However, any premature enthusiasm should be moderated until we are privy to the letter and spirit of this particular law. This new move begs more than a few questions which remain unanswered. How enforceable is this legally-binding piece of legislation? Who’s going to police and scrutinize employers and make sure they comply? What about reprisals for transgression? How qualitatively different is it going to be from the current "standard contracts" which already are instituted (that disproportionately favour employers who can "buy off" discretionary off days)? How about bargaining power or employer-employee dynamics in a new milieu which usually gravitate towards the employer; and are compounded by issues of bad debt, agent loans to service and the impounding of passports.
Nonetheless, it is a welcome reprieve after a protracted spell of NGO pressure in Singapore. This is a timely change considering how FDWs (and contract labour migrants by extension) are a seemingly "sub"/lesser strata of human beings in Singapore - with their rights systematically denied and thwarted variously under citizenship discourse, scare-mongering and moral panics (pregnancy, moonlighting, forfeiture of bond). This will be a much-deserved respite from the rigours of the work week and ensure that their physical and mental wellbeing are not entirely neglected. It also will go a long way to “de-demonizing” their presence in public places like Orchard Road and Lucky Plaza. The consumption of public space should be as it is - a public good not restricted or exclusive to anyone in particular. It is both bigoted and trite to hear the familiar refrains that they are an “eyesore” or that they “bring the third world into the first”.
The artificial private-public binary continues to be an alibi (one of Singapore's several reservations to CEDAW concerns labour rights of FDWs) that de-legitimizes domestic work as decent and dignified work . Domestic work is labour as well. Domestic workers are human beings too. Employers should disavow false dichotomies (i.e. an off day engenders a situation where all hell breaks loose and the domestic worker goes loco) and it is paramount to disaggregate such neat categories and polarities. This moral panic of domestic workers engaging in sordid trysts and liaisons, moonlighting on the side, acquiring “tricks of the trade” from their peers on their off days is an unfounded and misplaced fear. They stem from the rhetoric, injunctions and policy that preside over FDWs - expecting "asexuality" (and other such bio-politics), categorical servitude (or risk losing the bond), paying a levy which tacitly suggests ownership or at least control. The premium placed on such controls elides over the individual rights of FDWs such as control and autonomy over their own bodies, their various freedoms and rights. But that is a story and fight for another day.
For now, we commend this piece of legislation as a small triumph. At least at the level of policy, it does suggest some measure of political will to eschew an implicit “hierarchy of human beings” which has plagued the low skilled/low waged migrant worker community. We can only hope this crystallizes into something that is actionable and enforceable. As a parting word, a caveat is in order. This does not and should not efface the fact that structurally, FDWs are still a vulnerable population which is not covered under the Employment Act (EA). The EA stipulates for work hours, rest, leisure, remuneration, compensation and other concomitant rights. They toil and labour in the confines of the homestead everyday silently and invisibly, providing care, labours of love, cleaning and cooking. How do we “objectively” put a value to such labour? Can we, really?
A barometer measuring how civil and civic our society is should consider how we treat the most vulnerable, helpless and unprotected. This piece of news is a morsel of hope. We need to reframe the debate from one of "deserving-ness" to one of "rights". This is especially exigent since FDWs cannot stake claims to citizenship rights in Singapore; and need the logic and language of human rights as a safeguard. In the meantime, we need to thank the migrant worker NGOs for their relentless industry and effort in the face of formidable and sustained opposition. We still have a long way to go, Singapore. These include removing the ratifications to CEDAW, signing and ratifying the Migrant Workers Convention and ILO 189. For now, we take the little triumphs as they come and face new battles after the dust settles on this piece of news. As Bridget Tan of HOME mentioned in its press release, we could start with the provision of facilities for social and recreation activities, enrichment classes for upgrading, and other activities that mainstream their presence into society. Singapore has long gotten its “hardware” in order, it is time we look cultivate our “heart-ware”.
By Joses Kuan.
Statement by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) in response to MOM’s Press Release ‘Weekly Rest day for Foreign Domestic Workers':
We welcome and applaud The Ministry of Manpower’s decision to legislate a weekly rest day for migrant domestic workers. With this new legislation in place, Singapore is a step closer towards the full recognition of domestic workers with the same kinds of rights as all other workers.
The lack of adequate protection has made live-in domestic work a highly stressful occupation and many women in such situations find it difficult to cope with the social isolation and demands of the job. As a result, many of them suffer from anxiety, depression and loneliness. Last month, it was reported that Vitria Depsi Wahyuno, an under aged Indonesian domestic worker, murdered her elderly employer because she was unable to cope with the latter’s demands and constant scolding. A weekly day off is important in order for domestic workers like Vitria to receive adequate social support, and to take a mental break from work.
While we acknowledge the need for flexibility to compensate the domestic worker with pay when a rest day is not taken, we are concerned that this provision may be abused by unreasonable employers and agents who may pressure her to work without any days off. The bargaining power of migrant domestic workers is weak because many of them are indebted to recruitment agents from the moment they arrive in Singapore. Employers also have the unilateral right to cancel a work permit and terminate her employment without justification. As a result, workers who wish to claim their right to a weekly day off may end up losing their jobs instead. In a situation where a domestic worker is wrongfully dismissed because of this, she should be given the right to switch to a new employer.
We are also concerned that the compensation given to domestic workers in lieu of a day off is less favourable than that provided for in our national labour laws. Under the Employment Act, the employee is entitled to two days wages for work done on a rest day at the request of an employer, and which are more than half an employee’s normal working hours. However, the proposed provision for domestic workers only remunerates her at a single day’s rate without taking an employer’s request into consideration.
HOME recognizes employers’ concerns regarding the activities that their domestic workers may engage in on a rest day. In anticipation of an increase in the number of domestic workers during weekends, we have established a ‘HOME Academy’ which offers courses in computer and English language classes. Other skills such as baking, cooking, dress making and caregiving are also available. The government should invest in resources to provide such services to domestic workers. In addition, HOME calls upon the government to provide social support services, such as counseling, cultural and recreational activities for migrant domestic workers. Initiatives which promote positive mental health should also be implemented and funding provided to ensure these services are adequate.
Governments, trade unions and NGOs around the world have recognized the need for better protections for domestic workers. This recognition has led to the adoption of the ILO Convention 189—the Domestic Workers Convention. Singapore’s decision to legislate a weekly day off should be the first among a series of reforms that will eventually lead to other employment rights that we take for granted to be extended to domestic workers.
Founder & President
Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics