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Singapore: A Part Of The Family?

Singapore: A Part Of The Family?

by IDWFED published Jun 16, 2015 12:00 AM
HOME argues that ill treatment of domestic workers goes beyond physical, sexual and psychological abuse.



When the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Domestic Worker's Convention this month four years ago, it was a long overdue moment in the history of workers’ rights. Those who were care-givers, child minders, cooks, and cleaners in private households were excluded from labour laws in many places around the world. Even as struggles were fought and won by trade unions in the past, domestic workers were almost always systematically excluded from these victories. Society could no longer deny the estimated 53 million domestic workers globally, most of whom are women and girls, equal treatment and decent working conditions.

The important role that migrant domestic workers play in our society is undeniable. One in five Singaporean households hires one. Not only do countries of origin benefit from the billions of dollars in remittances, families who employ them are able to enjoy a better quality of life. Those with children and the infirm elderly especially, benefit greatly. In Singapore, the government recognises this and has striven to make employment of domestic workers more affordable and accessible through levy concessions.

So crucial is their role in the Singapore household that the government has projected in its population white paper that the number of domestic workers will increase from the current 220,000 to approximately 300,000 by 2030.

Despite the significance of their contributions, stories of abuse and ill treatment are regularly reported in the media. We are rightfully shocked by the horrific stories of beatings, lack of food, sexual assaults and non-payment of salaries.

However, dignity for domestic workers is not just about freedom from egregious abuse. Live-in domestic work has no set hours, holidays or weekends. Even though a weekly day off was legislated in 2012, the law allows domestic workers to be compensated in lieu of the day off for $20 to $30 per day, a sum which most employers can easily afford. The lack of bargaining power also results in many feeling pressured to accept such terms. As domestic workers require permission to switch employers, it is often difficult for them to assert their rights as they risk losing their jobs and being repatriated.

Those lucky enough to have rest days may not enjoy 24 hours of uninterrupted rest: for instance, many are expected to perform chores before leaving the house and come back in time to prepare dinner or look after a family member. The same basic rights which workers in many occupations already enjoy, such as public holidays, limits to hours of work, overtime pay and freedom of association should be accorded to domestic workers. The ILO Convention stipulates these basic standards but many countries around the world, including Singapore, continue to deny these protections to domestic workers.

It has been argued that using conventional labour laws such as the Employment Act to regulate work conditions would be difficult because of the informal nature of household chores. The live-in requirement also makes it challenging to determine hours of work and the calculation of overtime pay.

However, this should not be justification to require domestic workers to be on standby round the clock. Employment contracts which uphold the provisions of our labour law should be promoted. The terms and conditions which stipulate the duration and hours by which a domestic worker is expected to perform her duties should be clearly spelt out, together with rest periods, meal breaks and sleep time.

Apart from legislation, a shift in our attitudes is necessary: as employers, Singaporeans are too used to expecting domestic workers to perform household chores whenever it is required. Failure to establish fixed hours and regular patterns of work has made domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Recognising the contributions of domestic workers has to go beyond the giving of monetary incentives and rewards for their loyalty and service. It is also not about being compassionate towards her or treating her as a member of the family, important as this might be for many households. In fact, some employers have used this as an excuse to continue exploiting them, arguing that family members are expected to make sacrifices for one another with little benefits in return. What domestic workers really need is not our charity but the recognition that they should have equal rights as any other employees in the work place.

Source: HOME Singapore

Story Type: News

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