Starting next year, Singapore employers will have to give foreign domestic workers one day off per week, or pay them extra to work on that day.
The new regulation was announced by Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament on 8 March 2012, and instantly attracted many responses from people on both sides of the argument.
The campaign for a weekly day off for domestic workers – many of whom come from less developed or poorer countries such as Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia – was started in 2008 by migrant worker non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as TWC2, HOME and Unifem Singapore.
Andrew Loh writes in publichouse.sg that a weekly day off is a basic right for workers in many countries around the world:
To the ordinary person, it was puzzling and indeed embarrassing to see that there was even a need to champion such a cause – a day off for workers is a norm in countries around the world. Singapore, sadly, was among the exceptions.
Joses Kuan also contributed an article to publichouse.sg, and applauds Tan Chuan-Jin for his actions:
In my time volunteering with TWC2 back in Singapore, I had not seen a member of the government, much less a full minister, meaningfully engage migrant worker NGOs and try to effect change. BG Tan has, however, made trips down to TWC2’s Cuff Road Project for displaced, injured and exploited workers, sensitized the everyday Singaporeans to the heinous existence of “repatriation companies” (euphemism for legal thugs), among other substantive actions. This move to codify in law a mandatory off-day is therefore not just a simple exercise in window-dressing and BG Tan should be applauded for his work and direction.
However, he also warns against “premature enthusiasm”:
This new move begs more than a few questions which remain unanswered. How enforceable is this legally-binding piece of legislation? Who’s going to police and scrutinize employers and make sure they comply? What about reprisals for transgression? How qualitatively different is it going to be from the current “standard contracts” which already are instituted (that disproportionately favour employers who can “buy off” discretionary off days)? How about bargaining power or employer-employee dynamics in a new milieu which usually gravitate towards the employer; and are compounded by issues of bad debt, agent loans to service and the impounding of passports.
Complaints and criticism began to pour in from employers opposed to the weekly day off. A number of them wrote in to the Straits Times forum, citing different reasons from extra pressure on Singaporean employers to increased social ills.
Thng Tien Guan also suggested that weekly day off for domestic workers might be detrimental to Singapore's tourism industry:
Many maids gather in big groups along Orchard Road on their days off, and some of these groups can be rowdy. What would be the impact on tourism?
The sudden government decision on having a weekly day off for maids, an important issue affecting families, is disappointing.
The stream of anti-weekly day off sentiment from certain employers were harshly criticised on Twitter:
@Giles_iPresume: The global coverage of Singapore legislating one day off for maids is embarrassing, but don't tell that to the Straits Times letters page
@woonhian: This is appalling. Singaporeans hate being labelled dogs, but they sure as hell like treating others as such.
Some have noted that the option to compensate workers with a day's pay to work on their off day leaves room for abuse, and said that $15 – the suggested amount – was far too little.
Eddy Blaxell pointed out that it would still be possible for domestic workers to not receive a growth in income:
One article claimed that maids would be paid 15% more, because most maids are paid monthly and compensation for rest days would have to be paid on top of their monthly salary.
But these changes don't apply to existing contracts. They apply only to workers on work permits issued after 1 January 2013. And wages for those workers haven't been set yet. An employer who wants to continue hiring a maid on exactly the same basis as he is currently doing faces no obstacles. He reduces the maid's monthly salary by 15% and gives it back as compensation. It's as simple as that.