Domestic workers deserve same rights as other workers: Migrant workers' group

This letter was submitted to TODAY’s Voices page and was published on 16 June 2019.

More than 250,000 migrant workers, mostly women, are employed in domestic work in Singapore.

Domestic workers cook, clean, look after elderly people and children, and ensure that our society and economy continue to function.

Their work, however, remains largely invisible, undervalued and, in many ways, unregulated.

Globally, domestic workers are undervalued because some believe that their job does not amount to work that deserves the respect and economic value accorded to other professions.

In Singapore, this manifests in various forms.

Domestic workers are excluded from the Employment Act, Singapore’s main labour law, and there are neither guidelines on the signing of contracts nor regulations on maximum working hours and minimum rest hours. Some workers are also owed wages, and denied adequate living conditions or food.

Indeed, the well-being of domestic workers depends on the benevolence of employers. But these workers deserve not only kindness, but also rights and protection under the law.

In June 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. This treaty requires countries to guarantee domestic workers the same rights as other workers on daily and weekly rest periods, working hours, overtime compensation, paid annual leave, as well as adequate protection against violence.

More than 20 countries have ratified the treaty, and many more have adopted labour-law reforms to protect domestic workers better.

Singapore, which considers itself advanced, seems to be lagging behind. It has not ratified the treaty, and progress to strengthen laws protecting domestic workers has been slow.

Mexico’s Senate, for instance, recently approved a law requiring written contracts, paid vacation, annual bonuses and minimum rest hours for domestic workers. Many other countries also have minimum-wage laws that apply to domestic workers. In places such as Hong Kong, workers can organise themselves into unions, assert their rights and form collectives.

In Singapore and elsewhere, however, many continue to see it as acceptable for domestic workers to have lower minimum living standards.

While rest days are mandated in policy in Singapore, we often hear employers and agents question the need for a “full” day off weekly. Based on our experience, we still see many workers who survive on just five or six hours of sleep a day and small amounts of leftover food.

It is time we apply the values of justice, equality and respect for labour rights to domestic work. We urge the Singapore Government to guarantee equal protection to domestic workers, particularly:

  • Inclusion in the Employment Act

  • Limits on working hours

  • Minimum wage

  • No recruitment fees

  • Live-out options

  • Ratification of the ILO’s Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers

Happy International Domestic Workers’ Day.

Sheena Kanwar Executive Director Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics

Stephanie Chok