Commentary: Don’t hold our treatment of foreign domestic workers to countries with lower standards

Commentary: Don’t hold our treatment of foreign domestic workers to countries with lower standards

We should aspire to higher standards for the treatment of foreign domestic workers in our country, says Channel NewsAsia’s Bharati Jagdish.

Foreign maids must be supervised when cleaning windows
File photo of a foreign domestic worker. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans generally compare conditions here against the highest standards in the world.

When it comes to governance, healthcare, transportation and quality of life, we often compare ourselves to the best and ask what it will take to get there if we’re not already there.

Yet when it comes to the rights of foreign domestic workers, many apparently choose to compare our standards to those of less developed countries which may have fewer protections for their local workforce.

A recent Channel NewsAsia commentary underscored the importance of rest days and overtime wages for foreign domestic workers in Singapore.

Anju Mary Paul, an associate professor of sociology and public policy at Yale-NUS College here, highlighted that even though since 2012, under Singapore law, foreign domestic workers are entitled to a weekly rest day, it can be negotiated away if there is a “written agreement mutually agreed between the employer and the foreign employee … for the foreign employee to be compensated for working in lieu of the rest day”.

But research has shown that often, rest days are in fact withheld without the worker’s consent.

Many agencies refuse to place new domestic worker applicants who ask for a weekly day off or present workers with “no rest day contracts” on arrival.

Many workers are also not compensated for working on their rest day even though Ministry of Manpower regulations stipulate that a domestic worker must be paid at least one day’s salary in lieu.  

Anju Mary Paul also argued that this amount is in fact inadequate as “in contrast, the Employment Act, which governs the working conditions of most other categories of workers in Singapore, stipulates that workers who give up their rest day for more than half of their daily working hours should be paid two days’ salary if it was at the employer’s request”.

Shouldn’t these standards be applied to foreign domestic workers too?

maid file photo
File photo of a foreign domestic worker.


Many readers responded to these suggestions by pointing out that even under current conditions, foreign domestic workers are earning more here that they would had they stayed in their own countries.

This may very well be true. But are those really the standards we should live by in Singapore?

We pride ourselves on being a First World nation, so shouldn’t we endeavour to apply First World standards of fairness to our treatment of all workers including guest workers here?

Many also pointed out that non-government organisations often exhort better treatment of foreign domestic workers but neglect employers’ rights.

Certainly, employers’ rights deserve equal attention. 

But the two aren’t mutually exclusive, unless upholding employers’ rights necessarily requires the unfair and inhumane treatment of workers.

Most would agree this isn’t the case.

So why then do so many adopt an “us against them” mentality when negotiating such rights?


Some employers maintain that the foreign domestic worker signed the contract, so why should she complain?

However, as organisations such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) have pointed out over the years, many women, prior to leaving their own countries, are given a false impression of working conditions in their host country.

Often, they are told that salaries will be higher and that they will have time off.

Upon realising the reality of the situation, many would still be reluctant to return to their source countries as they would already be in debt and would have to work to pay off their agent’s fees. There is a cap on fees Singapore agencies can charge, but workers could be subjected to exorbitant fees levied by agents in their source countries. 

This is clearly a disempowering situation.

maids singapore
Domestic workers in Singapore (File photo: TODAY)

While employers cannot be held accountable for unethical agents, surely they can be held accountable for their own treatment of workers.


Think about what conditions you would find unacceptable.

How would you feel if you weren’t fairly compensated for forgoing your day off and got paid a much lower salary than others in your host country for doing work that is actually considered of great value in most societies – looking after your employers’ children, the elderly, cooking and cleaning for the family.

In a 2015 position paper on the well-being of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), suggested that employment agencies in Singapore create recommended pay scales according to work experience and other relevant qualifications, and abolish discriminatory practices that determine entry-level wages according to the worker’s nationality.

It also recommended a cap on working hours.

Based on its research, foreign domestic workers, on average, worked 13-hour days.

Anecdotal accounts reveal this could routinely stretch even further depending on the needs of the family.

It also said that the right to a weekly rest day should be strictly enforced and it should be 24 hours.

So that working hours are more likely to be regulated and the workers’ privacy respected, HOME recommended offering live-out options to workers.

These sound like reasonable conditions, except some employers are bound to disagree.

The reasons behind our reluctance to consider these issues must be examined.

Would fulfilling such conditions really be tantamount to violating our own rights?

Granted, there are many accounts of foreign domestic workers taking advantage of their employers’ kindness and trust.

In such cases, safeguards for employers need to be strengthened, but surely these don’t have to come at the expense of rights for all workers.


Advocates for migrant workers often urge legislative changes to regulate employers’ behaviour.

While legislation is vital, perhaps the issue boils down to simple humanity.

In a recent On the Record interview, Dr Goh Wei Leong, co-founder of HealthServe a healthcare charity for migrant workers said that we have commodified what should actually be “a very relational contract” between workers and employers.

“You need to bring in a much more compassionate, humane and community level relational framework. Without a relational framework, all these legislative steps are going to waste,” he said.

Perhaps the simplest questions to ask are how we would like to be treated by our own employers and how we would feel if our employer constantly disappointed us.

Just as we do with other aspects of life and living in Singapore, let’s aspire to higher standards and set our own benchmarks for the treatment of guest workers in our country.

Bharati Jagdish is the host of Channel NewsAsia Digital News' hard-hitting On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.

Source: CNA/sl