Thursday, 8 March 2012

Mandatory weekly rest days for foreign maids

By Hoe Yeen Nie, Channel NewsAsia, 5 Mar 2012

It will soon be mandatory for employers to give foreign domestic workers (FDWs) a weekly rest day or compensation in lieu.


By 2015, all maids will be covered by the new legislation.

Employers who break the rules can be fined up to S$5,000 or spend six months in jail.



Currently, rest days and compensation are spelled out in a contract between the maid and the employer but the practice is not uniform.

Only about 10 per cent of maids here have weekly rest days. About half have at least one rest day a month.

Singapore is currently among a handful of countries that have not legislated rest days for maids.

Others include Saudi Arabia, Thailand, South Korea and Malaysia. Malaysia, though, has recently signed an agreement with Indonesia that requires a weekly rest day for Indonesian maids, with the option of compensation in lieu.

In making the change, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said the regulation is expected to enhance Singapore's attractiveness as a destination for quality and experienced maids.

Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin announced the change in Parliament on Monday.

There are currently some 200,000 maids in Singapore. They come from countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

The rest day for maids can fall on any day. If a maid is asked to work on her day off, a replacement rest day must be given within the same month as the day off forgone.

To provide flexibility to employers with elderly or young children who need constant care, or maids who prefer to work to earn more, both parties can discuss compensation in lieu of the rest day.

This has to be mutually agreed by both parties.

The formula to calculate the compensation amount is also spelled out. This will be the maid's monthly salary divided by 26 days, giving the maid a day's wage.

The issue of giving maids a regular rest day is a contentious one. Maids and civic groups say it is a matter of basic labour rights, but employers say enough rest is given on a daily basis.

"While most employers do ensure their FDWs have adequate rest on a daily basis, this is not the same as providing a weekly rest day for a proper emotional and mental break and rest," said Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin.

"Improving FDWs' well-being has a direct impact on the quality of care that their loved ones receive. We need to ask ourselves how should foreign domestic workers - who make a significant contribution to many households - be treated, how does this reflect upon us as a society," he added.

Mr Tan also addressed one big concern of employers. He stressed that employers' S$5,000 security bond will not be forfeited if the maid violates her own work permit conditions - for instance, if she moonlights on her day off, or if she gets pregnant.

Even in cases where the maid runs away, only half of the bond will be forfeited if the employer has tried to locate the maid.

Mr Tan said that this does not happen very often. Last year, only 22 security bonds were forfeited because of missing maids.

"This is not large, considering that we have over 200,000 FDWs in Singapore," he said.

The MOM is also reviewing employers' obligations for medical costs and the cost of sending maids home due to exceptional circumstances that employers have little or no control over.

Mr Tan also assured help for families who need constant care for elderly members. They can apply for a new S$120 monthly FDW grant announced recently by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget speech.

This grant is on top of the existing S$95 monthly levy concession enjoyed by households with elderly members above 65, young children under 12 years or members with disabilities.

The new grant, to be disbursed by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, is given to families with a per capita household income of up to S$2,200 and who employ a maid to look after a frail elderly member or one who suffers from dementia.




Employers' concerns considered, says MOM

SENTIMENTS expressed in recent Forum letters on the weekly rest day requirement for foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are largely similar to those that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) encountered during its extensive consultation exercise on the review of the FDW management framework since June last year. Some of the feedback have been incorporated, including the flexibility of mutually agreeing when rest days should fall, or compensation with a day's wage.

A few called for a reduction or removal of the levy. The levy serves to moderate demand for FDWs and ensures that only employers who need and have the financial means to hire them are able to do so.

Singapore already has one of the world's highest number of FDWs per 1,000 households. While significantly higher wages would also moderate demand and increase our attractiveness as a place to work for quality FDWs, it remains unclear that the market-determined wages of all FDWs will in fact adjust proportionately to levy reductions.

Previous levy reductions did not result in a corresponding rise in wages. The majority of households in Singapore with young children, elderly or disabled members already enjoy a $95 monthly levy concession.

Together with the $120 FDW grant for households with frail elderly people or persons with severe disabilities, these concessions are more than adequate to cover the rise in costs from compensating FDWs for working on their rest days.

Since January 2010, the MOM has already removed employers' liability if FDWs breach work permit conditions that relate to their own behaviour. The ministry does not forfeit employers' security bonds if FDWs violate their own work permit conditions, for instance, if they moonlight or get pregnant.

In reality, the ministry forfeits very few security bonds each year. We are currently reviewing the employers' obligations for medical and repatriation costs for exceptional circumstances that they have little or no control over.

Concerns have also been raised about employment terms and the activities of FDWs on their rest days. As with any employment relationship, FDWs do negotiate for better terms, whether they have rest days or otherwise. Any change must be agreed upon by both employer and FDW.

The MOM is stepping up audits to ensure employment agencies facilitate better matches between employers and FDWs. It is also working closely with various stakeholders to educate FDWs on appropriate behaviour on their days off, and offer activities to help them spend their rest days productively.

Farah Abdul Rahim (Ms)
Director, Corporate Communications
ST Forum, 13 Mar 2012




UN Women S'pore applaud mandatory rest day for maids
Channel NewsAsia, 6 Mar 2012

The Singapore Committee for UN Women has applauded the new law making it compulsory for employers to give foreign domestic workers one rest day a week or compensation in lieu.

It said a weekly day off is an internationally recognised right for workers, and praised the Ministry of Manpower for championing this issue through wide-ranging consultations.

President of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, Trina Liang-Lin, said this was the right thing to do, and added that it is a "win-win for workers and Singaporeans".

She also said the move will help Singapore attract qualified domestic workers who do a great deal to support the country's economic progress.

In a letter to UN Women members and supporters, she said Singapore is taking a significant step forward towards matching domestic laws and policies with international labour standards.

She said that managing change takes time and preparation, and that sometimes new mindsets need to be adopted too. Services and social support networks will also need to be enhanced.

She added that the Singapore Committee for UN Women will be "walking hand in hand" with the government and fellow NGOs to promote the new requirement to employers, domestic workers and the public.




Employers may be all worked up, but some of us are simply not fit to have maids
By John Lui, The Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2012

Do you know what a 'big But' story is? The day-off-for-maids-law story is one example.

A 'big But' story happens when people who hate something start off by saying they actually like it.

So a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page or a Web posting may go something like this: 'I agree that maids are human beings and should not be treated like machines. I also think that a day off helps to keep anyone sane and well-adjusted.'

You can smell the But coming a mile away. Look out, here it comes!

'But will someone think about me? I need my domestic helper seven days a week.'

Really? Didn't you just give pretty good reasons for giving her a day off?

When someone says that he cannot spare his helper even for a day, I'm sorry, but my first thought is: 'That is precisely the maid the law is designed to help'.

I don't have a maid. I've learnt my lesson. My parents hired a domestic helper some years ago, when I was still living with them. The episode was an utter fiasco. My parents are not what you might call passionate developers of human potential; I mean, look at how I turned out.

My mother, who had never supervised anything more complex than a round of mahjong, became the boss of the poor woman and relied on the sophisticated techniques of communication that had worked on her children, i.e. eye-rolling, cutlery-banging and guilt-tripping. My father did the usual dad thing, which was to step in only when the threat of fire and/or maiming seemed imminent.

My mother was under the impression that all women of the maid's home country possessed the ability to read minds, and was upset that our maid was suppressing her telepathic skills out of spite.

There was more tension in our home than was worth the clean floors and ironed shirts. Two months of it was all we could take.

The maid had been packed off to a strange land and flung into our care and we failed her, much more than she failed us.

There was a perceptual problem in play. Because she slept under our roof, ate with us and went out with us, in our eyes, the domestic helper had to be a new family member.

If you have ever seen children working in a restaurant or shop, or seen people work overtime for no extra pay in a family-owned company when all the others have left, you see the problem. Family members make sacrifices for one another. They have their own hidden ways of passing messages.

Maids who get caught in this perceptual trap get the worst of both worlds. They get taken advantage of like family members - we feel they have to care for our babies and elderly as if they were their own - but when it comes to reaping the rewards, they suddenly become the outsider.

Thirty years ago, unless your family had a street named after an ancestor, few Singaporeans had servants. Today, one in six households has one. More than 100,000 households have become like the fig plants that cannot grow without leaning on the tree that is the domestic helper. The way Singapore looks today owes a lot to Maricel or Candida or Wati, but you will never see a statue of them on the banks of the Singapore River.

A few letter-writers said the maid levy of $265, paid by the employer, cancels out any benefit of the day-off policy in making Singapore a better place for foreign labour. Dropping the levy will let the employers pay more, they say.

If this happens, this will be the first time in the history of Singapore that buyers clamour to pay more. Net pay is fixed by the laws of demand and supply, not our sense of right or wrong, unless I missed something fundamental about our free market economy.

Singaporeans had decades to voluntarily give maids a day off, and look at how many employers today do so. (The answer: Not many.)

Foreign labourers use public services - they walk on clean pavements, use litter bins and public toilets, enjoy the shade of the trees, brightness of street lights and the protection of our police - but they do not pay for any of these through an income tax. A maid levy keeps things fair for the majority of Singapore households who do not employ one.

And weren't we complaining just a few months ago about there being too many foreign workers here? It is not rocket science to work out what will happen to our buses and trains if having a helper suddenly becomes $265 cheaper.

But won't the maid get into trouble if she gets a day off? Won't she get pregnant?

Well, from what little I gleaned from Mrs Tan's Secondary 4 biology class, it does not take a whole day to make a woman pregnant (well, actually, that depends on what you do to get her in the mood). As many teenagers find out to their dismay, all it takes for pregnancy to occur is a working mobile phone and a couple of minutes.

As a maid agency boss told me, maids are not stupid. They know how the birds and the bees work. Getting pregnant, for a lot of them, is a shortcut out of Singapore. Yes, it is a silly and thoughtless option but desperate people do not think rationally.

Domestic helpers, in other words, are as bonkers, selfish and ungrateful as the rest of us.

Labour rules are designed to curb the worst in us as bosses. They are there to stop us from being just as bonkers, selfish and ungrateful back at them.

We expect domestic helpers to be trained. But who trains us to be their bosses?




Singapore needs a Plan B on maids
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2012

You cannot escape the shrill din of discontent - much of it rather selfish - that has greeted the news that maids will finally have a weekly day off from next year.

The protests, from unhappy maid employers who fear the worst for everything from the prospects of couples having babies to the care of the elderly, have drowned out some very uncomfortable truths:

First, if employers continue to deny maids what are basic rights of workers, the more efficient, dedicated and better quality ones will increasingly shun Singapore.

As labour rights, pay and perks for domestic work improve overseas in keeping with international norms, live-in helpers - irrespective of quality - could well become a luxury well beyond the reach of employers here who earn $2,500 a month but who currently can employ a maid.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, as Singapore ages rapidly, families shrink and more young mothers choose to remain employed, there is an urgent need for home- grown domestic and respite care services for our elderly and the very young.

In short, Singapore needs a Plan B on maids.

The number of foreign maids has nearly tripled from about 71,000 in 1991 to 206,000 in two decades. But many don't buy the argument that the over-reliance on this labour pool is untenable in the long run.

Newspaper columns on the need to improve maid welfare have invariably been countered by angry rebuttals from employers that if these foreign women do not like what they get here, they are free to go home. And there would be thousands more of their compatriots - eager to escape desperate poverty back home - to happily fill their shoes.

Such arguments are divorced from ground realities in Indonesia and the Philippines, which remain Singapore's largest sources of maids.

Besides, a decade or so ago, a high school or university graduate from either country could earn more here as a maid than by, say, working as a teacher back home. Pay might not have risen dramatically back home since then, but opportunities for work elsewhere have.

Someone who might have worked here as a maid 10 years ago, could with similar qualifications now find a job as a nurse, a salesgirl, a waitress or even on a cruise ship - all jobs that pay considerably more both in Singapore and in countries such as Canada, the United States and Japan.

Indeed, with the demand for caregivers rising in ageing developed countries, it's not just this region but the world that has become their oyster.

Of course, that is not to say no one in those countries wants to be a maid.

Last year, I spent several days travelling to maid training centres in and around Jakarta which were filled with young women eager to escape the poverty trap at home.

But as I polled scores of them, it became evident that the vast majority preferred to work in Hong Kong and Taiwan, not Singapore. Both those places allowed maids four days off a month. In Hong Kong salaries started at $580, in Taiwan, $680.

These days a maid starting work in Singapore can get $400.

Taiwanese were by far the most coveted employers, and not just because they paid the most. Unlike in Hong Kong, maids in Taiwan have the flexibility of getting cash in lieu of days off if they wish - a clause included in the new Singapore law too.

In fact, as Singapore legislates days off, that cash-in-lieu option will be the lifeline some employers will cling to, knowing that many maids, especially newer ones, might willingly forgo days off if they get paid extra.

But this might not last, especially if Singapore employers hope to attract quality care.

Maids who want a weekly day off and don't get it may just treat Singapore as a pit-stop to gain experience before moving on to places where employers recognise their rights more and pay them more.

Indeed, there is an urgent need to build up affordable home-help and respite care services for families who genuinely don't have access to alternate family caregiving arrangements on their maid's day off.

Take, for instance, Mr Hilarion Goh, who wrote to The Straits Times Forum Page last week. The widower is an only son, still works and often travels overseas. His 90-year-old mother, who has advanced dementia, is looked after by a maid.

While the recently announced $120 additional maid grant for families taking care of their elderly will help defray the costs of paying his maid more in lieu of cash, it is not hard to envisage a day when no one will want a job where you won't get even one day off.

If Mr Goh lived in a developed Western nation, he would have access to respite care options, where an external caregiver tends to an ailing older or disabled person as the live-in one gets a well deserved break.

Such options are rare in Singapore - and extremely expensive, at upwards of $100 a day. There are also no government subsidies for such care.

Most Western developed countries have a wide variety of options in both childcare and eldercare. They have large numbers of childcare centres and daycare centres for the old. Flexi-work is far more ingrained in the culture.

There are also well-established domestic help services, where professional staff or freelancers come to clean your homes, bathe or feed your immobile parent or baby-sit your child while you are out. Maid sharing is another common practice - one that often provides a part-time income source for less skilled older, local women.

Having grown accustomed to the crutch of cheap live-in maids, Singapore hardly has any of such options, particularly with regard to elder-care.

I have met older Singaporean women who work part-time as cleaners at night to earn $300 to $600 a month who might gladly work as part-time home help, if they had the opportunity.

There is no demand for their services now, because foreign maids are plentiful and cheap. But should the supply dry up in years to come, Singapore families might well have to look to part-time Singaporean workers to help out in their homes.

In recent years, the Centre for Enabled Living - a referral agency set up by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports - has been linking families with immobile older folk or disabled members to home help services.

But costs are high: getting someone to come in to bathe or groom an immobile elderly person for an hour seven days a week, for instance, costs up to $222 a month, roughly half the price of a live-in maid providing round-the-clock care.

Small wonder then that last year, only around 1,100 families were linked to such services - a drop in the ocean compared to the thousands served by Singapore's army of 206,000 maids.

This needs to change - and fast.




Rest day for maids can start today
Editorial, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2012

IT TOOK 10 years of lobbying for maids here to finally get a legislated weekly rest day, starting from next January. Regrettably, it is taking a law to make Singaporeans do the decent thing, as was the case even with flushing public toilets. But employers have an opportunity now to show that Singaporeans are not mere followers of rules. They can rise to the occasion by granting weekly rest days to the existing 206,000 maids here - workers who might otherwise have to wait till their contracts are renewed before they benefit. The law applies to maids whose work permits are issued or renewed from the beginning of next year. A voluntary gesture on the part of employers to act ahead of the deadline, of course, will not make up for the many years Singapore lagged behind other countries in improving the lot of domestic workers who are vulnerable to exploitation. But quick acceptance of the change can indeed speak volumes about Singapore society. Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob hit the nail on the head when commenting on the new law: 'We need to do our part to show that we believe in fairness, and that we treat people fairly.'

Being Singaporeans, however, the cost-benefit equation will not be entirely overlooked. The practical arguments are sound for granting weekly rests that can recharge maids physically and mentally and help them do a better job. However, working parents must adapt as a day without a maid will involve additional chores and fewer chances to rest. The difficulty is accentuated when maids look after very young children, the elderly, the bed-ridden and the disabled. The latter households can get a new $120 grant, on top of the existing $95 levy concession. They can also tap a web of childcare centres, day activity centres for the old, and other care services. What would be also appreciated is the development of a bigger pool of affordable part-time maids. More flexible work arrangements that allow parents to tend to their children or aged family members when the maid is having a break would also help.

Making arrangements to cover the maid on her rest day is inevitable as there is a need to attract more foreign domestic workers, given the economic growth in maid-supplying nations like Indonesia. These countries have also been pressing for better work conditions for their citizens. But these should surely not be the main reasons for the support of a weekly day off.




The right to rights, in debate over maids' day off
By Teo You Yenn and Vivienne Wee, TODAY, 16 Mar 2012

Since the announcement of mandatory weekly days off for foreign domestic workers, the media has been abuzz with debate.

Many have applauded the decision, but there have also been complaints that reveal a prejudice that domestic workers are different from "us".

These negative reactions indicate an over-reliance on domestic workers to do the work that "we" are in fact responsible for.

Second, they expose a fundamental lack of appreciation for international norms and signed agreements between our state and other states regarding human/workers' rights and how these matter to "us".

In a letter to a newspaper, published online, the writer asks without irony: "Who will do the chores and look after the children and the elderly when the maids are enjoying their days off?"

What does it take to pose this question? It takes a mindset that regards care of one's own offspring as tedious, beneath oneself and rightfully the responsibility of a hired woman. It misconstrues filial piety as a burden that has little to do with care as expressed in physical contact and everything to do with contracting out what one doesn't want to do.

The over-reliance on domestic workers has serious consequences for how we think about the care of those we love.

CAREGIVING is A PRIVILEGE

First, when workers are too easily exploitable, they end up doing all the bathing, feeding and other daily chores. It is easy to mistake such activities as peripheral to love and relationships rather than seeing them as integral.

As a result, the love of parents for children and the love of sons and daughters for elderly parents are truncated into intermittent acts of having family meals, shopping expeditions and visits to the doctor, with their daily needs reduced to matters fit only for the attention of the maid.

Caregiving requires knowledge. What annoys or upsets an old person, which food is easier for them to swallow, what clothes they prefer to wear on what occasions - these are things we have to learn.

How to get a child to sit still at mealtimes, how they like their hair washed, how to convince them to do their homework before going out to play - these require experience. 

These knowledge and experiences accumulate when we give care in ways beyond sitting down to that much-lauded family dinner.

Caregiving is work, that is true. But it is also a privilege, and we should not give it up so willingly just because we do not enjoy wiping our children's bottoms or pushing wheelchairs around the block.

Beyond the issue of caregiving as privilege and the problematic eagerness to give it up, there are also international norms and conventions. We should be glad that Singapore society is mature enough to adhere to globally recognised norms about the rights of workers and human beings.

PLAYING BY ETHICAL RULES

These are rights that our state has signed up to uphold as a member of the international community, including the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

In July 2011, in their Concluding Comments, the CEDAW Committee at the United Nations urged the Singapore Government to "review and amend the existing labour legislation in order to apply to foreign domestic workers, or adopt new legislation ensuring that foreign domestic workers are entitled to adequate wages, decent working conditions, including a day off, benefits and access to complaint and redress mechanisms". 

We talk a great deal about being "global" and standing by "international standards". Integral to being a member of the global community is to play by a set of ethical rules.

In recent years, Singaporeans have made claims that we deserve expanded freedoms, equality and access to social goods. 

These are claims rendered legible and legitimate by human rights frameworks. We cannot make these claims selectively, without respect for other rights that are part of the package of ethical norms.

We should applaud the state's actions in taking one step in recognising the rights of foreign domestic workers. 

We should applaud it as proud members of a global community with shared norms about fairness and justice. 

When we do, we are recognising that the compromised rights of various members of society are not just "their" problem but "ours". The rights that protect them come from the same body of rights that protect us. 

We should not give up our privileges, responsibilities and hard-earned rights for a few more hours of leisure on Sundays.

Dr Teo You Yenn is a sociologist and board member at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Dr Vivienne Wee is an anthropologist and Research and Advocacy Director at AWARE.

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