Employment agencies will be required to conduct post-placement checks — one of the rule changes announced

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 22 July 2021 directed that “Employers will be required to provide their [domestic workers] with at least one rest day a month that cannot be compensated away.” That this measly one day off per month represents progress is a sad reflection on the state of affairs in Singapore.


Currently, the law states that domestic workers should get one rest day a week, but almost in the same breath, says that employers can “mutually agree” with their employees to trade away this rest day for a bit of extra pay.

Specifically, paragraph 12 of the relevant law says

the employer shall grant the foreign employee a rest day without pay for every 7-day period (including Sunday and public holidays)

— Part I of the Fourth Schedule of the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012

but right after that, paragraph 13 says

the employer does not have to grant a rest day to the foreign employee if there is a prior written agreement mutually agreed between the employer and the foreign employee (a) for the foreign employee to work in lieu of the rest day; and (b) for the foreign employee to be compensated for working in lieu of the rest day…

— ibid

The worker can be compensated with either a substitute rest day or with monetary compensation

which shall not be less than the rate of pay for one day’s work of the foreign employee.

— ibid

Unsurprisingly, it remains very common for domestic workers to have to work seven days a week. “Mutual agreement” is always suspect given the power dynamics inherent in the employer-employee relationship.

A video clip on Channel NewsAsia has the owner of Orange Employment Agency, Shirley Ng, saying, “Eighty percent of my employers will come to my agency and say, ‘I want a helper who is willing to work without day off’.”

She adds: “Sometimes I can try to mediate because some helpers do want that extra money. There are helpers who work seven days a week, 365 days a year, without a rest day. So I think it is mentally unhealthy.”

We believe this rule change came about because of a horrific case in which a Burmese domestic worker died after months of unreported abuse. She had no way to get help.

This aetiology may explain the headline used by MOM — “New Measures to Strengthen Support For Migrant Domestic Workers” — casting it as support rather than one of strengthening workers’ rights. A weekly rest day has been seen internationally as a right for a hundred years!

The changes

MOM announced four changes:

  1. One mandatory rest day per month that cannot be bought off;
  2. Doctors performing the six-monthly medical check will need to record body-mass index, check for signs of suspicious and unexplained injuries, and report their findings to MOM;
  3. Employment agencies will be required to implement post-placement checks on domestic workers — but no specifics were outlined in MOM’s announcement (perhaps later);
  4. Two interviews to be conducted by MOM (in partnership with its gongo*, the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE)) in their first year of work.

*gongo = Government-organised pseudo non-government organisation (NGO)

Presumably, these measures are meant to improve detection of abuses suffered by employees. But all of the above may prove inadequate. They seem to suffer from a poor understanding of ground realities. We will discuss these inadequacies below.


At TWC2, we have often observed that policy-making at MOM tends to be piecemeal and responsive only to specific news headlines or the latest outrage. The result is often a mix of band-aids over the identified problem. There appears to be an unwillingness to re-think systemically. We see a similar pattern in the latest measures.

The resistance to re-thinking systemically is an institutional feature and is probably because civil servants do not feel it is their place — or it might be dangerous to their careers — to critique the overarching dogma. The dogma here is that low-wage migrant workers should be wards of employers, not independent human beings in their own right. They have to be “looked after”, not freed to look out for their own interests. We will expand on this in a future commentary.

The other noticeable problem with policies coming out of the MOM is that they often do not look as if they have been fully stress-tested before announcement. To stress-test a proposed system, one has to “war-game” it, with participants playing the role of antagonists, determined to break or circumvent the proposals. The trouble with a government machinery filled with believers in the faith (i.e. the governing dogma) is that for too many, having spent a lifetime career-wise within the same government under the same ruling party, it has become personally uncomfortable for them to play the role of antagonists. They just cannot do it with fervour. It’s like asking a true believer to play devil’s advocate and argue the case that there is no God; he just cannot carry it off well. So, if at all any war-gaming was done, it was probably no more than half-hearted.

The alternative to war-gaming a proposed policy internally is to consult widely and publicly — not that both strategies are mutually exclusive anyway. The Singapore government, unfortunately, is too thin-skinned to do that; always fearful that they might look bad should there be criticism of their plans. They often claim that they have consulted, but consultation is more tokenism than genuine engagement with civil society or the public. In any case, TWC2 was not consulted prior to this announcement.

We say that the new measures do not look like they’ve been stress-tested or properly pre-consulted because a simple review (in the section below) will show its inadequacies. In short, the new measures may not be robust enough to pick out the violators as intended.

Let’s take each inadequacy in turn.


What if an employer is abusive and still does not give her domestic worker the mandatory one day off per month? How will we detect that?

The new rules suggest that employment agents, doing their post-placement checks, would hear of it from the domestic workers.  The assumption would be that workers would be open and honest with agents, but as discussed below, this is not a failsafe assumption.

In any case, among employment agents, there are good apples and bad apples. Some might in fact conspire with employers to control the workers, or they might want continuing business with the employer and therefore be reluctant to confront the employer. Moreover, agents’ fees are often paid in monthly installments by the worker. Escalating any complaint from a worker up to the authorities might prematurely disrupt the employment, thus exposing the agent to non-payment of the unpaid balance should the worker be laid off, as would be likely. So, (bad apple) agents could well be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The two interviews to be performed by MOM and CDE ought to be freer of conflict of interest. But look closely at MOM’s own announcement:

[The interviews] will provide [domestic workers] and their employers with more opportunities to raise and resolve issues, and settle into their working relationship.

The above suggests that employers will be present in the interviews. Surely, we don’t have to spell out what effect that will have on workers. Moreover, two interviews in the first year may mean the first interview isn’t conducted till six or more months into work. As TWC2’s Alex Au said to Today Online,

Mr Au also called on MOM to interview domestic workers thrice, rather than twice in their first year. The first interview should also be conducted within the first month of the worker’s employment.

“If the poor helper has to wait six months before somebody contacts her, it will be a long period of suffering under a bad employer,” he added.

— 23 July 2021, Today Online, Employers required to give maids at least 1 rest day a month from end-2022; day-off can’t be compensated away: MOM (link).

Six-monthly medical checks

As independent parties, doctors are least likely to conspire with employers to conceal abuse. However, it is also crucial that employers not be present when the worker is being seen by the doctor.

On the enhanced medical check-ups, Mr Au said that employers should not be allowed into the examination room and “must not be permitted to speak for the worker when the doctor has questions”.

He said: “In the presence of an abusive employer, workers are understandably afraid to speak up and explain their injuries truthfully.”

— 22/23 July 2021, Straits Times, Enhanced medical checks, one compulsory day off every month for maids in S’pore: MOM (link, possibly behind paywall)

The other problem is that doctors’ remit is very narrow. They can only detect physical abuse that affects a workers’ physical health. Abuse can take many forms, such as overwork (e.g. sixteen hours a day), verbal dehumanisation, and bans on communicating with friends and family.

Mandatory day off

MOM’s own announcement alluded to the value of a day off in surfacing abuses. The statement said,

[A mandatory rest day will] provide more opportunities for [domestic workers] to form a network of support outside the household…

But what if an employer still refuses to grant one? We’ve already pointed out above that employment agents may not report it, and interviews by MOM/CDE may not detect it. Such tight control by employers often come with taking away workers’ mobile phones, leaving them with no way to cry for help. In any case, as we said to the Straits Times,

Mr Au asked how the authorities can detect when an employer flouts the compulsory day-off rule.

He said: “If the domestic worker is not allowed out at all, how is she able to let others know of her plight, especially if she is new to Singapore and has not had the opportunity – in the absence of a day off – to make friends?

“We cannot even rely on her making a phone call to cry for help, because without a day off, she may not even be able to buy phone credits.”

— 22/23 July 2021, Straits Times, Enhanced medical checks, one compulsory day off every month for maids in S’pore: MOM (link, possibly behind paywall)

Better solution through solving systemic issues

There is one underlying assumption behind these measures that needs to be interrogated, and it is that workers themselves, if given a chance, will raise issues to interviewers and doctors.

This assumption simply does not stand up to empirical experience. The cost of complaining is so high that workers themselves may choose to conceal their plight. By ‘cost of complaining’, we mean the likely loss of the job. Should this be the fallout from expressing her unhappiness, it would put her family’s financial security into doubt, as, especially for new workers, she still has a loan (for recruitment costs) to be paid off. There is no guarantee that she can get another job, because she has to depend on the goodwill of the current employer — and an abusive employer can hardly be expected to be overflowing with goodwill — to agree to a transfer. If the current employer does not agree, she will have to be repatriated, jobless and possibly penniless.

This points to the two key reforms that are needed. To eliminate this ‘cost of complaining’, we have to (a) eliminate, or at least substantially reduce, recruitment cost and (b) give workers the right to change jobs without need to get employers’ consent.

Better yet, think out of the box. Why are we going through all this trouble (and cost) of organising interviews to check up on domestic workers to ensure they get one mandatory rest day a month and that they’re not being abused with no escape? If we changed the rules to say that domestic workers must live out, and not stay in employers’ homes, we won’t be having the problem of abusive confinement.

Singapore throws around a lot of money and expends a lot of effort trying to solve problems — band-aid after band-aid — but we are very bad at questioning the dogmatic framework that created the problem in the first place.