25 June 2011

Rest Days for Domestic Workers

Singapore should consider legislation that makes employers give their domestic helpers a rest day every week, according to Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob.

She was commenting on the new International Labour Organisation convention that was approved last week in Geneva to grant domestic workers greater protection from exploitation.

Singapore was among 63 countries which abstained from voting on the convention.  Ministry of Manpower has said it would sign the treaty only when it was sure it could implement it here, and that it would continue to review the rights and responsibilities of employers and workers.  Under the convention, domestic workers should not be treated differently from other workers.

Let's examine the arguments.

Domestic workers should not be treated differently from other workers.

The very nature of the work of a domestic worker is different from that of other workers.

Domestic workers need to rest and should not be made to work excessive hours that could affect their health and well-being.  Having weekly rest days may help to minimise some issues such as stress and overwork.

In many if not most households, domestic workers are not required to work 24/7 and have several opportunities to rest during the day.  There are of course some errant employers who believe in getting their money's worth, and they want their domestic workers to be continuously working 16 hours or more per day.

If it is not possible to give a domestic worker one rest day per week, she should be compensated in cash.

Most domestic workers are currently employed on the basis of one rest day per month.  If it becomes mandatory to grant them one rest day per week, does this mean that their remuneration will be reduced accordingly?  If their remuneration remains the same, it means that those domestic workers who do not get weekly rest days will get a salary increase of almost $100 per month.

If one rest day per week becomes mandatory, it becomes the norm.  Then, it will be difficult for employers to find any domestic worker who will be prepared to forgo the weekly rest day even though she will be compensated for it.  Even if a domestic worker agrees contractually to forgo the weekly rest day and be compensated for it, there is a strong likelihood that she may change her mind during the term of her two-year contract, leading to friction between the employer and the domestic worker.

The rest day need not be on a Sunday; employers can choose a day that suits their routine.  Household work is not so complex that it cannot be organised to enable domestic workers to take a day off every week.

This statement is incomprehensible.

For almost all employers, the issue is not whether the rest day falls on Sunday.  If an employer of a domestic worker works five days or five and a half days a week, he/she will have to take over the domestic worker's work on her rest day.  This is not an issue if the main duty of the domestic worker is to look after his/her young children because the employers (the children's parents) can and should spend time with their children.  Neither is it an issue if the main duty of the domestic worker is to attend to housework inasmuch as most types of housework may be put on hold for one day in a week.  But what if the domestic worker is employed primarily to care for the elderly, especially if they are bedridden?

It is only logical that most domestic workers want to have their rest days on Sundays.  It is rather pointless for a domestic worker to have a rest day if her domestic worker friends do not also have rest days on the same day of the week.

Employers can consider hiring part-time help on their maids' rest days.

There are about 200,000 domestic workers in Singapore.  According to a recent survey, 25 per cent of them care for the elderly.  If these domestic workers are given weekly rest days, about 50,000 individuals are required to provide part-time help on the rest days of these domestic workers, especially if most if not almost all domestic workers want to rest on the same day of the week i.e., Sundays.  To what extent is such part-time help available?  What will these part-timers be doing during the rest of the week?

If weekly rest days become mandatory, many families may find it impossible or impractical to have their bedridden elderly parents or grandparents live with them.  Does the Government plan to set up more nursing homes?

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Notes

1. Consider Law to Give Maids a Day Off Every Week: Halimah The Straits Times (20 Jun 2011).

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