The Online Citizen speaks to Jolovan Wham, a social worker with H.O.M.E (Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics) on the recent calls for giving migrant domestic workers a weekly day-off. H.O.M.E is also a co-partner of the Day-off Campaign for domestic workers.
There had been previous debates on whether to make a weekly-day-off for domestic workers guaranteed by law. Do you think the newly restarted talks will lead to anything substantial this time round? Why?
I think we still have quite a long way to go. This issue has been debated for almost a decade now and each time the idea of a legislated day off is brought up, the reaction from many employers against it is very strong. The government may not be willing to do so for fear of alienating Singaporean employers .
Certain employers do not appear to support the call for a weekly day-off. What do you think are the issues involved?
They are worried that their workers may get into trouble, become pregnant, have a boy friend, or will be negatively influenced by their friends. These concerns are not new. Supervising a live-in domestic worker is not easy. Linguistic and cultural differences make it much more difficult. Resources for employers to manage the relationships with their domestic workers are limited since unlike a typical employment situation, where there are HR departments to turn to, employers of domestic workers can only rely on employment agencies. Employment agencies may not be that helpful too; they may even make things worse and give poor advice because many of them are not trained in HR, counselling or inter-personal conflict resolution.
I acknowledge that many of the fears employers have are real but we need to put them in context. True, there are workers who are irresponsible but we find irresponsible and undesirable employees everywhere and we don't deny them a weekly day off at all.
One of the frequent reasons given for opposing the weekly day-off is because employers fear losing their $5000 security bonds and they are afraid the workers might engage in 'vices' if they are allowed to go out on weekends.
The work permit conditions under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act even indicates that migrant workers are not supposed to be involved in 'immoral and undesirable activities' and domestic workers should not 'break up Singaporeans families.' This is unfair. The government should not ask employers to play social and moral police. Such policies encourage xenophobia and classism among Singaporeans, and it is an unreasonable burden on the employer.
In all fairness, the Ministry of Manpower did address this issue by tweaking the security bond conditions two years ago so that employers only need to inform their workers and report to MOM if their workers are found to have violated work permit conditions, in order not to have their security bonds forfeited. Even though this is an improvement from their previous position, employers should not even be required in the first place to report to MOM about the private lives of their workers. Why place such an unreasonable burden on them? Why does the government feel such a strong need to control migrant workers in this way? Many countries around the world, such as Hong Kong don’t impose such responsibilities on employers of migrant domestic workers.
HOME firmly believes that the security bonds should be removed.
Some employers believe that whether there should be a day-off should be something that is between employer and employee. In some cases, the maid forgoes her weekends in order to be paid more. What is HOME's stance? Why do you think it is necessary for it to be made mandatory?
Yes, a weekly day off should be mandatory and the worker should be given a choice whether she wants to work on Sundays or not and be remunerated accordingly. In fact, this is a provision within the Employment Act, and HOME is calling for domestic workers to be included under the Act. The employment rights of domestic workers should not just be limited to days off but also other benefits that other workers enjoy such as public holidays and annual leave. Our legislation for the protection of domestic workers rights should be in compliance with the International Labour Organisation’s recently adopted domestic workers convention. Singapore, a member of the ILO, did not vote in favour of it, even though the majority of countries did. We also believe that domestic workers should not be called ‘maids’ because for too long, their status as workers has not been recognised by national labour legislation.
In 2006, it became mandatory to use a standard contract guaranteeing a weekly day off that could be compensated by salary in lieu of the worker not taking a rest day. However, contracts are costly and difficult to enforce. The domestic worker will not be able to afford a lawyer to do so. Hence, it is important for a weekly day off to be guaranteed by law.
We are also afraid that domestic workers may feel compelled to sign off all their rest days because of pressures from the agency or the employer. We often hear the argument that the workers 'choose' to come here to work and nobody forced them to. But such an argument ignores the fact that the balance of power between the employer and the worker is unequal and low wage workers often find it difficult to bargain for better pay and better working conditions. What kind of 'choice' do they have given the limited options available to them?
There are some people who believe that we should tackle our own workers' rights before trying to solve migrant workers' issues. In fact, some perceive fighting for migrant workers' rights to be akin to being pro-foreigner. What is HOME's take on this?
I think it is a false dichotomy when we talk about local vs migrant worker rights. The reason migrant workers are preferred is because they are easier to exploit and abuse. If local workers are not hired, it is because inadequate protection for foreign workers has made it more desirable for employers to hire them over locals, since they are cheaper. And by cheaper, I don't mean just in terms of the cost of their salary but that it is easier to squeeze migrant workers because their marginal status makes them more compliant. They are willing to work longer hours and are more vulnerable because they come to Singapore after paying huge amounts of money in recruitment fees. I agree that the struggle for workers' rights should not be determined by nationality. However, the root of the problem lies in the fact that worker's rights in general need to be improved, and not whether we are fighting are for local or migrant workers’ rights. We also need to be cognizant of the fact that migrant workers make enormous contributions to this country. Our entire economy will collapse if all 1 million of them stopped work. We can’t let migrant workers into our country and say we don’t care about their rights, or ignore them when they fall through the cracks of the system. These are human beings, not commodities.
Has Singapore become too dependent on maids such that we are unwilling to give a day off? How do you think this culture became what it is today?
Yes, many families have become too dependent on domestic workers to the extent that we find it difficult to grant them mandatory days off. The recent letter written by Madam Low to the Straits Times Forum page illustrates this. She complains that she has a lot of pressure at work, does not have enough rest and finds it difficult to juggle work and family life. As a result, she needs a domestic worker to help her cope. I can sympathise with her plight because Singapore society has become very competitive and demanding. It seems like our worth and dignity as individuals has been subjugated for the sake of economic development and growth. We have turned into economic units just for the sake of increasing our GDP. But at what cost? Who really benefits in the end from this growth and what kinds of benefits do we get from a society that is based on such a development model?
Relying heavily on migrant domestic workers is not a sustainable solution. To help families cope, we need better policies that encourage work life balance, and more social support for families who need to take care of children and the elderly. We collect billions of dollars in levies and surely some of that can be used to develop our social infrastructure better.
Find out more about the Day-off Campaign here.