By Francesca

Ummai, a 34-year-old domestic worker from Indonesia remembers a dark stretch of her life when she would cry every night. She was 17-years-old, on her first job as a domestic worker, and her Singaporean employers did not give her a day off. “It was terrible, I had no one to talk to, it was like prison,” she recalls. “I had no way to get advice. I was so lonely. Terribly lonely. I couldn’t leave the house or talk to the neighbours or even smile.” She lasted six weeks with that employer before she quit and went back to Indonesia. 

Six weeks was intolerable for Ummai, but countless domestic workers throughout Singapore have endured years of work without being granted a rest day. 34-year-old Hannah Arroyo worked from 2007-2009 without a day off. She couldn’t bring herself to talk about it. Tears slowly rolled down her cheeks as she tried to smile her way through a conversation.

On Tuesday, the Singapore Ministry of Manpower took a first step toward limiting what an employer can demand of domestic workers like Ummai and Hannah. According to the new rules, any foreign domestic worker (FDW) who signs a new contract after January 1, 2013 will be legally entitled to a day of rest each week. The employee can determine if she prefers to be compensated in lieu of taking that day off.

Ummai has been waiting for this day since she came to Singapore 17 years ago. “Yee!” she says. “I’m really pleased with the day off legislation. A domestic worker has to have rest. We are human beings. We can’t work like robots.”

In a statement to the press, Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin said, “More than just physical rest, a rest day provides the FDW with an emotional and mental break from work. This helps to improve their productivity at work, and reduce the likelihood of management problems.”

While domestic workers like Ummai cheered the MOM’s new initiative, TWC2 vice-president Dr. Noorashikin Abdul Rahman  says the new legislation should cover all domestic workers, not only those hired after January 1, 2013. She also says, “the MOM should make clear what the penalty is if employers do not oblige by the new legislation so that those who are inclined to take this new law lightly will be more wary of the consequences of doing so.”

Fear prevents employers from giving FDWs a day off

Fear of financial penalty is the top reason employers cite for not currently granting FDWs a day off. According to a 2011 study, “Made to Work” conducted by UNIFEM, HOME and TWC2, employers worry that they may forfeit their $5,000 security bond if the FDW violates the conditions of her work permit. Widespread though this belief is, the truth is that:

since January 2010, MOM has removed employers’ liability if the FDW gets pregnant or breaches other Work Permit conditions that relate to her own behaviour. It is untrue that the $5,000 security bond will be forfeited for pregnancy.

— Press statement by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), 25 June 2011.

Employers also fear FDWs won’t know what to do with their days off and will fall into bad company. The suspicious death of a Filipina domestic worker and a Bangladeshi man in a Geylang hotel bedroom over the weekend fans these fears. But these dramatic cases are the exception.

What actually happens on a day off?

Liza Villaflores, a 43-year-old Filipina who has been a domestic worker in Singapore for 20 years says she takes advantage of her regular days off to upgrade herself. Ms. Villaflores has every Sunday off and has used this time over the years to take classes in first aid, hotel and restaurant management and computer use. These days, she’s a regular at the Singapore Tae Kwan Do association where she has earned a black belt.

Liza says the new proposed law mandating a day off will give workers a chance to relax and she adds, “Lots of girls will learn something on Sundays.” She says domestic workers must be careful with their decisions because between employee and employer, “Trust is the most important thing.”