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Labour Regulations

Foreign domestic workers need rest, too

Published in: The Straits Times

Today as many of us celebrate May Day with a break from our jobs, others in Singapore are expected to work through the day. In fact, foreign domestic workers often work through all holidays. Far too many of them work every day of the week, every week of the year, without a single day of rest.

Caring for our children, preparing nourishing food for our families, and maintaining our homes - these duties recognise no set hours, holidays or weekends. Managing a household is challenging. That is why many families here hire a domestic worker in the first place. But given the demanding and exhausting nature of such labour, is it reasonable or even safe to expect domestic workers to be on call around the clock, day after day?

Most of us deeply value our days off. We can spend time with our families and friends. We can run errands, catch up on sleep, enjoy our favourite activities. These days off keep us physically and emotionally healthy.

Singapore's Employment Act excludes domestic workers but guarantees other workers a day off per week. Domestic workers must rely on weak contractual provisions that allow employers to make additional payments in lieu of a day off. The right to rest is subject to negotiation between parties with uneven bargaining powers. Domestic workers should not have to rely solely on the generosity of their employers to gain what is a basic right.

Employment agents sometimes warn domestic workers that if they refuse their employers' conditions, they risk being fired and sent home. This threat cannot be taken lightly. For example, Indonesian women who come to work in Singapore have usually incurred tremendous debts with employment agents. Many must give up their first six to eight months of pay to settle these debts before they can send their earnings to their families. Rather than risk returning home with less than what they started with, many foreign domestic workers feel they must sign away their days off.

Employers, with their own families' best interests and concern over their domestic workers in mind, worry about granting them days off. They fear their domestic workers may run away, behave improperly or slack off in their duties. But contrary to popular misconception, granting them days off can actually prevent these scenarios.

Treating domestic workers with respect and giving them a well-earned day off can go a long way towards winning their loyalty and creating a healthy work environment, thus avoiding the desperation that drives some to flee their employers' homes.

These women make huge sacrifices. They leave behind their homes and loved ones, who in turn depend on them for survival. There is too much at stake for them to frivolously risk disappointing employers by getting into trouble or taking their work less seriously than they should.

A day off for domestic workers is also an issue of safety for employers and their families. We all perform better at our jobs when given time off. We entrust domestic workers with those who are most precious to us: our children and elderly parents.

Domestic workers need time off for their own well-being and for the well-being of those in their care.

Although Singapore is in a position to take the lead in setting labour standards in the region, it lags behind in the treatment of foreign domestic workers. Despite some real progress - raising public awareness of domestic workers, establishing hot-lines for them, punishing abusive employers - Singapore has yet to provide key protections for this group of workers.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has guaranteed foreign domestic workers a weekly day of rest, and other labour-receiving countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are considering labour reforms towards this goal.

This May Day, Singaporeans should put themselves in the shoes of domestic workers. Adequate rest is a human right and proper working conditions are the basis for a positive relationship of mutual respect between domestic workers and their employers.

Nisha Varia is senior researcher and Emily Allen is associate in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

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