(Jakarta) - Singapore’s new standard contract for migrant domestic workers fails to provide them basic protections such as a weekly day off or caps on excessive recruitment fees, said Human Rights Watch today.

The new standard contract must be used by recruitment agencies if they wish to be accredited and retain their license. It was developed jointly by the Singapore Ministry of Manpower and several agencies that accredit labor recruiters. Human Rights Watch said the contract provides little improvement in labor protections for domestic workers, who are excluded from Singapore’s Employment Act.

“It’s shocking that an advanced economy like Singapore won’t give domestic workers a weekly day off,” said Nisha Varia, Asia researcher for the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch.

Families in Singapore employ approximately 160,000 domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India. Many of these workers labor without pay for months to settle debts to employment agencies, work long hours seven days a week, and are confined to their workplace.

At least 147 migrant domestic workers have died from workplace accidents or suicide since 1999, most by jumping or falling from residential buildings. Workers complain that more employers are refusing to pay any wages.

The Singaporean government has instituted some encouraging reforms in the past two years. These include creating mandatory orientation programs for employers and domestic workers, prosecuting cases of physical abuse, and introducing a demerit system for employment agencies.

Intense competition among the more than 600 employment agencies has led them to shift the cost of recruitment, transportation, training and placement from employers to domestic workers. To pay for these charges, many domestic workers labor for four to 10 months with little or no pay. The Employment Act guarantees that most workers cannot have more than 25 percent of their monthly pay deducted over 12 months, but it does not apply to domestic workers.

“The current system is absurd and unfair,” said Varia. “Singapore’s lowest-paid workers are handing over almost a third of their salaries to repay loans so that agencies can subsidize fees for employers.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Singaporean government and accreditation agencies to provide domestic workers the same level of labor protections provided to all other workers in Singapore under the Employment Act. The standard contract should include a weekly rest day, a cap on salary deductions, and a limit on maximum working hours per week.