human dignity.

Making a regular day off a requirement by law is one crucial measure. In principle, it should be on a weekly basis. A regular day off would be the most effective means of reducing incidents of “maid abuse”, cutting the number of suicides by domestic workers, and countering abusive behaviour by stressed workers towards people in their care.

By providing these women with a chance to seek advice, find help and unwind, many of the more tragic outcomes of conflict and tension in the employer’s household might be avoided.

A mandatory day off would give protection to workers whose employers deliberately prevented them from communicating with the outside world so that they cannot seeking help from embassies, fellow workers, the Ministry of Manpower’s hotline or other bodies.

If there is one measure that could improve the position of domestic workers almost overnight, this is it. All the practical objections, including those about the bond employers put up, have answers once there is the will to find them.

The writer is the co-editor of Dignity Overdue, a book about the foreign domestic worker issue. He is the vice-president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an advocacy group for migrant workers