Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Singapore’s Maids: No Respite?

Despite new legislation, progress on rights for Singapore’s foreign domestic workers remains slow.

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Since January 1, 2013, those joining Singapore’s army of more than 200,000 foreign domestic workers, employed in about one in five households, saw a new clause in their contracts, giving them the right to one day off a week. Seven months on, however, progress seems uneven and spotty. According to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a Singaporean non-government organization specializing in migrant worker issues that has interviewed domestic workers at popular recreational hangouts and Sunday courses, there has been no significant increase in the numbers of foreign domestic workers taking days off.

Another report, titled Made to Work, released by three non-government organizations in 2011, stated that only about a third of foreign domestic workers have at least one day off a week. Additionally, in a normal month, about half have at least a day (usually a Sunday or a public holiday) off. These statistics remain a concern, combined with the live-in aspect of domestic work and the often long working hours of domestic workers, usually between 14 to 16 hours a day.

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Maid to Order report on Singapore’s foreign domestic workers found that from 1999 to 2005, around 147 foreign domestic workers have died while working. This number included both fatal workplace accidents and suicides. HRW cites the unsafe and stressful work environment, the large debts incurred through the use of employment agents, coupled with abuse from their employers as the main causes of domestic worker suicides and accidents. Most were due to falling from heights, as a popular method of suicide is self-defenestration. Falling out of windows while cleaning was also a common cause of workplace fatalities. Other abuses in the workplace documented in the report ranged from “forced confinement, unpaid wages, and exorbitant debt payments.” Added to this is a litany of other verbal and physical abuse, which can be from either the labor agents or the domestic employer. Singapore’s low crime rate in general sits incongruously when compared to the rates of abuse inflicted upon its foreign domestic worker population. The Day Off law seeks to target this statistic.

Although the Day Off policy was referred to as a “basic labour right” by Minister of State for Manpower, Tan Chuan-Jin, the legislation has aroused much public discomfort. In an attempt to compromise, the Ministry of Manpower included a clause to allow for the employer to negotiate with the domestic worker and mutually agree on compensation in-lieu of rest days.

In their opinion of the day-off legislation, employers fall into two camps. According to John Gee of the TWC2, “Those who already gave their workers a regular day off thought that it was a good step, and very reasonable, and those who were against giving days off were still against and came out with the familiar old arguments about why they shouldn't have to give their workers days off – none of which actually stand up to serious examination.”

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Complicating the issue, employers have to pay a security bond of 5000 Singapore dollars, in addition to a monthly tax of 295 Singapore dollars commonly referred to as a “maid levy.”* The bond is open to forfeiture should the domestic worker transgress against work permit regulations. The state, with its Work Permit conditions, governs the foreign domestic worker’s sexual, reproductive and marital rights. For the foreign domestic worker, there are restrictions on marriage to a Singaporean, pregnancy or immoral activities, which can constitute a breach of the work permit. Any breach leaves the worker open to deportation and their employer losing the security deposit. As such, the employer’s interest to govern the domestic worker’s free time is intensified. Employers saw the need to police their domestic worker’s recreational time from “immoral” behavior, illegal moonlighting, or falling in with the wrong crowd.

According to research by Singaporean academics Belinda Yeoh and Shirlena Huang, more than two-thirds of Singaporean employers are aware of where and how their domestic worker spends their days off. While sometimes the domestic worker volunteers the information, other times information is gained through direct interrogation or surveillance. Public places where domestic workers gather, such as Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road, which provides a range of services for the Filipino population and a popular domestic worker hangout spot, are especially seen as a social problem due to its nightclubs, bars and large numbers of mingling domestic workers on their days off.

Public perceptions on the rights of migrant workers in Singapore remains mired in Singapore’s immigration politics. Public discontent about over-crowding and creaking infrastructure emerged as a political problem for the government in the last general election in 2011 when the opposition made unprecedented gains, winning for the first time a group representation constituency.

For now, including a pay in-lieu compromise in the legislation has left the Day Off policy prone to abuse and uneven implementation. TWC2’s Gee noes that, “Few ‘no day off employers’ seem to have changed, though those few may be important in contributing to a longer term shift in social norms.” As economic growth in the traditional suppliers of domestic workers provide women with better opportunities at home, Singapore’s labor laws governing domestic workers will have to keep pace and offer more attractive working conditions. The Singaporean government is cognizant of the disparity; in justifying the policy, they cited Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong as either introducing or already having mandatory rest day legislation.

Ultimately, there has been some progress in foreign domestic workers’ working conditions in Singapore, largely in reaction to incidents that attracted public outcry. There are signs that workplace physical abuse has lessened since the late 1990s, which saw a spate of shocking incidents. Unsafe cleaning of windows leading to fatal accidents appears to have decreased, following high-profile cases and public education.

Still, the lack of public sympathy for the right to rest is evident in the sporadic compliance with the new legislation. Coupled with a lack of enforcement and oversight mechanisms, more needs to be done to give Singapore’s foreign domestic workers greater labor rights, including a day off.

Teckwah Tan has recently completed a Masters of Asia-Pacific Studies from the Australian National University.

* Corrected from the original. The bond and levy are two different things. Thanks to commenter "justme" for pointing this out.