Why resist day off for maids?
THIS is the year that foreign maids are granted what is, globally, a basic labour right - a weekly rest day, which Singaporeans and other foreign workers already get under the Employment Act.
Foreign maids hired from Jan 1 must be given a weekly day off or be compensated a day's wages.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that many employers prefer to compensate their maids rather than give them that rest day.
Checks by The Straits Times with six maid agencies in January showed that 70 per cent of their 400 or so new customers were not likely to give the maids rest days at all, until they had proven themselves to be trustworthy.
I employ a live-in Filipino maid and give her a weekly rest day, even though her contract, signed last year, stipulates one day off a month. I find the resistance of many Singaporean employers towards giving rest days disturbing.
The sticking point seems to be the fear that the maid will be up to no good on her day off. The spectre of her absconding or getting pregnant is often raised, for which the employer could risk forfeiting all or part of a $5,000 security bond.
Perhaps in recognition of these sentiments, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has clarified on its website that if a maid becomes pregnant and loses her permit to work here, the employer who reports her will not lose the security deposit.
This has not stopped bosses from being extremely reluctant to give rest days to a maid. Some do so only after she has worked for a year, when the placement fee of more than $2,000 has been paid off.
Another common view is that rest days are tied to the maid's performance. But just as one does not deduct or withhold a foreign worker's salary on account of poor performance - employers can be taken to court and fined in particularly egregious instances - a day off should be taken more seriously as a right, and not a reward.
Then there is the misconception that granting a weekly rest day is equivalent to laissez-faire management of a maid. This need not be so; as with any modifications to a labour relationship, boundaries have to be negotiated and established.
Those who argue that their helpers do not need a weekly day off because they get adequate rest during the week need to reflect on the elastic and often-laborious nature of caregiving and domestic work.
It starts as early as 6am or 7am, when young children or the elderly wake up, and finishes late, depending on the time employers return home from work. In the Singapore context, this could be 10pm or 11pm.
I do not see why a flexible arrangement for both employer and maid cannot be worked out. The rest day could be split into two half days. Bosses afraid of their maids falling into bad company can set them up with religious groups or charities which run weekend activities or courses.
While some gains have been made in the work conditions of foreign maids, the ministry should also study how many maids are actually getting a weekly day off. Failure to observe the rule only perpetuates an unhealthy, even racist - one law for them, another law for us - mindset.
MOM should also work with employment agencies to persuade bosses of the benefits of such an arrangement.
Yes, managing a maid can be complicated precisely because she has all the complexities of a person and is not a machine. That is the trade-off we make for outsourcing family chores to a stranger from a foreign land at relatively low wages.
With it comes the responsibility for the well-being of someone's mother, sister or daughter. Whether we are living up to it, is something to think about.