IT HAS BEEN ALMOST four months since the ruling of a weekly day off for Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) took effect on January 1, 2013, after the Government passed this mandate in March last year.
To recap: This ruling applies only to FDWs – or “home helpers” as I like to call them – whose work permits are issued or renewed from the beginning of this year. If the employer requires the helper to forgo the day off, one day’s wage will be given.
The day off need not be on a Sunday, but can be on any day of the week, and this can be mutually agreed between employer and employee.
Helpers who are already employed before the beginning of this year are not entitled to this weekly day off benefit.
So how are we doing as a nation?
Let’s look at the statistics first. There are currently just over 208,000 FDWs in Singapore and they are mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines. One in five Singapore families has a FDW.
Yet, according to a recent report in The Straits Times in late January this year, the majority of employers are not giving newly-hired maids a weekly day off. They are instead opting to withhold this privilege at the outset, and later give them additional compensation of $17.50 a day, or up to $70 for the four rest days they are entitled to each month.
The Straits Times also did a quick check with six maid agents and found that about 70 per cent of their combined 400 or so customers hiring FDWs that month will probably not give any rest day at all in the first three to four months of work.
Up to the time this ruling was mandated, Singapore was one of the few remaining countries with no provisions for a weekly day off for FDWs. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, FDWs are guaranteed a weekly day off and rest on public holidays as well.
In a speech in Parliament in March 2012, then Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said that a weekly rest day is regarded as a basic labour right, and that local workers and non-domestic foreign workers already enjoy this right under the Employment Act.
Yet even with this provision now made, maid agents and employers are finding ways around it, and it looks like the weekly day off that the helper is entitled to will either be withheld altogether, must be “earned” through good behaviour or compensated for at $17.50 for the additional 14 hours of work or so on her rest day.
The response from employers have ranged from – “What if she gets into bad company?”, “What if she gets pregnant?”, “She doesn’t know Singapore and won’t know where to go”, “Letting her go out will mean she’ll spend money needlessly” to “I need a rest after working the whole week, so I need my maid to be around.”
What does the Bible say about a rest day?
The clearest position on it in Scripture is found in Exodus 23:12 – “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.”
The Scripture here of course supports God’s command to us to keep the Sabbath “holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12), and an exhortation for the Sabbath to be “…a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.” (Exodus 16:23)
What it means to observe the Sabbath is another discourse altogether, but for the purpose of this reflection, I believe that we do not have the option to deny our home helpers their weekly day off. In the days of the Old Testament, God commanded that even the ox, donkey, slaves and foreigners in one’s household were entitled to rest once a week.
Women who come to our shores to work in our households leave young families and elderly parents behind. A former helper of mine, who worked with us for 13 years, left four children behind with the youngest being just two years old then. I prayed and cried with her when she lost her husband and daughter, and she became a respected member of the family. Till today, we remain in touch although she has returned to the Philippines.
The homes that our helpers share with us are their havens and sanctuaries in Singapore, and we – our spouse, our children, and other family members who may be living with us – become their “foster families”.
Let not our homes become for them a “prison”, in which they are confined, day after day, with little respite, denied contact and breaking of bread with their friends and fellow countrymen, conversing and laughing in their own language.
For our home helpers, a weekly rest day means that they get an emotional, spiritual and mental break from work. Another of my previous helpers decided that she would make something out of her weekly day off – she took sewing classes up to intermediate level, and ensured that she had a skill which she could fall back on once she returned home.
Christina Stanley is the Editor of Methodist Message.