CatholicNews asked some advocates of migrant workers their views on the new standard employment contract between foreign domestic workers and employers. We publish below the responses of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI).
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) is a civil society concerned with the welfare of foreign migrant workers. It conducts research, undertakes public education projects, and offers advice and practical help. Its aim is to promote respect for domestic workers through education, and secure better treatment of domestic workers through legislation and other means.
The Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI) comprises local and foreign volunteers who journey with migrants from the time they arrive in Singapore. Efforts are made to educate everyone to be aware and sensitive to the welfare of migrant workers.
1. Does the proposed standard contract provide sufficient and practical safeguards for the foreign domestic worker?
TWC2: It attempts to build in better protections than before, and that is to be welcomed, but there are still too many gaps that can undermine the protective measures. A fundamental problem remains that of how to enforce a contract in practice.
The Ministry of Manpower has made it easier for a foreign domestic worker to pursue a claim by making it possible for her to work legally while a case goes on, but it still remains a very daunting process for women who are not familiar with Singapore's legal system, who have little or nothing in the way of financial resources to put into pursuing a case, and who fear getting into an extended pursuit of justice that could impair their capacity to support their families.
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2. Will anything put in the contract be of help for the foreign domestic worker? Are they too afraid or too weak (in comparison to the employer and agent) to fight for their rights in a court of law?
TWC2: The contract is an advance, but some things need to be tightened up. For example, in dealing with the period needed for sleep by the foreign domestic worker, there is a recommendation that it be eight hours, whereas we would put this more strongly: eight hours is a minimum requirement.
The foreign domestic workers are in a weak position compared to employers and agents. We've mentioned the problems of enforcement, but what about when the contract is first signed? If an employer and an agent put pressure on her to agree to sign away her chance for a regular day off in exchange for a token payment, or want her to agree to a rest period of, say, six hours, will she dare refuse? We know that as things stand at present, such things happen. Women who refuse to accept conditions set by potential employers have been told by some agents that they'll be sent home if they do not agree. This kind of thing should stop, and we understand that the agency industry is trying to counter such practices, but it happens.
The standard contract can't provide the range of protections that are needed.
ACMI: Our concern is that before a foreign domestic worker can come to Singapore, she must have an employer in place. If this is the case, is the foreign domestic worker shown the contract before she even comes here? A fair contract should allow both parties to be able to read the terms and have them explained before they sign. And most importantly, the foreign domestic worker must be given a copy of the contract after it's signed.
If enforced, the terms of the standard contract are of help to the foreign domestic worker. However, if breached by the employer, what recourse does the foreign domestic worker have? Some of them don't even have access to a telephone or mailbox; they can't even go out of the employer's house, and are not allowed to speak to any outsider.
Standing on their own, foreign domestic workers are too afraid to exercise their rights (most of the time they don't even know their rights), but if given assistance, they will speak up.
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3. Why is it necessary to enact a law to give a mandatory day off for the foreign domestic worker?
TWC2: Nothing less will guarantee a day off. People will be more respectful of this requirement if it is seen to have the authority of the government behind it: They don't have this feeling about a contract which might be difficult to enforce, and in any case, contains a provision that could allow a day off to be denied.
Of course, it is to be hoped that more and more employers will see their way to giving their workers a regular day off of their own accord, and make the necessary practical arrangements to cope with any inconvenience, but we think that ultimately, there will be no other way to see that all foreign domestic workers have this right other than through a legal requirement.
4. Why is it necessary to enact a law to entitle the foreign domestic worker to a daily number of hours of continuous rest?
TWC2: She needs sleep, and there should be a minimum period of eight hours when she can have that. It is a matter of health and well-being, and this is not something that ought to be optional. There's still room for discussion on working hours, and that can be a question dealt with by contract, but the requirement for adequate sleep is so well established by scientific research and endorsed by medical opinion that the case for ensuring foreign domestic workers have the chance to get it is, to TWC2's thinking, very strong.
ACMI: Many people seem to forget that foreign domestic workers are human beings too, that they should be treated with respect and dignity.
Because the employer has the upper hand and is the paymaster, the foreign domestic worker is usually almost always at his mercy, and she is expected to give in to employer's whims and fancy.
By having this law, everyone has to comply with it and violators will be penalized.
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5. What other clauses should be enacted into law?
TWC2: These are the main issues. There's room for debate on how to ensure that there is proper respect for the workers' privacy, including privacy of communication with the outside world, or about guaranteeing that their food really is adequate, but time off is the key question at present.
When a foreign domestic worker can leave her employer's premises regularly and have the chance to seek advice freely on issues with which she is unhappy, it will be easier to find remedies for other problems. Most, it is to be hoped, could then be resolved through discussion.
ACMI: Clauses should be enacted into law:
The current practice that foreign domestic workers can only be transferred if employer agrees to it, which is sometimes abused by employer, and the foreign domestic worker is sent home without having any chance to seek redress; these need to be addressed
To address blacklisting of foreign domestic workers as there are employers who abuse this
On foreign domestic worker's benefits such as medical, personal accident and/or life insurance
Third party mediation clause should be added (clause similar to that between employer and agent)
To prohibit employers from withholding any other amount from foreign domestic worker's salary. Employers sometimes withhold foreign domestic worker's salary under the pretext of savings, but this money usually is used by employer to purchase the foreign domestic worker's air ticket should anything happen during or even after the contract expires
To require the employer to produce a certificate to prove that all salaries have been paid and issues resolved before a foreign domestic worker's permit is cancelled and she is released for transfer or repatriated. Perhaps this certificate can be similar to that for tax clearance for foreigners
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6. What else can be done to improve the conditions of foreign domestic workers in Singapore?
TWC2: Some things are harder to deal with than others: In the past, TWC2 has talked about attitudes that we take towards work in the home and how that influences our view of those who do it, but dealing with this is a big issue.
If we want to get down to the very practical, one thing that quite a few foreign domestic workers would like to have is more opportunities to study and develop their skills, and TWC2 would certainly like to see what more could be done in this area.
Courses need to be adapted to the circumstances of foreign domestic workers: They can't be expensive and they must be arranged for times that the workers can do them; they ought to be oriented towards the needs expressed by the workers themselves, which will involve more research, but there is clearly an interest out there.
ACMI: Agencies should also treat the foreign domestic workers as clients; after all, foreign domestic workers do pay them a fee too. More often than not, agencies are also guilty of mistreating foreign domestic workers and brushing off foreign domestic workers' feedback.
Conscientize and educate the public on how to treat other fellow human beings with respect.
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What some lawyers say
We can have a watertight contract with perfectly drafted clauses, and it still won't mean a thing if the foreign domestic worker doesn't know her rights, is too frightened to seek help, or simply can't afford to enforce it. It is the enforcement which is the crux of the matter.
Requiring the employer to merely state the hours of continuous rest a foreign domestic worker should have does not ensure that it will be carried out.
Paying compensation in lieu of day off may make a person $10 richer, but does not make the person feel well rested. Compensation in lieu of day off should be entirely at the foreign domestic worker's option, and even then there is the problem of how to ensure that she can choose that option feely.
Until our society is mature enough to treat foreign domestic workers as equal human beings, using statute to protect the rights of this weaker class is more effective than relying on contract law.
Psychiatrists have said that any foreign domestic worker that is not given a day off suffers depression.
The overtime fee is now Salary / 30 days x 2. Taking a salary of $350 as example, it's $23.33 per day. Employers who require foreign domestic workers to work off-days may factor this in the base salary.
Unlike the usual current contracts, there is a notice period to be agreed, which is recommended to be a week. For a maid who comes into Singapore with a heavy debt, one week's notice without reason can be a harsh contractual term.