Still Struggling for a Weekly Day Off
By Jolovan Wham
When the Ministry of Manpower made the announcement last year that a weekly day off for migrant domestic workers would be legislated from January 2013, domestic workers and migrant rights activists cheered. It was a hard won battle. For almost a decade, we had been campaigning for domestic workers to be entitled to this very basic labour and human right.
Resistance to granting rest days was fierce and remains so today. According to a recent Straits Times report, the majority of employers interviewed planned to compensate the domestic workers financially rather than grant them a day off a week.
Two months ago, I responded to a call for help from a Filipino domestic worker – she had been dismissed by her employer because she insisted on her right to a weekly day off. The employer was only willing to grant one day off a month and was unhappy that the worker appeared to be uncompromising about the issue. Subsequent calls to the Ministry of Manpower, as well as to her employment agency, confirmed this. I shared this on Facebook and it stirred a heated debate, with the usual grouses and ‘horror stories’ of errant maids surfacing.
When I emailed the Ministry of Manpower for their response to the Filipino domestic worker I assisted, they referred me to their FAQ page, which states:
“To give greater flexibility to employers who require FDWs (Foreign Domestic Workers) to work on rest days and FDWs who prefer to work on rest days, employers and FDWs may contract off all or part of the FDWs’ rest days for a period of two years by paying compensation in lieu of the rest days. The agreement to contract off all or part of the FDW’s rest days in return for a higher salary can be re-negotiated if the employer and FDW mutually agree to do so. If the FDW and employer are unable to reach a mutual agreement, they may approach their EA (Employment Agency) for advice, or either party may choose to terminate their contract with sufficient notice.”
This response ignores the uneven bargaining power between domestic workers and their employers, and the fact that domestic workers arrive already indebted to the recruitment agency for her job in Singapore. When an employer can easily compensate a worker to forgo her days off, or arbitrarily dismiss and repatriate her because she requests for weekly days off, this law, couched as a way to protect a fundamental labour right, becomes meaningless. MOM’s assertion that either party can ‘choose to terminate their contract with sufficient notice’ does not acknowledge the reality that the employer enjoys the unilateral right to cancel a domestic worker’s work permit. Moreover, the worker is not guaranteed a full day of rest. According to Ministry of Manpower guidelines, the employer may still request a worker to perform ‘light duties’ and the number of hours of time off allowed on rest days is left up to the employer and the worker to decide.
The issue of granting domestic workers a day off is controversial. It has, in the words of a senior Ministry of Manpower official, ‘polarised the Singapore public’. When the Day Off campaign was re-launched in 2007, the NGOs involved were summoned to a meeting by the MOM, and warned against whipping up public sentiment. They were also told not to start a petition calling for a legislated weekly day off, which they had planned to submit to parliament. I was told by a reporter friend that editors at the major local newspapers were asked to tone down coverage of the campaign. Campaign posters that were put up along the North East Line mysteriously disappeared and friends who worked as teachers in local schools told us their administration received a circular from the Ministry of Education not to engage the NGOs.
The government’s nervousness about the issue has resulted in piecemeal approaches and the granting of minor concessions. This may be due to the perception that attempts to increase the protection of domestic workers will result in a strong reaction from irate employers, who often accuse the government of doing little to protect their interests. The current Day Off legislation, despite how it has been framed as a progressive move, is far from a victory for domestic workers, who are still held hostage to employer’s fears and self-interest. Recruitment agents are sometimes culpable too, by encouraging employers not to grant domestic workers weekly days off.
The concerns of employers are numerous: they are typically about domestic workers slackening off, picking up ‘bad attitudes’, having boyfriends, bringing strangers into the house, ‘prostituting’ themselves, moonlighting and getting pregnant. Employers frequently stress the importance of trust, as these women live in their homes and care for their loved ones. Domestic workers who have weekly days off are perceived as ‘vulnerable’ to outside influences, and need to prove themselves trustworthy before such ‘risks’ can be taken.
But these are problems that cannot be resolved by keeping workers indoors, and certainly not by denying them their rights. Domestic workers continue to be one of the least protected workers in the world. They are excluded from statutory benefits such as paid annual and medical leave, public holidays, and overtime pay. How long more do they have to wait before we grant them basic labour protections?
*This article was written in commemoration of International Domestic Workers’ Day (June 16). At this time last year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of which Singapore is a member, adopted Convention 189 which establishes basic labour standards for domestic workers. The adoption of this convention was historic because it was the first time that an international bill of rights to guarantee minimum labour protections for domestic workers was established. However, Singapore was one among few countries which did not support the adoption of the convention.
Categories: Day Off