Opinions at odds over maids' day off
Singapore - Singapore's decision to grant foreign maids a weekly day off was welcomed on Tuesday by social workers and rights groups, but some employers grumbled and critics said the move falls short of international labour standards.
While Singapore is proud of its squeaky-clean image and widely admired for its economic development, it has been regularly criticised for its treatment of foreign workers.
Announcing the change, Minister of State for Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said on Monday the mandatory weekly rest day would apply to maids whose work permits are issued or renewed from January 1 2013.
Employers who need the services of their maids on their rest day must compensate them.
"The decision by Singapore's Manpower Ministry to grant foreign domestic workers a weekly rest day is an important reform," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
But the New York-based watchdog said the move, which came after years of lobbying by welfare groups, still falls short of international standards as it will take effect only in 2013 and does not offer other forms of labour protection.
More than 200 000 women from impoverished villages in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India work as maids in Singapore.
Some maids never get a single day off during their first two-year contract.
"The lack of adequate protection has made live-in domestic work a highly stressful occupation and many women in such situations find it difficult to cope with the social isolation and demands of the job," said social worker Bridget Tan.
"As a result, many of them suffer from anxiety, depression and loneliness," Tan, founder and president of the private group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said in a statement.
Tan cited the case of a 19-year-old Indonesian helper who was recently jailed for killing an elderly Singaporean widow because the maid was unable to cope with her employer's demands and constant scolding.
Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said a day off "is critical for a domestic worker's physical, mental, and emotional well-being".
"But this important reform should go into effect this year and apply to all domestic workers and their current contracts," Varia added.
But one Singaporean employer, banker Jacqueline Ng, expressed concern that some maids could abuse their freedom.
Ng said she had to send an Indonesian maid home recently after the helper was found to have contracted venereal disease.
She said her maid, who did not even enjoy a regular day off, had refused to say how she got the disease.
"Can you imagine if she has a day off. What will happen?" Ng asked.
"It's not that we are inhumane, but they will be very difficult to control. What I am saying is with this mandatory day off, as an employer I don't feel secure because we have no control [over] who they mingle with."
Foreign maids play a crucial social and economic role in Singapore, where most couples have to work to cope with the high cost of living and the elderly population is rising fast.
A businesswoman, Poon Boon Eng, told the Straits Times newspaper that the new rule "is really bad news for women who are working".
"I need to rest on Sundays too," she said, adding that she would rather compensate her helper for a foregone rest day.
Human Rights Watch said Singapore's labour-protection rules lag behind those of other places with a lot of migrant workers such as Hong Kong, where maids already enjoy a day off every week.