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If you want a break, she should get one too

Photo: Reuters

Kirsten Han/

The following is a letter written to the Straits Times forum by Madam Low Ai Choo on the issue of a weekly day off for domestic helpers, interspersed with some of my thoughts.

It is true that maids should not be treated differently from other workers, and they need rest (‘Consider law to give maids a day off every week: Halimah’; Monday). But do they really need one weekly day off for that? Do they not rest in the course of their work every day?

It appears strange to me that she should start her letter with “maids should not be treated differently from other workers” and then spends the rest of her letter talking about how maids should not get a weekly day off – which other workers do get.

People who talk about domestic helpers and their rights and whether they should be allowed a day off should just think about it this way: do you think you should have a day off a week?

My current maid has a day off once a month. Every time she comes back from her outings, she appears even more tired and listless, and needs to recuperate from her outing. When she is not around, both my husband and I, who are teachers, have to juggle with the care of our toddlers (two and three years old), besides catching up with whatever work we have not completed in the week.

Singaporeans work very long hours too and while we do not work officially on weekends, many of us catch up with work on weekday evenings and weekends.

My maid has more than enough time to rest daily, when the kids are napping or when my older one is in kindergarten. My maid is the one who goes to bed by nine every night and my husband and I are the ones who are still up way beyond nine to tuck in our children and catch up with school work.

In all seriousness, teachers like Madam Low* do work very hard, like every other Singaporean worker who has to join the rat race. Working overtime and taking work home is common in Singapore – in fact, it’s an anomaly if you get to leave work on time and not have to think about work at home. That is the sad fact that every Singapore has to face. This culture of “work hard, work long, work often” is an issue that we have to deal with in our society.

But that does not give you the right to take it out on your maid by depriving her of a weekly day off – a right that you have, whether you observe it or not.

Statements like “[w]hen she is not around, both my husband and I, who are teachers, have to juggle with the care of our toddlers (two and three years old), besides catching up with whatever work we have not completed in the week” and “…my husband and I are the ones who are still up way beyond nine to tuck in our children and catch up with school work” appear to suggest that Madam Low is blaming her maid for the fact that she has to take care of her own little ones once in awhile. But aren’t they your kids, Madam Low?

Are maids really that overworked? The many maids congregating and chatting away happily at my condominium on weekdays present a different picture.

My previous maid met her boyfriend on her day off and even while we were at work. I have also heard of other maids doing part-time work on their days off.

The slew of social problems that will result from a weekly day off is unthinkable.

What slew of social problems? Would Madam Low care to elaborate? If she did elaborate, would any of these elaborations actually be – oh no! – racist and xenophobic?

If Madam Low thinks that domestic helpers should not be allowed weekly days off because they will cause social problems by – as far as I can see from her letter – having boyfriends (A WOMAN HAVING A BOYFRIEND! FOR SHAME!) and working part-time (HOW DARE THEY WANT TO EARN MORE MONEY TO SUPPLEMENT THEIR INCOME WHICH IS MOSTLY TAKEN AWAY BY THEIR AGENCIES!) then I would propose that we extend her argument and lock everyone up. Wouldn’t that solve everything?

And think of those taking care of old and disabled people. It will not be easy for someone else to take over their duties when they take their day off.

This is true, but again, it doesn’t mean that we can take away a person’s right to have time off and rest. It will be up to us, who are ultimately the ones responsible for our old and disabled, to work out a system that is good for everyone, so that we can all rest and recharge when we need to. And with an aging population, this is an issue that the government will also have to address soon. We can’t just expect domestic helpers to solve the problem for us.

I urge the Government to consider carefully the many factors at play and the consequences of legislating a day off for maids.

- Madam Low Ai Choo, 22 June 2011

The push for legislation to give domestic helpers a weekly day off is not just to ruin your life, Madam Low. It is also to protect those who are not as “fortunate” as your helper probably is. Those who are made to work 24/7 with no rest or respite, those who have to serve more than one family, shoulder incredible burdens and are near collapse with mental and physical fatigue. These people are in need of protection, legal protection, from the abuse that they face every day.

Fatigued workers = *alarm bells*

Image from EHE and Me

I actually think that weekly days off would help. Fatigue is a dangerous thing. It makes us less alert at work, it makes us resentful and frustrated, it makes us more short-tempered and quicker to lash out. Many workplace accidents happen when workers are fatigued and less attentive. There have also been cases of workers – including domestic helpers – who have been so fatigued and stressed out and overworked that they simply snapped, having mental breakdowns or even turning violent.

Madam Low herself appears be suffering from fatigue, so much so that she has taken the trouble to write to the ST forum about denying another person time off so she can rest.

By having weekly days off, we make sure that all domestic helpers have the chance to let off some steam and recharge before coming back for another week. Isn’t this what we cherish our own weekends for? If I had kids or old/disabled parents, I would actually want the person to whom I am entrusting them to be well-rested and happy, not fatigued and frustrated.

If you are overworked, it is a problem that stems from your employer and (in the bigger picture) the government’s policies. It is something that you, together with all others in your situation, have to work together to figure out. Every person has to find his/her balance.

But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to deny another person the rights that you want for yourself.

* I would just like to add a little note to say how horrified I was to realise that Madam Low is a teacher. If this is how teachers respect the human rights of person they deem to be “of lower status” than them, what are we teaching our kids?

The article also appears in Funny Little World