Thursday, July 27, 2006

Maids in Singapore- not humans?

Dear friends,
I have just sent the following letter to the Strait Times forum page today. I feel that in certain segments of our society, maids are not considered worthy of normal human rights. What do you say? Is it a non-issue?

Dear Editor,

I refer to the Straits Times article “Compulsory day off in new maid contracts” by Radha Basu dated 21 July 2006.

Despite the upbeat tone of the heading, there will in fact be almost no improvement in the welfare of our domestic maids as it is still not mandatory for them to have a weekly day of rest.

MP-elect Madam Halimah Yaacob, has correctly pointed out that even with the new contract which supposedly stipulates that maids should be “given a compulsory day off every month - or cash in lieu”, a maid would find it tough to go up against her boss “because the power relations are uneven”. And that is for a day off per month, not even the weekly off that she needs.

Ex- Nominated MP Braema Mathi, also said that the new contract offered too many options for potential “recalcitrant employers” who will exploit these loopholes. For example, she said, the clause on accommodation offers three options on where a maid will sleep - in the children's room, in a separate room and 'others'!

To me, contracts with words like “ others” and “or cash in lieu” are unenforcable and hence just a waste of ink.

In this day and age, when even the civil service has implemented 5-day weeks, is it so hard to understand that these 150,000 maids are just like you and I, requiring relaxation and rest?

These workers, who are an asset to our national economy, are not slaves and should be accorded the same human rights that you and I take for granted.

How can even a monthly day-off not be mandatory? I just cannot fathom the logic!

Abusive employers use threats of repatriation- when the maids stand to lose their life-savings, to ensure that the latter “toe the line” and not report maltreatment and other infringements.

The fear of forfeiture of the compulsory $5000 security bond, has caused many employers to keep their maids under lock and key. To them, this $5000 far exceeds the maids’ need for freedom.

I do not disagree with Consumer Association of Singapore president,MP-elect Yeo Guat Kwang who says that “rogue employers were more the exception than the rule” and that most Singaporean employers treat their maids humanely.

How then do we ensure that the recalcitrant “exceptions” get punished?

The mechanism for maids to report infractions in their contracts must be clearly spelled out so that all employers know that no abuses of their workers would be tolerated by the authorities.

However, many of us still hope for the day when all in Singapore, even oversea foreign workers, are treated equally- as fellow human beings.

Dr. Huang Shoou Chyuan

I am attaching the article for your convenience:

Straits Times 21 July 2006 “Compulsory day off in new maid contracts “
By Radha Basu
(Dr. Huang: I personally feel that the heading is misleading)

EMPLOYMENT contracts for maids will soon spell out that they be given a compulsory day off every month - or cash in lieu.

This will apply to contracts between maids and employers that are signed or renewed from Sept 15.

The contract, aimed at protecting maids from abuse, was unveiled yesterday by CaseTrust and the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore, which accredit 500-odd maid agencies.

The two bodies have also drawn up a second document - a standard service agreement binding employers and maid agencies, which requires transparency in fees payable and refund policies.

All accredited agencies have agreed to use both contracts from Sept 15.

Till now, contracts between employers and Singapore's 150,000 maids have been inconsistent. Reports of maids being denied days off or sufficient rest and food have surfaced, drawing ire from maid welfare advocates and human rights groups.

Calls for a day off to be enshrined in law have been made, but the Government has said Singapore laws provide enough protection, and urged maid agencies and accreditation bodies to design a standard contract to make rest days and other terms an industry standard.

Consumer Association of Singapore president Yeo Guat Kwang called the two documents 'a big step forward' in wiping out ambiguities about hiring maids.

The contract entitles maids to between one and four days off a month; if the maid gives up her day off, she must be paid.

Maid welfare advocates say the contract is a right move, but see more room to tighten some of the rules.

The president of civil society group Transient Workers Count Too, Braema Mathi, said the contract offered too many options - and thus, too much manoeuvring room - 'which may turn into loopholes for recalcitrant employers'. For example, she said, the clause on accommodation offers three options on where a maid will sleep - in the children's room, in a separate room and 'others', so 'an employer could make his maid sleep in the living room and still not breach the contract', she said.

Ms Bridget Lew, who heads the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, pointed out the contract still offers less protection than the law can, and that domestic maids are not guaranteed rest days under the Employment Act, unlike most other workers.

'Enforcing a contract will be far more difficult than enforcing a law,' she said.
Member of Parliament Madam Halimah Yaacob, another maid welfare advocate, said that even with the contract, a maid would find it tough to go up against her boss 'because the power relations are uneven'.

Mr Yeo, however, said rogue employers were more the exception than the rule, and that the Manpower Ministry would come down hard on that minority.

2. I am also linking a "tongue-in-cheek" rebuttal to another forum writer about this issue (more than one year ago). I was very sarcastic and caustic! Ouch!! It was entitled: " Insatiable? Lock them up then!"

3. Link to Human Rights Watch article


Mr Wang Says So said...

Actually I think that the $5,000 which an employer must pay to the government if his maid becomes pregnant (and assuming that he's not the daddy) is just ridiculous.

nofearSingapore said...

Mr. Wang,
Yes the security bond is an ingenious but devious way of passing on the responsibility of "policing" these employees to their employers. Knowing how much S'poreans treasure money, these employers will use the fear of losing the bond as a valid excuse to curtail the maids' freedoms.
If I am not wrong, the $5K is lost only if the maid runs away and can't be found or gets pregnant and decides to go back ( or break any of the minute details found in the work permit contract- that means any reason the gahment likes). If the pregnancy is terminated ( to use a sanitized medical term), she can continue working and you don't lose the 5K. But very few employers will pay the medical fees. Most will just suddenly ( and even forcefully) without any warning pack the maid straight to the airport ( almost like a Tom Clancy movie).
Can you believe it? Our MOM will not support even a monthly mandatory day off? Are they afraid that this will cause them votes from selfish S'poreans?
Think about it!
Dr. H

eve said...

thanks for sharing this with us.

sporescores said...

I agree the ST headline is totally wrong - the option to replace day off with cash means the day off is not compulsory. But knowing ST, I'm not so surprised. They are a truly amazing paper.

anthony said...

You are a humanist, Doc; kudos to you!

If I had my way, all maids (and “guest workers”) would be treated like any other normal employee in a normal enterprise, with days off from work, annual vacations, etc. But, alas, I’m only a dreamer…

The saddest thing about this sickening exploitation of our unfortunate fellow-humans is that this problem is not unique to Singapore. It would be bad enough if it were, but it isn’t.

There are about 90,000 Sri Lankans living in Lebanon, the great majority of whom are domestic servants. (I suppose I can safely assume that they are treated no better than their counterparts elsewhere.) As the country is now under attack from Israel, these hapless people are stranded, and many want to get out. And what does the Sri Lankan Labour relations minister, Athauda Senevirathne, tell them? Don’t move! Stay where you! And he is asking the relatives of those in Lebanon not to encourage them to leave!

And why is this? Surely not because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that this labour force pours into the Sri Lankan economy?

Did I just say that? How cynical of me! That would be the height of ignominy, wouldn’t it? But I can’t think of any other reason. Can you?

What a shitty world we live in where the less fortunate are treated like human chattel, exploited to the core, and cast aside without so much as a glimmer of regret. Worse, all this abetted and condoned by those in power. Slavery with a modern touch.

You’re right, Doc. Life sucks.

Pandemonium said...

Unfortunately, one of the arguments for not giving maids their "rights" is that housewives in Singapore also work seven days a week, getting no days off. Hence the argument goes further to ask why a foreign worker should deserve such "privileges" when some Singaporeans do not.

I do see that there are some flaws in this argument. Firstly, technically a housewife is not a form of employment, but a maid is. In addition, just because housewives don't get the privileges doesn't mean maids shouldn't. If there is a problem with a housewife's job, then we should correct the problem instead of trying to make it fair by having more people share the problem.

However, the problem is that this argument appeals to quite many Singaporeans. It is like an easy way out to this maid problem, and I cannot think of a simple or effective argument to counter it.

I wonder what you thoughts are on this argument.

Anonymous said...

The last thing we need is more legislation.

Anonymous said...

I secure my job by agreeing to work six day week, 8am to 7pm daily. Do I have a choice? Yes, cut my pay by >20%. But i thought the gament is promoting 5 day work week and not more than 44 hours per week. Now, are they solving the problem, or just pretending that they are. Is the contract and law the problem? I have no time to be at home, that's the problem.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi all
Sporescores: Sg newspapers' journalists may have their own constraints. That’s how it is in Sg when the govt already told us openly that they will use the media for political purposes.

Anthony: Yes I have been accused of being many things ie idealist, na├»ve and now humanist ( joking ) and I admit to all those labels! How sad the real world is. But we must always aim for something better right? If all of us are cynical and say that the world is like this , so let’s just accept it, then there will be no improvement in any aspect of our society.

Pandemonium: About the housewife’s dilemma you have already answered the question yourself. The way out would not be to have “equal misery” but for all in the family to do their part in doing the chores and looking after the elderly and infirmed. The family unit would be stronger if all members make the effort and time to help out in the weekend to allow the maid and the full-time homemaker time off for herself/themselves.
The maid also need time off regularly as not only will they have time to unwind, but also in case of maltreatment and abuse, they will have the opportunity to report this. If maids are cooped up in their employers homes and esply if there is a mismatch or maltreatment, we want the tense situation to be defused before we get to the stage of physical assaults/ murders or suicides.

Anonymous: How we wish society works like clockwork and everyone loves everyone else without need for laws and enforcements- but we know that is not going to happen. So we must have fair and enforceable laws in order for society to progress peacefully

Cheers (this is a hot topic)
Dr. Huang

Dr Oz bloke said...

In the first place....

Do we really NEED all these maids?

I dunno, but everywhere I turn people keep asking me when I am going to have a maid.

I had my first kid. People asked me when I was going to get a maid.

I had my second kid. People asked me when I was going to get a maid.

Now my kids are going to start Primary 1 in a year or two. And people are again asking me that question.

Why? So ashamed to have a maid, must have everyone agree that a maid is a necessity?!!!

Frankly, I am proud to maintain and clean my own home. I much prefer to take care of my own children too.

Otherwise, why bother calling it YOUR home and kids when you leave it to someone else to take care of them.

And don't gimme that crap about how tired you are after work etc. Where there is a will there is a way. I doubt any Singaporeans works 365 days a year. So there is definitely time to do your own chores. But that's how maids are treated, they are asked to work everyday in a year!

Bloody hell!

Anthony said...

Right on, Dr. Oz bloke! You rock!

It seems obvious that, to many people, keeping a maid is not just about house-keeping and doing the daily chores. It is a status symbol. One has been elevated to a certain social level if one can afford a maid. As the slave-owner said; how can I convince myself of my own superiority if I did not have all those niggers around me?

singaporepatriot said...

Doc, thanks for sending in this article. I'll be upset if ST doesn't publish it.

When it concerns politics, the Govt is very quick to legislate even if it isn't really necessary (e.g. the Films Act). But when it concerns defenseless foreign workers, they play on Singaporeans' preference not to have so many regulations.

I am against excessive legislation and regulations, but I feel that legislating a mandatory day off is absolutely necessary.

Our treatment of our maids is a stain on our international reputation. Eric Khoo made a short film titled No Day Off, about the experience of an Indonesian maid in Singapore. I hope Mediacorp broadcasts it on Channel 5 one of these days to shame all those maid abusers (and I consider it abuse not to give one's maid a day off).

chrischoo said...

"but also in case of maltreatment and abuse, they will have the opportunity to report this."

I think this is the most important point. There are maids who are trapped in their employer's homes and have no opportunity to contact anyone in the outside world even when they are subject to abuse. It is not so much making up for the lost day off in terms of pay, but that complete isolation from the outside world puts them in danger.

People who consider pouring hot water or boiling oil on their maids might think twice if they knew that their maids had a mandatory one-day off written into legislation. They will shit in their pants if their maid has a chance to find their embassy or a police station.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi all
Dr.Ozbloke&Anthony: Yes many of us do not need maids. In fact most will do just fine with part-time cleaners who come in 1-2 times/wk. Cheaper too!Those who stretch their budgets getting a maid are inclined to make full use of them for 365days a yr to exract the full value!
Sgpatriot (gerald): Yes I hope ST prints it too, but won't be surprised if it ain't.Call me paranoiac but I feel I am on some sort of "Ignore list" since I wrote some pretty candid letters the past few months.I think the media ( esply TODAY paper) seemed to print politically "correct" stuff only.
Chris: Yes, you also hear of stories even from your friends/relatives of how they won't let them talk to neighbor's maids or use the phone lest their own maid get contaminated? When the maids get isolated and desperate with no one to turn to, what happens? Suicides, murders and of course- escaping ( wow-like escaping from captivity or concentration camp- because that it what it actually)
But so long as Sg and its ppl remain socially "third world", there is no pressure for the govt to do anything "first world"

aliendoc said...

Many people still have this kind of mentality:

"I REFER to the proposed amendments to the employment contract of foreign maids. While I understand why some of the terms need to be spelt out explicitly, I question the practicality of others, for example, having employers state the number of hours of continuous rest a maid should get daily, eight hours being the recommendation.

While getting continuous rest is only reasonable and is important for the maid, in some circumstances this is not possible. Take my case. After giving birth, I had to depend on my maid to get up and help me during the night feeds for several months before my child was able to sleep through the night. In such a situation, my maid would not be getting eight hours of continuous rest. However, she gets to wake up later in the morning, and has rest periods in the afternoon.

My mother-in-law, who suffered a stroke recently, requires the assistance of her maid to visit the bathroom several times a night. Her maid would again not be able to have continuous rest but she gets to sleep for a few hours in the afternoon to make up for it.

I question the feasibility of specifying details such as sleeping hours and job scope when the nature of the job is dynamic. The job scope changes from day to day, depending on what happens in the family. If too strictly regulated, it might lead to more social problems as maids would come to have certain expectations which might not be met all the time.

Yong Wei Foong (Mrs) " (ST Forum, July 28, 2006)

I guess it never occured to Mrs Yong that her husband could have helped with her baby, perhaps just ONCE a week?

Or that family members could occasionally assist her mother-in-law so that the poor maid can have a break?

I may be going out on a limb by saying this, but could it be that the Powers That Be in MOM, themselves, have this very same mentality???

Anonymous said...

yo doc, u are championing the wrong thing here. If you want to champion for the foreign maids, perhaps you should first champion sporeans who are being marginalised under the Foreign Talent policy, the SAF Act that forces sporean males to be slaves to the SAF thus making them even more uncompetitive than foreigners in the job market.

Indi said...

good point on the treatment of maids.

by the way, you don't have to go to far into someone's home to see what kind of injustice exists in this sophisticated nation. you can easily spot it on the road (especially on expressways like AYE/PIE/ECP/BKE): unfair treatment for the safety of human beings.

in early morning or late afternoon, you can see lorries/trucks transporting foreign construction workers, sometimes as many as two dozens of them, sitting in the back without restraint system. and as you know, most of the trucks have this round black and white stickers indicating the capacity for the deck. i.e. from 13 to 26 pax. also an indication of allowable speed limit: 60 km/h, which is fast enough to be considered risky not to mentioned high potential of tipping over due to high center of gravity.

compare that with taxis: you are seated in the backseat and you as paying passengers must use the restraint system (seatbelt) - and it is enforced by law, too. with fines in excess of S$100.

my point is:
Are Foreign Construction Workers not humans?
Don't they deserve to be transported between dormitories and worksites with proper safety and restraint system when travelling on the expressway at 60 km/h?
Don't they have the right to have their safety be protected by law?

Indi said...

Before Singapore people start consider ing domestic workers as part of the economy and major contributors to GDP, I don't think we will see them having fair treatment as far as "time offs" are concerned.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi all,
aliendoc: I dare not presume that the people in MOM all have the same type of medieval attitudes their maids but I am sure if the maids had votes, they will be pandered to ( esply before elections) and they will surely get regular day-off's. MOM/& govt knows that forcing all households to treat maids more humanely will cause selfish S'poreans some inconvenience which will translate into votes against the PAP, so the status quo is more favorable to them.
Anonymous: I am sorry I totally disagree with you. We should stand up to injustice, no matter who the victim is. One day, if another party comes to power and there is an injustice, we should be there standing up to them too!
Indi:I am glad you have empathy towards these foreign workers.
Yes all workers should be accorded basic and humane treatment.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: I am sorry I totally disagree with you. We should stand up to injustice, no matter who the victim is. One day, if another party comes to power and there is an injustice, we should be there standing up to them too!

One day?? And is there no injustice NOW on sporeans? Maybe as a doctor u are having a nice comfortable life and u dun see the shit average sporeans have to cope with. They are like frogs being slowly boiled to death by the PAP dictatorship. Or u feel sporeans rank beneath maids?

Indi said...

i am pleased to share with you a story on how I attempted to reveal how Indonesian Embassy in Singapore makes so much money from the poor maids.

In short, if you are a maid from Indonesia, you have to pay S$350 for a passport. if you are not a maid, you only have to pay S$85. S$265 difference is almost equivalent to a maid's salary per month.

Is it extortion by Indonesian Embassy? I think so.

In Indonesian language:

Anonymous said...

I think what is worse is that we allow new Indonesian maids to work in Singapore without pay for 9 months because the new maid has to pay off her loan. Imagine working for 9 months with no pay. Oh! But I forget - at least we ensure they get $10/- allowance per month.

Anonymous said...

Is the maid Levvy collection by government justifyable ?

In case of income TAX, govt spends money on income tax payers. Does maid Levvy is spent on maids welfare ?

What rights does governemnt has to collect money for the work done by others(maids) ?

Is govt acting like pimp? Collect money for service provided by someone else ?

How humane is to, make maid work hourly base in somebody's house to cover levvy ? by master, after own house works ?

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