It was thus an uphill battle for groups such as TWC2, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), Unifem Singapore (now UN Women), activists and supporters. For the longest time, the Government too rejected the call for a rest day for the workers.
To the ordinary person, it was puzzling and indeed embarrassing to see that there was even a need to champion such a cause – a day off for workers is a norm in countries around the world. Singapore, sadly, was among the exceptions.
Employers offered up various reasons for their objection. The domestic workers may engage in activities which the employers disapprove of, they might get themselves pregnant, they may hang out with bad company on their off days, etc.
On the other side of the fence, activists also cited a slew of reasons why giving domestic helpers a day off is the right thing to do – these workers should be accorded the right to rest, they’re under tremendous amount of stress working virtually round the clock all days of the week, and that a day off may be the only time a domestic worker can get away to report any abuse she may be suffering under her employer.
In 2008, 3 non-governmental organisations – TWC2, HOME and Unifem Singapore – came together and launched the “Day Off” campaign.
“A day off is critical in creating and maintaining a positive working relationship between employer and employee,” the NGOs’ press release said then. “It can improve morale and productivity and most importantly empower the domestic worker as an individual. And with so much focus on the importance of a work life balance for all kinds of workers - the campaign is really only asking people to treat others as they would wish to be treated themselves.”
Their 4-year effort, which included events, videos, and a website, has finally paid off.
There were also ordinary Singaporeans who also chipped in with their own little effort – including the "Why I Want A Day Off" Facebook page set-up by Ms Biddy Low, which encouraged the domestic workers themselves to express why they want a day of rest.
Ms Siti Nur said:
“I have been working about 3 years and have no day off at all. I want to get day off even only 1 a month because I want to get rest and relaxing my mind. I want to meet my friends. Honest I am jealous to my friend who have day off, why I have no day off?”
According to the president of HOME, Ms Bridget Tan, the reason for the breakthrough on Monday, in the Government finally mandating a day off, is Mdm Halimah Yacob, the Minister of State for the Ministry for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).
Ms Tan paid tribute to Mdm Halimah on her Facebook page a day after the announcement by the Government about the new rule:
“We must also give credit to one incredible woman - no other than Madam Halimah Yacob. She gave the best speech I have ever heard on the rights of domestic workers at the United Nations, Geneva! When the ILO DW Convention was adopted last year and when I met her in [New York] for the CEDAW review, Madam Halimah Yacob again… assured me of Singapore's commitment to her obligations under CEDAW. After the [General Election], Madam Halimah Yacob, now MOS, MCYS, raised a call for the mandatory weekly rest day for FDWs. Yes, I believe she is the woman behind the breakthrough. Thank you Halimah!”
Mdm Halimah had, in June last year, lent her voice to the call for a rest day. “Just like other workers who enjoy a rest day, domestic workers, too, need to rest and should not be made to work excessive hours that could affect their health and well-being,” the Straits Times reported her as having said then.
Reactions to the new rule have largely been positive, especially online. However, some employers are upset about the change. "This is bad news for women who are working," said 49-year-old mother of four children Poon Boon Eng, reported the Associated Press. "If I let her go out four days a month, it will be very hectic for me. I need to rest on Sunday too."
To be sure, the new rule is just a first step, as supporters recognise. How the new legislation will be enforced when it takes effect from Jan 2013 is another matter. For now, there is satisfaction that the Government has heard the voices of not just the activists but also of the domestic workers themselves.
To supporters of the rest day, it should have come sooner. Ms Saleemah Ismail, who was president of Unifem Singapore in 2008 when the Day Off campaign was launched, posted a sombre note on her Facebook page, and in doing so, explains why perhaps a day off is crucial:
“When I first heard the news on Monday morning of the mandatory day off, the first person that came to my mind was Muawanatul Chasanah who died in 2001 after suffering over 200 canning, scalding and burning injuries in addition to starvation. I remember thinking in 2008 how would her life have been different if after that first time she was abused, she had a day off to leave the house of her employer where she could tell someone about the abuse and seek help. How would her life have been different. She was my catalyst. Rest in peace, Muawanatul.”
The savagery inflicted on Muawanatul - and others like her - is perhaps reason enough to accord our foreign domestic workers a right as basic as a day of rest. It could be the only thing which may save them from abuse and yes, even death.