2 years on, employers still skirt day-off clause
Should there be a law to get employers to comply?
Friday • April 25, 2008
NEWLY arrived, a maid asked her employer if she could get a rest day. Her employer was incredulous.
"If I wanted to give my maid a day off, I would have hired one from another country," said the employer, who had signed her up on the assumption that maids of some nationalities were more pliant than others.
Faced with an employment contract that requires them to either give their maids a rest day, or compensate them accordingly for working, some Singaporean employers have sought ways to get around the terms or extract the most from their workers.
And this begs the question of how much has truly changed for the 170,000 foreign domestic workers in our midst — two years after the industry association put together a standard contract requiring employers to give maids at least one day off a month.
A Today straw poll of 50 employers found that only 62 per cent gave their maids a rest day.
With some industry watchers criticising the rest-day clause as being too flexible, should legislation be put in place to mandate the issue?
As it is, not all agencies are enforcing the contract. "Employers might come in and say they want a 'no day off' worker … and less scrupulous agents will advise them," said Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) president John Gee.
Some agents, he said, pressure the maid to opt for compensation in lieu of a rest day. "The worker will feel like the alternative (if they reject the terms) is to go back."
The standard contract, drawn up by the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore (AEAS) and CaseTrust, came into effect in 2006, and employment agencies that violate it risk losing their accreditation status.
According to random checks by AEAS' accreditation board, about 70 per cent made sure to recommend rest days to their customers. (More than 400 of the 600 or so agencies in Singapore are AEAS-accredited.)
But what of employers' mindsets — have efforts by non-governmental groups to promote the needs and rights of maids had any effect?
In Today's poll, 56 per cent of employers were in favour of making rest days mandatory. This did not impress Mr Gee, who called it "a slight improvement".
"The overall attitude is more humane, but it's not a radical shift. The human rights aspect — that a maid deserves rest — is not there," he said.
Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics, said that despite the contractual rest-day clause, foreign domestic workers have limited options.
"If they refuse to sign the contract, they will have to go back to their country," he pointed out.
The terms put such workers at a disadvantage: They state that employers can offer one to four rest days, but if the worker does not take any rest days, she usually gets only one day's compensation, said one industry player who played a role in the early days of pushing for mandatory rest days.
"The compensation amounts to $15 to $20. That doesn't cost the employer much, but it costs the maid a lot of freedom," he said.
He suggested the terms be revised to state a minimum of four days off a month – so if the maid chooses to work instead, she is assured equitable compensation.
This is unlikely to go down well with employers, some of whom harbour fears about their maids going astray on their off days. One common worry: They will forfeit their bond money if their maids get pregnant.
Calling this a misconception, Mr Gee clarified: "They will lose their bond only if they fail to get the maid repatriated."
But AEAS president A Y Aliyar thinks employers too need flexibility. "They might need the maid to be around all the time to care for the elderly," he pointed out.
And the contract, he pointed out, has at least put the issue of rest days out there "for discussion and thought". He prefers public education to forcing legislation through.
He added: "There are 170,000 maids here, if the situation was that bad, no one would come."
Still, maids TODAY spoke too said it was not as if they had a real choice. "I would like an off day," said a 27-year-old Filipino who has worked for nearly two years without a single rest day.
"But law or no law, I will still work because I need to."