Maids in Singapore will soon get something that many people around the world take for granted: a day off.
Starting next year, maids must receive one day off a week or additional compensation to work that day, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told parliament late Monday.
Worker and human-rights groups praised the change Tuesday, saying it will bring Singapore closer to international labour norms.
'This is bad news for women who are working. If I let her go out four days a month, it will be very hectic for me. I need to rest on Sunday too.' —Poon Boon Eng, mother of 4
"We are happy to note that Singapore is taking a significant step forward toward matching domestic laws and policies with international labour standards," Trina Liang Lin, president of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, said in a statement. "It is simply the right thing to do."
About one in five Singapore households has a full-time, live-in maid.
Rights groups have urged the government to bolster safeguards for the city-state's 206,000 domestic workers, who mostly come from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India. Employers are not currently legally required to give domestic workers any days off, while local and non-maid foreign workers are allowed at least one day off a week.
Tan said the new rules would be applied to all maid contracts that begin after Jan. 1, 2013. Rights groups called for the day off to be implemented immediately.
"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 U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. "But this important reform should go into effect this year and apply to all domestic workers and their current contracts."
Rights groups were also concerned that employers will be able to pay maids one day's wages to work on a day off, if maids agree.
Workers who are not maids are entitled to two days' salary for working on a day off.
Employers worry about maids socializing
Employers can cancel a maid's contract at any time without cause, and some employers may threaten maids to accept extra pay instead of taking a day off, said the Singapore-based Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, or HOME.
Tan told parliament that some families said they were against giving maids days off because they could socialize and become pregnant during their free time.
"Some employers felt that their maids don't need a rest day because they have enough rest on a daily basis, or that giving maids a weekly rest day will make it difficult for employers to cope when they need a break during their own days off," Tan said. "One oft-repeated concern is the fear that maids will misbehave or become less compliant as a result."
One employer told the Straits Times newspaper that she would seek to pay her maid the extra day's wages rather than allow her to take a day off.
"This is bad news for women who are working," said 49-year-old mother of four children Poon Boon Eng, according to the paper. "If I let her go out four days a month, it will be very hectic for me. I need to rest on Sunday too."
Tan said the lack of days off in Singapore had made the country a less attractive place than Hong Kong or Taiwan for domestic workers to work.
Isolation and loneliness
According to a Manpower Ministry study, most employers give maids at least one day off a month, but many do not give any days off, Tan said.
"Many women in such situations find it difficult to cope with the social isolation and demands of the job," said HOME, which provides legal advice and consulting services to maids. "As a result, many of them suffer from anxiety, depression and loneliness."
Singapore media often chronicle stories of maids who are physically and verbally abused by employers, which sometimes leads to violence by maids against employers.
"We need to treat our foreign labour force decently," Tan said.
"There's a minority of irresponsible employers who flout the rules and mistreat their foreign workers. These incidents get amplified, whether in mainstream media or social media. We will take action against such employers."
The change to the labour law must be approved by parliament. It is expected to pass because the government holds the vast majority of seats.