This commentary by John Gee, immediate past president of TWC2, was carried in Today newspaper on 22 July 2013:

It is just before 9am on a Sunday and there is an elegantly dressed woman in the lift, but she is carrying a large bag that does not go with her outfit. She steps out of the lift, to be greeted by two other women who embrace her and talk excitedly. Mystery solved: They are domestic workers on their day off, and perhaps the bag contains food for sharing.

Meeting and talking with friends during time off is such a basic part of human life that, for most people, it would be unthinkable to do without it in their own lives. Yet, tens of thousands of domestic workers in Singapore are still not able to do that, as they have no days off.

In March last year, Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin announced that a weekly day off for domestic workers would become mandatory from Jan 1 this year. This was a major step forward for domestic workers’ rights and well-being, but two provisions within the new policy have tended to reduce its impact.

One is that a contract signed before January this year did not have to provide for a weekly day off or payment in compensation, although the new terms must be included when the contract is renewed. A worker employed under a two-year “no day off” contract in December 2012 would have to wait until December 2014 before she has the chance to assert her right to a day off. Some women hired last year knew nothing about the new policy and felt wronged when they heard of compatriots employed only a few months later who did get day-off terms, say migrant welfare groups.

An estimate of the number of workers disadvantaged by this provision can only be approximate, but with some 3,000 or so arriving every month and less than half of new workers having any days off before the new regulation came into force, it is likely that some 40,000 women at least will end up having to wait before the right to a weekly day off is written into their contracts.

A bigger problem is that the new regulation allows an employer to come to a mutual agreement with a worker on giving up some or all rest days each month, provided that compensation of at least one day’s wage on top of her monthly salary is given.

On the face of it, this is a balanced provision, but in practice, it allows employers who are determined to have their workers on hand all day, every day, to deny them any time off. It is not based on the recognition that the bargaining power of the two parties is radically different.

A new worker faced with bearing her recruitment and training expenses and going home empty-handed as the alternative to saying “yes” to a no-day-off contract may be easily coerced into agreeing. There is nothing genuinely voluntary about that. Even well-established workers are vulnerable to the threat of losing their jobs and being sent home if they do not agree to take no days off.

There has been change, but it is patchy. Recent arrivals from the Philippines report that agencies there are quite conscientious about informing them that they are entitled to a weekly day off. The agency record in Singapore is more mixed, with many continuing to be all too keen to encourage employers to give no days off — especially during the early months of a placement, when agencies have an exaggerated fear of workers absconding and their employers stopping payment of their fees.

Others, though, have taken the changes in their stride and encourage employers to give days off, though they will not refuse the business of a determined “no day off” employer.

Workers’ assertiveness over their right to a day off is influenced by the information they have about their rights, the supportiveness or otherwise of home country governments and embassies, and the possibility of alternative employment. Of the largest groups of workers here by nationality, Filipinas seem best placed to insist on a day off, and Myanmar women the least, with Indonesians somewhere in between.

There has been progress — but there is still a long way to go before all domestic workers enjoy that weekly day off that most other employees take for granted.