International Herald Tribune

Singapore shocker: Maid's day off
Philip Bowring

HONG KONG Recent news out of Singapore caused jaws to drop: Foreign domestic workers there may become entitled to one day off a month!
Stories of exploitation and abuse of migrant workers, especially women, in the richer countries of East Asia are so common as to barely elicit comment. But the Singapore report set off a media debate about the wisdom of allowing maids any days off. It emerged that it was common for maids not to be allowed out at all, for fear that they might wind up pregnant. Currently, an employer must pay a government fee, in addition to food, housing and medical care - and repatriate any maid who becomes pregnant. Many employers regard these impositions as reason to deprive maids of the normal rights of adults.
"We can't control the maids. So it's best that when we employ the maid, we tell the agent we don't want to give days off," one employer wrote to a local paper. A 2003 newspaper poll showed that 50 percent of maids got no days off; a lucky 10 percent got one day a week.
The news also focused attention on the role that foreign contract workers play in raising the living standards of citizens of several countries. The Singapore case stands out because of the wealth of the country, the size of its foreign labor force, the racial identity of its domestic workers and its strict regulation. Also highlighted was the widening income gap generally and the relationship of income to ethnicity in a society where the Malay 14 percent is well behind in earnings, education and unemployment but has a fertility rate double that of the Chinese majority.
Of a population of 4.35 million, 747,900 were nonresidents with various kinds of work permits as of 2003. The number of nonresidents has more than doubled since 1990, while the natural increase in the citizen population has been small.
Some nonresidents are professionals and their families, but most are manual workers, sex workers and, by some estimates, about 150,000 domestic workers. The latter are at the bottom of the underclass and are specifically exempted from the Employment Act, which provides minimum days off and maximum weekly hours.
Maids are allowed only from specified Asian countries, with the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka heading the list. Chinese are not on the list, which leads some to allege that only "brown people" or those from non-Confucian societies are to be employed in this most menial job. Like days off, pay is subject to individual contract and varies widely; it probably averages around 15 percent of the median income of Singaporeans in full-time employment.
No middle-class home is complete without a maid, which explains why the labor force participation rate, at 64 percent, is one of the world's highest.
Exploitation of migrant labor may be worse in countries like Malaysia and Thailand, where law enforcement is lax. But in Hong Kong, the most comparable territory, there is a minimum wage for domestic workers, and they are entitled to one day off a week and all public holidays. Admittedly, the law isn't rigorously enforced, and as everywhere, maids are gouged by employment agencies. But social restrictions are few.
Singapore has been making some effort to improve conditions. Prosecutions for abuse have increased and the minimum age for maids raised to 23. However, the one-day-a-month requirement will still be just a part of the individual work contract, so the employee will have to initiate action to enforce it. It can also be commuted to an overtime payment.
Maids apart, the rise in income inequality in Singapore has been of concern locally. The government prevents the formation of ethnic low-income ghettos by dispersing minorities around the public housing in which 78 percent of the population live. Likewise, it seeks to keep religion from becoming a public issue by stifling all debate in the name of harmony.
Singapore's success in keeping the lid on its growing underclass is clear enough. But behind the abundant prosperity, clean streets and superb infrastructure is another Singapore of labor exploitation. In the case of domestic workers, it is nothing less than shocking.

IHT Copyright 2005 The International Herald Tribune |