Little rest for Singapore's silent army

Story highlights

  • HRW: Singapore "should be embarrassed" about record on domestic worker rights
  • Just over 200,000 foreign domestic workers live and work in one in six Singaporean homes
  • Survey shows only 12% of city-state's foreign domestic workers have a day off a week
  • Fierce resistance from employers to calls for legislated days off
The list of house rules make it clear what one Singaporean working mother expects of her new maids.
"You cannot choose your food... I will decide the type of food to buy for you. You cannot use the washing machine or dryer... you must hand wash your own clothes and bed sheets. And if (the children) fall down, it's your fault."
"Tamarind," as she's known, lists the rules on her blog, which is advertised as "primarily for employers who have suffered at the hands of bad maids." She says her maids aren't punished, if they break the rules, but firm guidance is needed early on.
Just over 200,000 maids, or foreign domestic workers (FDW), live and work in one in six households in Singapore, according to migrant advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
They came in large numbers in the 1980s when the government encouraged more women and highly skilled workers into the economy, creating the need for more help at home and the money to pay for it.
Since then, the city-state has come to rely so much upon its imported help that the government is struggling to balance the demands of its local population with criticism that it's doing too little to protect workers' rights.
"What's really striking is that Singapore has done a good job of addressing cases of physical and sexual abuse against domestic workers... but they have really fallen behind the norm in terms of not including these workers under the labor law and considering them as workers," says Nisha Varia from Human Rights Watch. "It's something Singapore should feel really embarrassed about."
While maids are recognized under Singapore's Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, the legislation doesn't regulate pay or working hours. That is agreed in a contract between the employer and employee, along with their recruitment company.
While the standard contract asks parties to nominate one day off a month (to be paid in lieu, if the maid chooses to forgo it), the Act only requires employers to provide "adequate rest."
Employers who fail to comply can be fined up to $5,000 (US$3,900) and jailed for up to six months.
In 2010, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) says it took action against 26 employers for failure to provide adequate food, rest or medical care. In the first half of 2011, nine were held to account. "Most FDW employers are responsible and treat their FDWs well," a government spokesperson said.
Yet, according to a survey released this year by Transient Workers Count Too, only 12% of Singapore's foreign domestic workers, mostly women from Indonesia and the Philippines, were granted a day off each week. Just over half had a day off each month.
"One of the things we noticed from the responses of employers is a kind of panicked reaction when we start talking about a day off," says TWC2's executive director Vincent Wijeysingha.
"I think that's based on the fact that we've come to depend so much on our domestic workers for everything. You see them running the household, shopping, paying bills and looking after vulnerable people in the family.
"The key reason why we need them is because there are no affordable childcare services and no affordable elderly daycare services. So this represents the cheapest social policy option," he says.
Tamarind gives her current maid two days off a month and doesn't believe the law should be changed. "In Singapore, most Chinese husbands do not help with house work and children. If all maids have a day off every week that would mean that full-time working mothers have no rest at all," she told CNN.