The decision by Singapore’s Manpower Ministry to grant foreign domestic workers a weekly rest day is an important reform but falls short of international standards, Human Rights Watch has said.
The changes, announced on 5 March 2012, go into effect only for new contracts beginning in January 2013 and do not address the exclusion of domestic workers from other key labour protections in Singapore’s Employment Act.
“The Singaporean government’s recognition of a weekly rest day as a basic labour right will make the lives of migrant domestic workers better,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But this important reform should go into effect this year and apply to all domestic workers and their current contracts.”
The announcement by Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said employers will be able to give a domestic worker monetary compensation in lieu of a rest day with the domestic worker’s permission. Given the imbalance of power between employers and domestic workers, there is significant risk of abuse that employers may coerce workers to sign away their day of rest, Human Rights Watch said.
Families in Singapore employ approximately 206000 foreign domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India. Many of these workers labour long hours seven days a week, turn over several months of pay to settle charges imposed by employment agencies, and face restrictions on leaving the workplace even during their time off.
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“As Manpower Minister Tan noted in his speech to parliament, a day off is critical for a domestic worker’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being,” Varia said. “The government should close the monetary loophole and ensure that domestic workers will actually get at least a minimum number of rest days.”
Singapore has introduced reforms in recent years to improve the conditions of foreign domestic workers, including mandatory orientation programmes and stronger regulation of employment agencies. State prosecutors have also been increasingly vigilant in prosecuting employers responsible for physically abusing domestic workers, resulting in fines and prison terms.
However, Singapore’s labour protections still lag behind those of other migrant-receiving countries, Human Rights Watch said. This includes Hong Kong, which covers domestic workers in its main labour laws. Singapore’s protections also fall short of the standards set by the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, adopted in June 2011.
The ILO Convention establishes the first global standards for the estimated 50m to 100m domestic workers worldwide. Key elements of the convention require governments to provide domestic workers with labour protections equivalent to those of other workers, including for working hours, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation, daily and weekly rest periods, social security, and maternity protection. Singapore was one of only nine countries that did not support adoption of the convention.
“Singapore’s reforms are only a fraction of the change needed to protect women workers, who are too often undervalued and overworked,” Varia said. “Singapore should join countries around the world that have recognised the injustice of discrimination against domestic workers and are making comprehensive reforms to guarantee them the same rights as other workers.”