A Worker, Not a Slave: Domestic Workers Still Denied Weekly Rest Days

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Sally, a migrant domestic worker (MDW) from the Philippines, accepted a contract without any rest days because her agent told her that if she rejected the offer she might not get another one. Sally stayed with her employer for almost two years, working from 5:30am to 10pm every day. She wasn’t allowed to rest during the day, and only allowed to go outside to buy groceries. Eventually, the situation got too much for her to bear and, at her neighbour’s suggestion, she found her way to HOME.

When we first met Sally, she was exhausted. She was also very depressed. “It’s important to have a day off, to have time to make friends because it can be very lonely when you are overseas and away from your family,” she told HOME.

In January 2013, the Singapore government passed a legislation that mandates a weekly rest day for MDWs or compensation of a day’s wages in lieu. Despite this, a large percentage of MDWs work without any rest days. A study conducted by TWC2  in late 2013, early 2014 revealed that about 59% of the 192 domestic surveyed did not have a weekly day off and 40% who did have a weekly day off did not receive compensation in lieu. Another study conducted by HOME found that 40% of 670 domestic workers did not have a weekly day off.

While the legislation mandates that workers are given rest days, it is difficult for them to exercise this right because it doesn’t take into account the differences in negotiating power of both parties. Many women are pressured into accepting contracts with no rest days, particularly the new arrivals.

Those who arrive on such contracts tell us there is no negotiation: agents simply present them with “no rest day contracts” and their only “choice” is to either accept these terms or not get the job. As a result such workers arrive in Singapore “locked into” contracts with no rests days, or only one or two rest days a month. These contracts factor in very small amounts of financial compensation in lieu of rest days as a part of the total monthly wage amount. As Singapore does not set minimum wage guidelines for domestic workers, they are often pressured to accept this monetary trade-off for having no/few rest days, without which their monthly wages would be even lower.

At other times, even after signing a contract with rest days allocated, workers may find themselves being coerced by their employers into foregoing them, with or without additional compensation. For instance, a domestic worker whom we assisted had signed a contract guaranteeing one rest day week. Once she started work, her employer told her that she wouldn’t be receiving any. She did not object at the time for fear of being terminated. Her fears were came true four months later when, tired and lonely, she asked her employers for a weekly rest day: her employers responded by cancelling her work permit and attempted to repatriate her.

The current rest day legislation is also problematic because it does not specify the duration of their rest day. This omission leaves domestic workers vulnerable to the demands of their employers. A focus group conducted by HOME in April this year revealed that among those MDWs who were given rest days, all had to perform a range of household chores before they left the home and after they returned. For one worker, this left only six hours of time off between 11am–5pm (this also included time traveling to and from the home).

The provision of rest days is a basic human right that should be accorded to every worker. Having a full rest day allows them to catch up on sleep, de-stress, take time for themselves and/or socialize with others outside their workplace. As many workers told us during the focus group, it also gives them a chance to experience Singapore, to take in new sights and taste new foods.

In HOME and TWC2’s recently submitted shadow report to the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee, we called for the Singapore government to uphold its CEDAW obligations by passing legislation to better safeguard the right of domestic workers to a rest day. The government should disallow the practice of agents/employers pressuring domestic workers into contracts that trade off their right to a rest day. Rather, they should be able to negotiate with their employer whether or not to forego their rest day during the term of their employment. This should be an ongoing process and not predetermined at a point where workers are particularly vulnerable to being pressured to sign contracts with exploitative conditions. Additionally, domestic workers who are terminated by their employers for asserting their right to a weekly day off should be allowed to change employers. We also suggested that a provision should be inserted into the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act to ensure domestic workers receive at least eight continuous hours of rest per night and weekly rest days should be 24 hours.

Stephanie Chok