By John Gee, former president of TWC2 (2007-2011)

Nearly 19 years ago, I joined a small group of people who planned to launch a one-year campaign aimed at achieving decent treatment and respect for domestic workers. An initial impetus to the campaign was the death of a young domestic worker called Muawanatul Chasanah at the hands of her employer. Within a couple of years, this initiative morphed into Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-governmental organization (NGO) concerned with the rights and well-being of all migrant workers, but our beginnings were quite modest and our goals fairly limited.

We agreed, prior to our public launch in 2003, to prepare a series of background papers. Along with two other people, I volunteered to work on a paper looking at where domestic workers facing abusive treatment could go to seek help. When I began working on it, I assumed that the main problem they faced was that there were few sources of assistance and advice available, but I soon discovered that this was not so.

Other workers could often be helpful with advice and information. Desperate workers could turn to their embassies and to the Ministry of Manpower. There were already religious bodies and voluntary organisations that provided assistance on a humanitarian basis. Agencies were a mixed bunch: some would just tell a worker who appealed for help to stop making a fuss and carry on working, but others showed real concern and actively helped workers.

The main problem turned out not to be that there was no-one to help, but that workers in need of assistance were not able to reach out for it. At that time, most had no days off and little or no free contact with the world beyond their employers’ residences. They did not have information on where to seek help and, in any case, their isolation prevented them from doing so.

As a result, the very first of the six policy recommendations at the end of that paper read:

“The introduction and enforcement of legal provisions that would oblige employers to give a minimum amount of weekly time off to domestic workers, including freedom to leave their accommodation, would help to remedy this problem.”

(Incidentally, the fourth proposal was for doctors who undertook the legally required six-monthly screening of domestic workers to be required to check for signs of abuse and to report them.)

Over the following years, I worked with TWC2 for a weekly day off for all domestic workers, focusing on the right to rest and have a break that all human beings need, but, fairly consistently, referring to having a day off being a check on abuse: a worker who goes out of her employers’ home once every week as a matter of right can seek advice and, if she is really desperate, make a complaint against her employer or escape her ill-treatment. Knowing this to be possible would also be a strong deterrent to potential abusers.

In 2012, the Ministry of Manpower announced that, as of 1 January 2013, domestic workers would have a right to a weekly day off. This led to an increase in the number of workers having some days off, and probably two out of three now have at least one day a month off. However, many still do not and this leaves them totally dependent on the quality of their employers’ character and values. The tenacity with which some employers resist giving a day off to their workers, must, in some cases, be ascribed to a desire to hold absolute power, including retaining the ability to impose long hours, inadequate food and unreasonable demands on workers, free from scrutiny.

A key problem is that, despite the mandatory day off policy, workers can still be denied days off. Legally, a worker and her employer can agree that the worker will surrender days off in return for payment. This allows employers who are determined to give no days off to have their way, sometimes with the connivance of agencies. A young woman who owes money for her recruitment, and whose family expect her to remit money to them, who is confronted with a demand that she agrees to no day off terms or being sent home, jobless, can easily be made to give her agreement. This is clearly not a genuine voluntary decision, but one determined by coercion.

Now, the trial of an employer who, along with family members, abused Piang Ngaih Don, her Myanmar domestic worker, and finally killed her, has concluded. Many among the public want to know what can be done to prevent such things happening again. They ask how this young woman, a mother barely above the legal age of employment for a domestic worker, could have been treated so appallingly without anyone knowing or reporting it.

Fault may be found with the agency that placed her with this family, with the doctor who conducted her health screening but did not report observing any sign of ill-treatment, with people nearby who might have been expected to notice that something bad was happening in this household and above all, with a family whose values allowed them to treat another human being in a callous and brutal way. It has been suggested that more checks by agents on workers’ wellbeing and further public education are the answer.

Yet the best and most effective way to counter abuse have been highlighted for years already and remain the best policy response. It is to empower domestic workers by legally requiring that they should all have weekly days off, during which they can leave their employers’ homes freely. There can be negotiation between employers and workers over which days, and over giving a day off in-lieu when an employer wishes a worker to stay and work on her usual rest day, but the basic principle should be firmly established. Some employers will plead family needs, but the vast majority of families in the world cope without having employed domestic workers at all. It can be done.

This commentary was published by the Business Times in its weekend edition of 7-8 March 2021.