A long-standing debate has been revived – with no resolution yet in sight. As employers of domestic workers continue to make their views felt on the issue of a weekly day off, Stephanie Chok asks some domestic workers for their responses.
Ever since Madam Halimah Yacob, the Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, said Singapore should consider legislating a weekly day off for domestic workers (“Consider Law to Give Maids a Day Off Every Week: Halimah”, Straits Times, Jun 20, 2011), there has been much debate online and in the mainstream papers.
Letters have streamed in from employers – some are supportive of the move while others are appealing for a ‘flexi’-approach, a reduction in days off a month, or are adamant against it.
Less audible are the views of domestic workers themselves, and their responses to some of the recurring arguments put forth by employers who are against mandating a weekly day off, a practice that already exists in countries like Hong Kong.
“Rest” time is not the same as a Day Off
You may consider yourself an easygoing employer who allows your domestic worker to rest during the day when work is completed (or the kids are at school etc.), or believe that household duties in your home are mostly “light”. On Sundays, you may also bring your domestic worker out with you – perhaps for religious services, or for a special meal and excursion with the family. Question is – can it replace a weekly day off?
A foreign domestic worker, in the Singapore context, is an employee who lives in her employer’s home. This often means being on call and under surveillance 24/7. In general, what she can or cannot do (at least comfortably, and with ease) largely depends on her employer’s consent – from taking a rest, to making a phone call and leaving the home.
Ria*, an Indonesian domestic worker who has worked in Singapore for nine years, says that a domestic worker is always on “standby” mode in the home, “we are not free to do whatever we like”.
These “rest times” are dictated by the employer, who may also regulate what can or cannot be done during these times – no computer or mobile phone use, perhaps. Moreover, the permission to “rest” is constantly at risk of being broken (by a crying baby, a hungry child, an unexpected visitor, a kitchen accident etc.)
When the home is your workplace, even if you are given time to “rest”, you are still at work. Ati, who has worked in Singapore for seven years, stresses that domestic workers need a day off outside the home, where they have the opportunity to socialize with their peers and be relieved from any stresses from the work week.
Ria agrees, saying that many people do not realize how stressful it can be working in a home, where one is confined to interacting with a small group of persons continually, day after day. “Sometimes employers, when they are frustrated with their kids, take it out on the domestic worker”. When there is tension and unhappiness in the home, this affects domestic workers too; sometimes they even bear the brunt of it.
As for being “taken out” on Sundays by the employer – no matter how amicable the relationship – this cannot replace time spent outside the workplace, where the activity is of a domestic worker’s own volition.
For Siti, Ria and Ati, what a domestic worker chooses to do on her day off should not be controlled by an employer. There are many activities to choose from, from taking courses to simply catching up with friends. Siti, who has been in Singapore for over a decade, knows of domestic workers who take the opportunity to catch up on sleep on Sundays, sleep-deprived as they are during the week.
Ria says she often notices how when certain employers go out with their domestic workers, the domestic worker is often isolated from them, particularly during mealtimes. In such cases, says Ria, “I would much rather be left at home than go out and be publicly shamed”. Ati agrees that it is “humiliating” when domestic workers are brought out but mistreated in public.
Even if such treatment does not take place, what is more common is that domestic workers on such “special Sunday outings” will likely still have to attend to peripheral chores – she will probably be the one feeding the child, pushing the wheelchair and carrying the shopping bags. Generally, when a domestic worker is out with “Sir” and “M’am”, there is rarely genuine autonomy.
A day off should also be viewed as 24 hours of rest, emphasize the women. Ati says, “we already work six days a week, just let us have one day to fully rest. Just once a week, and we can start work fresh the next day”.
While Ria’s current employer is fully understanding of this – and allows her to sleep in on Sundays, even instructing the children not to wake her on her day off – she has also worked for employers who expect her to complete a host of chores both before leaving the house and upon returning. With a previous employer, she would have had to fix breakfast, do the laundry and perhaps even prepare lunch before being allowed to go out on her day off; upon returning home at the stipulated time of 7pm, she might either have to prepare dinner, or else do the washing up after the family has eaten.
Off days are “dangerous”: Boyfriends, bad influences and that $5000 bond
A common concern among employers who object to off days are “social problems” if domestic workers are given a weekly day off. Chief among these concerns are that domestic workers who are given a day off will “find boyfriends” and “fall pregnant”.
Much of employers’ anxieties seem centered around the potential loss of the mandatory $5000 bond. The Ministry of Manpower, however, has repeatedly clarified that employers do not lose their bond money if their domestic worker falls pregnant. (The MOM has also pointed out that between 2005 and last year, they forfeited an average of less than 0.04 per cent of security bonds for foreign domestic workers each year.) There are also insurance schemes that offer indemnity.
As Siti, Ria and Ati point out, there are a variety of things domestic workers choose to do on their days off, and it does not necessarily involve meeting boyfriends. There are many places in Singapore where domestic workers can take up courses and attend seminars to upgrade their skills or further their education – denying domestic workers a day off also deprives them of such valuable opportunities. Ria notes that some domestic workers may have little formal education when they arrive here to work, and may desire to improve themselves so that they will not have to remain domestic workers indefinitely.
Siti says employers should not assume all domestic workers want a day off to engage in “bad activities”. Such choices depend on individual domestic workers, who will also have to take responsibility for their actions and bear the consequences.
On the issue of domestic workers falling pregnant, it has already been established that the employer will not lose the $5000 bond. Moreover, as Ria points out, denying a domestic worker a day off does not necessarily prevent such incidents from happening – there have been cases of domestic workers not given a day off falling pregnant.
Ironically, she notes, it is often the case that isolated domestic workers without a day off are the ones who may be more ignorant of issues such as safe sex. Sex education classes are available for domestic workers via networks such as the Indonesian Family Network and through local welfare organizations and domestic workers who are allowed to have a day off and network with their peers are often more savvy about taking precautions and how to develop healthy and safe sexual relations, if they so choose.
Ultimately, Siti says that whether a domestic worker, who is an adult, has a boyfriend or not, is their right. However, a domestic worker has to understand the regulations in Singapore – that she should not get pregnant, or she will also lose out and her employment will be terminated. Employers, agrees Siti, should not be made responsible for this.
Openness with employers is important too, notes Ria. Two years ago, when she had a boyfriend, she was open with her employer, who acknowledged that she was an adult and talked to her about her responsibilities and consequences. Communication and mutual trust, emphasizes Siti, is key.
My domestic worker doesn’t want a day off
It has been noted that there are some domestic workers who have financial concerns about going out – chiefly, that they will end up spending whatever little money they earn unnecessarily.
In fact, the current norm appears to be that during the initial loan repayment period when domestic workers are not paid a salary – or perhaps a token sum of $10 a month – they do not have a day off. As Ria notes, “We have no money during this time, so how to go out?”
However, this is markedly different from situations where employers frame it as an issue of domestic workers being irresponsible with their money and therefore should not be given a day off. One Straits Times reader, Indulekshmi Rajeswari, similarly questioned this tendency, stating: “The idea that we have to control their free time for their own best interest is condescending and patriarchal at best. They should be allowed to manage their money and free time as they wish”.
Siti, meanwhile, is adamant that this issue of cash-in-lieu should not stand in the way of legislation. She points out how, in Hong Kong (where her sister works), the law is such that domestic workers are given a day off a week, as well as on public holidays. If a domestic worker wishes to not take a day off and accept cash compensation, this should be a mutual agreement. Having legislation in place will, it is hoped, facilitate a fairer negotiation process than what exists at present, where employers can simply dictate they will pay cash-in-lieu and there is no legal recourse for workers who disagree.
What about employers’ rights?
Among the more defensive of employers is a refrain that others simply “do not understand” and that “employers’ rights” also need to be respected.
Such employers should be more specific about what “rights” they feel are violated when they give their employee a day off a week. Is the choice to deny an employee a weekly day off for the duration of a two-year contract (or more) a “right” at all? If it has, through a lack of regulation and high social acceptance, become seen as a “right” by employers, then it is timely for such a perception to be examined and publicly debated.
An employer may feel that it is his or her “right” to assert some level of managerial control over an employee, and to expect a certain work ethic – industriousness, honesty, and a sense of responsibility. Domestic workers like Ria, Ati and Siti do not deny this – throughout our time together, the women uphold that domestic workers have responsibilities and will face the negative consequences if they make poor and foolish choices. But employers also have a duty of care towards their employees – to reasonably ensure their mental and physical well-being.
The truth is, there is no strong rights-based argument for denying domestic workers a mandated weekly day off – the concerns so far being voiced are based on anxieties over greater inconvenience for employers. On the contrary, if one were to adopt a rights-based approach, there are compelling arguments for legalizing what is internationally recognized as a basic and universal human right for workers the world over – the right to adequate rest in the form of a weekly day off.
A full day off a week is a time to rest not just the body but also the mind. When domestic workers are bereft of a day off, it accentuates homesickness. Ria says, “If we do not have a day off and a chance to socialize, we have no chance to talk to others who understand us, to let go what is in our hearts and minds… we will just have to keep things to ourselves”.
Some employers, notes Ati, do not even converse with domestic workers about their personal lives – they just mechanically deliver instructions to the domestic worker on her daily duties. Day in, day out, says Ati, these are the only interactions they have – “after awhile, it makes you feel like a machine… and your mind goes blank”. Stress can mount, and the psychological toll can cause frustrated, homesick and lonely domestic workers to “snap”. This is “not good for both sides”, says Ati.
In this blogpost, a former domestic worker from Myanmar, Cherry Hmung, wrote about a domestic worker who committed suicide after six months in Singapore. Her diary revealed that she was homesick, sad and burdened with family worries. Like another domestic worker Hmung knew who jumped to her death in Singapore in 2005, Hmung says, “Both women were confined in their employers’ house, cut off from outside world, from their family and loved ones. They had nobody to tell their troubles to. There was nobody to comfort them”.
Hmung recalled the sense of imprisonment she felt being confined in the home, unable to even take a walk outside or converse with friends – it was only after she finally received a call from a friend and received support and understanding that she felt “relieved and had enough strength to plough on”.
A Filipino domestic worker, who has been working in Singapore for four years now without a day off, says in an email:
“It is my ardent prayer that employers would recognise that we are human beings also, just like them! Who gets tired, bored and even burnt out. We are not machines. That we need not just food and rest at night but we need also social interaction in order to at least ease our boredom. We have religious obligations that we have neglected for some time. Not because we don’t have the will to do so but we don’t have a choice to make. For us who are working away from home, away from our family, talking to friends and our countrymen is a big factor in order to go on with our life here”.
Employers who are suffering from overwork and stress may feel victimized and oppressed by what they perceive as greater impositions on their time, comfort and finances. It is important, however, to clearly distinguish cause and effect and direct “rights” claims accordingly.
Concerns about the domestic worker levy and unreasonable burdens placed on employers for domestic workers’ behaviour outside the home should be directed at authorities who have the power to shape policies and address such complaints. The Ministry of Manpower, in fact, is currently collecting feedback on the issue (details below).
The culture of dependency on domestic workers in many households can also be linked to the lack of adequate and affordable alternatives for elderly care and childcare, even as women – who are urged to have more babies – are also greatly encouraged to participate in the workforce. There are signs that working parents – in particular working women – face many challenges in achieving work-life balance in what is generally a highly competitive business environment. If employers are getting frustrating contradictory messages from different government agencies, then perhaps the focus should be on demanding greater coherence in our policy framework.
There are doubtless many tired and overworked employers of domestic workers, who are struggling with multiple responsibilities in their daily lives. Certain employers have expressed that finding alternative arrangements on their own day off after a long week is a truly tedious task; some feel resentful their own rest day will involve housework and/or childcare duties. When one feels victimized and oppressed, however, is oppressing another an appropriate response?
Navigating employee-employer relationships in a domestic situation can be complex and challenging but labour laws exist for a reason – to safeguard the interests of workers who are acknowledged as lacking in bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. Legislating a weekly day off is a small step in a more progressive direction and an important one. Inconvenience, ultimately, should not be the basis for deciding if/when basic and fundamental rights should be enshrined in law.
The Ministry of Manpower is inviting members of the public to send their views and suggestions on legislating a day off for domestic workers. Please email them at [email protected].
*Pseudonyms have been given to the domestic workers interviewed for this article.