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Give domestic helpers their dignity

Justin Tan

Maids are a large group of employees who play a vital role in supporting the modern Singaporean. Yet, there is little dignity given to them. Maids are not treated with much respect and often, the relationship between these maids and their employers resemble that of a master-servant. While there are many reasons for the lack of dignity, one of them comes from the lack of legal protection for these maids. In addition, in cases where legal help is available, it is often inadequate. The link between provision of legal rights and dignity is clear, and it is time to give dignity to this group of people in Singapore.

Maids have often made headlines, mostly for the wrong reasons. A recent example being that of a maid who was forced to tie the shoelaces of an able bodied woman.[1] Other macabre examples include an employer beating a maid to death[2] and torturing a maid with assorted household appliances[3]. These examples highlight the indignity suffered by these maids. The general attitude of Singaporeans towards their domestic employees seems more like that of a master-servant, treating their maids as sub-human. Taking into consideration the backgrounds of most of these Singaporeans it becomes all the more shocking.  Most of these people are for all purposes “normal” - they hold stable jobs, tend to be well-educated and seem to be well-adjusted people. It is appalling that they fail to understand that all human beings, including their domestic help, should be treated with respect and dignity. The cruel irony is that such people would never contemplate doing such things to their colleagues, subordinates, spouses or children.

Whilst Singapore has enforced laws to protect the rights of many groups of individuals, ranging from the Women's Charter, to the Employment Act , there is a lack of legislative protection for domestic helpers in Singapore. The Women's Charter is one such example of the law bringing dignity to women in Singapore. The enactment of such a law has increased the presence of women in the workforce, shaped the spousal relationship, and in the process dignifying the role of women here. This stands in contrast to the lack of protection given to maids.

Under Section 2(B) of the Employment Act, maids are excluded from many of the protections provided under labour laws by their classification as a “domestic worker”. As a result, maids are excluded from rest days, holidays, limitations to working hours and notice before terminating a contract or even receiving a timely wage[4].  The lack of protection afforded to maids impact upon their dignity. Since maids are not given this protection, abuse of maids become more frequent. Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), noted in their report that maids often suffer abuse, ranging from physical abuse like slaps, insults of modesty, contract violations, as well as wrongful confinement.[5] There is a lack of an overal legal framework to protect domestic helpers in Singapore.

Despite a glaring lack of recognized laws to protect foreign domestic workers, there are laws which protect them against employer abuse. Assault is covered under the Penal Code, and employers who fail to uphold their contracts can be sued. Although Section 5 of the Legal Aid and Advice Act makes legal aid available only to Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, other avenues are available for foreign maids such as the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which is run by the Law Society and provides legal aid on a means test basis. However, this is limited to instances where maids are charged in court by the police for an offence not punishable by death.[6] Where maids require civil litigation, they can also turn to pro bono services provided by the Law Society.

While these laws are available, the lack of awareness and legal support are still significant barriers. TWC2  noted in its report that maids who lack a command of English or do not know of their legal rights continue to live with the abuse, compounding the situation. More must be done to increase awareness of these rights and services provided.

Much like what was done with the Women's Charter in 1961, the power of the law is a very important first step. Giving maids rights to those enjoyed by other groups and employees would send a clear signal to Singaporeans. Maids are people too, and Singaporean employers would do well to remember this.

Are we a nation that respects the dignity of these domestic employees? As a modern nation with a progressive society, surely Singaporeans can find it in themselves to treat their domestic help decently, and with the respect that should be accorded to any human being. The recent furore over the shoelaces incident suggests that not all Singaporeans are blind to the indignity of maids. This writer suggests that it is high time that they were given adequate legal protection - because they are people too.


[1] "Outrage over Woman Getting Maid to Tie Shoelaces." AsiaOne. 22 July 2010. Web. 4 Aug. 2010. <http://news.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne+News/Singapore/Story/A1Story20100722-228281.html>.

[2] Lee, Han Shih. "Silence on maid abuse must end." Business Times 27 July 2002. Business Times. 4 Aug. 2010. <http://www.singapore-window.org/sw02/020727bt.htm>

[3] Xuanwei, Teo. "Flight Attendant Jailed for 2 Months." TODAYonline. 29 July 2010. Web. 4 Aug. 2010. <http://www.todayonline.com/Singapore/EDC100730-0000070/Flight-attendant-jailed-for-2-months>.

[4] Misra, Sucheta, and Elaine Ho. Foreign Domestic Workers Invisible Under the Law. Rep. Singapore: Transient Workers Count Too, 2003. Web. 4 Aug. 2010. <http://www.twc2.org.sg/site/images/stories/downloads/library/Foreign%20Domestic%20Workers%20Invisible%20Under%20the%20Law.pdf>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] "The Law Society of Singapore: Criminal Legal Aid Scheme." Welcome to The Law Society of Singapore. Web. 10 Aug. 2010. <http://www.lawsociety.org.sg/public/you_and_the_law/criminal_legal_aid_scheme.aspx>.