The Government’s move to issue 14-day Stay-Home Notices (SHN) to those who have recently travelled abroad in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak poses an issue to certain foreign domestic workers (FDWs), as their employers may see the SHN as a loophole to make them work on their off-days.
Robina Navato, a migrant worker and a volunteer at the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), revealed in a post on Tue (25 Mar) that a great number of FDWs “worry that when they stay home on their rest days, they will continue working without compensation”.
“This can happen to domestic workers who do not have their own rooms or personal space. They will be forced to work, since they have nowhere to go to. Being at home with their employer will surely feel like just another working day,” she wrote.
Ms Navato emphasised the importance of open and clear communication between employers and FDWs regarding the latter’s off-days, and negotiating compensation should they be asked to work on their off-days.
Citing her own experience with her employer, she said that her employers have discussed “the importance of staying away from the crowded areas like Orchard Road” and practicing social distancing.
“In our conversation, my employer and I discussed what I can do if I stay home. They gave me choices like, I can stay home and sleep as much as I want. I can do my writings, exercise, or swim. If I want to cook or bake, they will buy what I need. And if I choose to do some work, they will compensate me,” said Ms Navato.
She added that her employer’s concerns, in that context, was not about stopping her from engaging in her “normal Sunday activities”.
“I think we all felt the same: that it was good to be away from our working place for a while, to have some time for ourselves. Staying close to home is something new for me but I know it is for my own good. I enjoyed my Sunday,” Ms Navato wrote, adding: “It was purely about safety for all of us. If I refrained from doing my activities for a while, I will be safer.”
Ms Navato acknowledged, however, that “not all employers” are like hers, and stressed that FDWs do not necessarily always have the “power of negotiation”.
“No matter what we say, it is seldom taken into consideration. There are times that we don’t have a choice but to say “Yes” to avoid arguments,” she said.
Thus, she urged employers of FDWs to “explain properly to their domestic workers” why they need to stay home during the SHN period, while trying to understand their helpers’ need to “be away from work”.
“Domestic workers should understand their employers too. Safety is for everyone who lives in the house, particularly if there are elderly or otherwise vulnerable people in the house,” said Ms Navato, adding that FDWs who are permitted to go out should only do so for urgent matters.
“The Ministry of Manpower is strengthening inspection and law enforcement. If we do not follow, our work permit might be revoked. Remember there are many countries right now that are in total lockdown, where nobody is allowed to go out at all. If we practice social distancing diligently now, maybe in Singapore it does not have to come that far,” she said.
Conditions under which FDWs agreed to work on rest days should be examined to see whether there was undue influence from employers or agents: Migrant workers’ rights activists
HOME last month also expressed its concern over the situation of certain FDWs who have been denied rest days and forbidden from leaving the homes of their employers out of fear of them contracting COVID-19.
HOME said that FDWs have spoken about being “unsure if they will be paid by their employers for not taking their rest days and were worried because they have been prevented from running important personal errands, such as remitting salaries to their families.
“While we acknowledge the fears and concerns of families, especially those with young and vulnerable members, we urge employers to be flexible and understanding in managing their MDWs’ rest day arrangements and to address their worries,” said the organisation.
Endorsing the joint advisory issued by MOM, Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST), and the Centre for Domestic Employee (CDE) for FDWs and their employers, HOME stressed that migrant domestic workers should not have to work if they are forbidden from leaving their employers homes on their rest days.
HOME said that it is important to consider the imbalance of power between employers and low-wage migrant workers on work permit, pointing out that many of these workers rely on their employers to provide them with timely and accurate information on government advisories and laws.
Employers are responsible for keeping their migrant workers informed, stressed the organisation, adding that it is difficult for the workers themselves to stay updated when most of these announcements are made in languages that migrants workers may not understand.
HOME shared that most migrant workers may not have access to media outlets and if their employers expect them to be at work, they may feel obliged to comply for fear of losing their jobs. Additionally, if a worker has recruitment fee debts to pay off, the pressure intensifies.
The organisation called for these circumstances to be taken into consideration should any penalties be meted out to migrant workers for breaching government measures.
Beyond that, HOME also called upon MOM to make efforts in informing migrant workers of their rights under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act which stipulates that they should be paid their basic wages even if their employer has no work for them.
Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong in a Facebook post on 19 Feb similarly said that the conditions under which said FDWs agreed to be compensated for the work they carry out on their rest days should be examined more closely for questionable elements such as possible undue influence from employers and/or agents, or not being made aware of their right to a weekly rest day.
She stressed that Singapore cannot achieve a “caring and inclusive society if we do not also include our foreign domestic workers in this vision” by not exercising their rights correctly.
“Can you imagine working 365 days without rest?” she said.
Three years ago, CNN quoted findings from a report by independent consultancy firm Research Across Borders, in which 41 per cent of the 800 FDWs who were working in Singapore said in the survey that they made to work on their single rest day.
The report, titled “Bonded to the System”, also found that at least 90 per cent of the FDWs surveyed reported working excessive hours or days, and at least 84 per cent of the FDWs surveyed said they worked over 12 hours a day.