Singapore domestic workers fighting for their day off
It is Sunday, and a chorus of Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia greets shoppers at the Lucky Plaza mall along Singapore's Orchard Road. Hundreds of foreign domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere come here every Sunday to catch up with friends and send money home via the many remittance shops. They make up the 200,000-plus workers employed in Singapore's households.
Liza Padua is among them. She is here to meet friends and celebrate her 49th birthday. Her friends have brought cake and presents, and she is looking forward to a day of festivities. She has spent 20 years in Singapore as a domestic helper and has always enjoyed her day off.
"It's so good to have Sunday off and be able to reconnect with your friends and keep in touch with the Philippine community," she said.
"Many of us have families we left behind back home, so meeting with friends is a nice way to have a sense of having a family too here in Singapore."
Having a day off from work is a basic right for workers around the world, but in Singapore a weekly rest day for domestic workers was only introduced at the start of this year. Previously, they were only allowed one day off a month. When the topic of a weekly day off was first broached, there was backlash from some quarters in Singapore who felt that the move would inconvenience many households.
But nine months on since the new ruling came into effect, critics say it is not being enforced. John Gee, an activist and past president of advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too was one of the people behind a decade-long campaign lobbying the Singapore government to give domestic helpers a mandatory day off a week.
He thinks the ruling is long overdue but estimates that in spite of it, as many as 50% of Singapore's domestic helpers still do not get a weekly day off.
"Saying that there has to be a regular day off for domestic workers doesn't necessarily mean they get it. The problem is there are two get-out clauses if you're an employer who doesn't want to give a day off," he said.
"The first is that if you're a domestic worker who signed a contract before 2013, when the law came into effect, you still have to serve out your two-year contract before you can have a day off. Then there's a clause that says a worker and employer can agree that they'll be paid to work the day off. Many employers are prepared to offer extra money but they aren't prepared to give workers a day off. "
Mr Gee says Singapore will often compare itself with the best in the world when it comes to business practices, but when it comes to domestic workers they will often compare themselves with the worst, such as the Gulf countries. This he thinks is wrong and needs to change.
Reports from international non-government organisations appear to back up his claims. Singapore's labour laws exclude domestic workers from the Employment Act, which regulates hours worked, safety guidelines, time off and retirement. Singapore also has no minimum wage system, but advice from employment agencies suggest domestic helpers are on average paid between S$400 ($320; £200) to S$600 a month, excluding a levy of S$265 that is paid to the government.
The nation has abstained on several key votes on the issue at the International Labour Organization (ILO). Singapore is one of only nine countries that did not ratify the ILO convention on domestic workers that includes rules on working hours, minimum wages, and maternity protection.
Domestic workers seeking to better their lives can look to a number of organisations in Singapore. One such is Aidha, a micro-business school, which started under the auspices of United Nations Women in 2006. At S$350 for a nine-month course, domestic workers are given financial training, entrepreneurship and computer skills.
Ms Padua is a graduate from the school, which she says has enabled her to lease a farm in the Philippines and buy a water buffalo to work the land. It has helped her put her six nephews and nieces through college back in the Philippines. She undertook the cost of the lessons, but when she graduated her employers were so pleased they gave her a bonus.
But for every contented domestic helper in Singapore, there are also ones who have suffered terrible ordeals at the hands of their employers. Jane - not her real name - arrived from the Philippines two years ago to take up a job as a domestic helper in a Singaporean household. But she ran away after being abused by her employers, who she said regularly hit her. She added that they would often punish her by forcing her hands down the toilet while it was filled with a combination of bleach and urine for 15 minutes at a time.
Jane said she escaped by jumping out of their kitchen window and in the process, breaking one of her legs. She was rescued by another domestic worker in the building, who called a helpline for migrant workers. That happened last October, and the police are currently still investigating her case.
Jane said she had no choice but to escape because her employers never let her out and she was not allowed to speak to anyone. The consequences of not having a day off in her case meant she could not get help through the usual channels.
Singapore's Ministry of Manpower declined a BBC request for an interview, but issued a statement saying the weekly rest day policy would take time to implement.
"As with any policy, we have had to give time for the various parties to adjust. The rest day requirement was designed to be phased in over two years, and will cover all employment relationships from 1 January 2015. The agreement to opt for compensation in-lieu should be based on mutual consent, as with any contractual agreement. It should not be concluded under duress."
The ministry will impose stiff penalties of up to S$10,000 for employers who force their domestic helpers to go without a rest day or fail to compensate them for working on a rest day. Such employers could also face a jail term of up to 12 months.
But for Jane, who now works at a shelter for migrant workers helping others who are still escaping abuse, these rules cannot come soon enough.
"I don't want others to go through the same experience as me, so I want to share my story."
Domestic workers in Singapore
- No minimum wage
- Singapore abstained from International Labour Organization vote on convention concerning decent work for domestic workers in 2011
- Domestic workers are not covered under Employment Act, which includes hours of work, rest days, safety guidelines and retirement, among others
- Singapore's Ministry of Manpower states on its website that "it is not practical to regulate specific aspects of domestic work"
- It says "it would be hard to compute overtime payments, as domestic workers' work/free time are difficult to define and regulate in the same way as employees working in office or factories"
Story Type: News