Can Singaporeans give their helpers a break?
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
The call for legislation entitling Foreign Domestic Workers to a day off every week by Madam Halimah Yacob, the Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, last week has polarized Singaporeans into mainly two camps—those who feel that an off day per week is a basic entitlement and those who feel that it will jeopardize the employer’s interest. And then there are those who take the middle ground by suggesting that maids be financially compensated in lieu if they are to work seven days a week.
However, given that an FDW’s workplace and job scope is so intricately linked to the immediate well-being of her employer and that of the latter’s loved ones, the issue of whether or not the government should mandate a rest day has to be considered in its totality—in terms of an employer’s own supervisory approach within the house as well as existing legislation governing the interests of all parties.
NOT A STANDALONE ISSUE
“If the government wants to improve the welfare of the maids, they should also address the predicaments faced by the employers,” says Mrs. Chua*, who has had a string of unfavorable experiences with FDWs, including theft. Thanks to her regular rest days, one maid had, over time, accumulated many friends with whom she chatted with on the phone for hours on end. When she was not able to pay for her mobile bills, she resorted to stealing from Chua. Aside from sending her back to the agency, there was no proper recourse.
“Of course, maids should get days off; working for people in another cultural setting can be very tiring psychologically. However, the government needs to realize that it’s not just the domestic workers who need protection; employers do too, and when we can’t get that protection, we try to regain the balance by protecting yourself and withholding benefits from others.”
While not every employer has experiences as nasty as Chua’s, one common complaint is that a mandatory weekly off day will cause inconvenience to employers, for many of whom it is a necessity and not a luxury to have domestic help at home.
However, Mr. Choong*, whose maid gets a day off every Sunday, sees it differently. “I don’t see that as a problem for us. We get the whole family involved when there are chores to be done; this way, we also learn to be not overly dependent on our maid because she will not be with us forever, especially after the kids grow up.” What about the worry that she will fall into bad company when she goes out? “As employers, we have to build relationships with our helpers, in order for us to be transparent. Only then can we speak into their lives.” He adds, “After all, God designated that there be one rest day in a week.”
Part of the employers’ inhibitions about giving maids rest days stems not so much from an uncompassionate mind-set but from the fear of being penalized should the maid breach contractual regulations and run away, get pregnant or moonlight, actions which many perceive to be directly correlated to the amount of time off a maid gets.
For Mrs. Liu*, trust is an overriding factor in her working relationship with her maid, who gets a day off every month. While she admits that how a maid’s tenure with her employer turns out has much to do with an individual’s own character or the “luck of the draw”, on her part, she took the initiative to understand her behavior as well as work ethics while treating her as part of the family since she came on board eight years.
As such, Liu was able to cultivate a relationship built on trust with her. “She is able to draw her boundaries very well, and hence I am not worried about her getting into trouble or mixing with bad company when she goes out,” says Liu. “Sometimes we think we own our maids; but when they are not even able to make friends, there’s something wrong with the whole system.”
THE LAW OF THE LAND
According to Jeslin Tan, owner of SRA Management & Consultancy maid agency, it is not fair to immediately lambast exponents of the day off for maids because the MOM does place some burden of responsibility on the employer for errant behavior of their maids.
Furthermore, it is also unfair to compare Singaporean employers with those in Taiwan and Hong Kong who practice more lenient work arrangements with their maids, as they are not subjected to the same laws as those here.
The current practice allows for households to work out a mutually agreed arrangement with their maids, stipulated on employment contracts drawn up by accredited employment agencies. If a maid prefers not to have any rest days, she will be compensated correspondingly, most often financially.
While she concurs that more can be done in the area of domestic workers’ rights, Tan feels that mandating a rest day every week will cause dissatisfaction among employers. After all, having been at the frontline of the industry for more than 10 years, she has also seen more than her fair share of unpleasant experiences faced by employers, and hence understands the reservations some of them have about giving their maids off days. “If the ministry does away with the S$5,000 security bond, employers might be more willing to consider giving their maids off days,” says Tan. In fact, some of them are very open to giving their maids one off day per month, she adds.
Ultimately, improving the welfare of FDWs cannot be considered outside the interests of the employers. Beyond making concessions for her maid, an employer needs to develop a mutually respectful working relationship with her domestic helper, just as she would with an employee at work. Only then is there the possibility of creating a win-win situation for both.
*Full names have been withheld for privacy reasons.
When One Is Saved
City Harvest Church member Mrs. Ng* recounts the life of a once-stranger that was transformed under her roof.
Jane*, who worked for my parents till they passed away, came to work for our household. At the beginning we had our hiccups and meltdowns, as with most new employer-employee relationships, but as the months passed we got used to her style and quirks, and she to ours. Jane ended up working for us for six years, and proved an honest, hard-working, trustworthy employee.
About a year after she came into our employ, she received Christ at my mother-in-law’s church, and her transformation was dramatic. One day at City Harvest, Pastor Kong gave out new Bibles for those who finished reading the Bible in one year, and to my amazement, she stood up and took one. She was so on fire for God, she read my entire library of Christian books.
One year, it came time for her to visit her family, and she asked for our prayers—she had been praying for her family’s salvation. When she returned after two weeks, God had granted her the desires of her heart—her entire household was saved, and to this day, is actively serving in their local church.
Jane continued to grow better and better at her job—she left big shoes for our next helper to fill. Finally, when she turned 30, she asked for permission to quit to return to the Philippines to study, as God had given her a vision to get schooled and to one day attend CHC’s School of Theology.
Our aunt sponsored her five-year nursing degree course, and currently Jane is studying hard to fulfill the call of God on her life. We are constantly in touch and she recently came to Singapore to visit.