Those who don’t get monthly rest day can claim breach of contract
By Arlina Arshad
EMPLOYERS will be required to give their maids one day off a month, or compensate them in cash, starting next year. And any employer who fails to do so can be reported for breach of contract.
From January, it will be compulsory for the 500-plus maid agencies here accredited by CaseTrust and the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore (AEAS) to include a clause in their employment contracts stipulating time off for maids. The Straits Times understands that both accreditation bodies have submitted a sample of the new employment agreement to the Manpower Ministry and that a standard contract will be issued soon. The plan is to put the new clause into effect from January, AEAS president Angland Seah said yesterday.
Mr Seah Seng Choon, executive director of the Consumers Association of Singapore, said maid agencies that do not honour the clause may not be accredited the next time round. There are between 140,000 and 150,000 maids here, mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India.
A Sunday Times poll of 284 maids in November and December 2003 found that only half of them got days off. Of these, two-thirds had one day off a month while 23 per cent had two days off. Only about one in 10 had a day off every week. The figures were not surprising, according to maid agencies.
Mr David Haw, director of employment agency Newway Holdings, said: ‘Employers tell us that they are busy, that’s why they can’t give their maids a day off. It’s a shame that we are from a developed country and yet we treat our maids like slaves.’
The issue of compulsory days off for maids has been raised in the media and public forums for several years. At least four MPs have called for laws specifying a minimum number of rest days a month.
Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob told The Straits Times yesterday that the latest development is an improvement, but implementing and enforcing it will be a challenge. While maids will be able to claim breach of contract if employers do not comply, she noted that because ‘it doesn’t have the force of the law, it really depends on individual employers to honour their side of the bargain’. There is also the possibility that some maids could be too scared to report their employers for breaches. She said: ‘Maid agencies, the Ministry of Manpower and everyone concerned should monitor and assess that it is working. If not, in the long term, one must think in terms of making it into a legal obligation.’
Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, head of NTUC’s Migrant Workers’ Forum, welcomed the move as a ‘big step forward’, but noted that it fell short of basic labour standards, which stipulate that all workers should get one day off per week.
Mr John Gee, vice-president of civil society group Transient Workers Count Too, said: ‘This helps to put the issue of ‘time off’ before the public and allows employers to get into the habit of accepting and giving ‘time off’ to their maids.’ But he said safeguards must be in place to ensure maids are not forced to give up their days off for money.
Lily Artika Sari is one maid who knows the value of a rest. The 23-year-old Indonesian is hoping to work for another employer after her previous one made her work for 19 hours a day without a break.
‘I’d worked non-stop and felt so tired I fainted. Two rest days a month will be good.’
I laud the government, the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore (AEAS) and CASE for giving some of the basic rights of maids as workers earning a living in Singapore. But I doubt the success of having maids reporting such “breaches in contract” simply because it does not address the problem in the first place – why are Singaporean employers so inhumane in their treatment of maids in Singapore? Do you actually think the maid, in wanting to earn as much as possible to send back home, would want to jeopardise her
career temporary job by reporting their employers who “breach such contracts”?
There seems to be a prevailing mentality among most Singaporean maid employers who feel that it is right to treat maids as mere objects of servitude. After all, we pay them to do ALL the household chores, to take care of every single need of our grandparents and children and be on call 24/7, living in the comforts of our own home. They’re after all maids, right? They’re supposed to and that’s that.
“Its very difficult to take care of maids. If we give them days off, they will go to Lucky Plaza to find their Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Filippino boyfriends or do other things which may affect their job performance! Sometimes, they so lazy such that we have to keep a watchful eye over their every move just in case they decide to take a rest on our new sofa chairs. They might even steal our money and seduce our husbands! And look at all the news – Employers abusing maids, maids killing employers, maids killing themselves, even maids killing one another! That’s why we must keep them on a tight leash, so that they behave and remain safe (and that we don’t loose our down payment).”
I’m of course giving my own generic example of the utterly deluded mindset of Singaporean maid employer who rationalises his or her own inhumane treatment of maids. They are afraid of the psychological and emotional baggage they bring with them, or the lack of trust they have in their maids in living within their private space, or the fear that the maids would misbehave in a number of ways and bring more problems to them, rather than make their lives better (or wasting all their money!).
I have never been taken care by a maid, neither have I employed one myself. So what do I know about handling maids?
I know that its very sad to see the news every few months about maids being abused by their employers, or that some are driven to suicide because they are unable to adapt living in a totally new environment in Singapore. It scares me that they do have a lot of emotional baggage, but isn’t that what makes them human after all? You might have paid for their service but this does not mean it erases their own sense of self and identity, in only being a maid and not anything else.
Bringing in an analogy of the army (I know! Stop sniggering. I guess there are useful learning points being in the army) – the men you are working with would also have their own personal problems. You can’t deny them and only see them as mere soldiers under your command because its impossible! You risk loosing them along the way. After all, like the soldiers, the maids are only here temporarily to work, being forced to due to extenuating circumstances. Its not their life.
Even a full time National Serviceman gets 14 days leave and numerous offs in between. What about the maids?
[Mr Lucky Tan postulates some solutions to the fear that maids will get pregnant if given one day off:1. Allow male maids.
2. Get maids that are past child bearing age.
3. Test the maid for moral values.
4. Chastity belts?
[Update: I guess I am not alone about the perception of maids as mere objects of use. In today’s Straits Times (28/10), Ms Lydia Lim shares the same concerns as I am, that there are more deep rooted problems in our mindsets rather than just solving the problem by simply giving one day off each month. She brought up the “utilitarian perception” of Singaporeans towards people of lower economic use which I find to be very very true of Singaporeans. She also brought up an interesting point, which is the absence of an “opposite point of view as a counterweight” which is the “value societies place on the rights of each individual”. And low behold, we have a column by Ms Chua Mui Hoong on how we should take “a hard look at bad press on freedom” and among other things, “democratic freedom, human rights and civil liberties”. I find it hard to take a “nuanced” response or the “third way” as what she proposes because the situation speaks for itself. There’s no other view other than to reflect on why the maids in Singapore so badly protected under the law. There’s a serious flaw in the government’s aim of emphasizing so much of economic development – we become mere automatons, or treat others as such. Singaporeans need to be aware of such an issue before we can think of progressing as a civilised society.]
[ Bosses use cameras to spy on maids: How can we accept this? Argh. Its times like these when I’m not proud of being a Singaporean. ]