Singapore's domestic workers get weekly rest day

MANILA, Philippines - Various organizations welcomed Singapore's decision mandating a weekly rest day for its foreign domestic workers.

The new policy covers about 65,000 Filipino domestic workers in Singapore, according to various estimates.

But Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that while this is an "important reform," it "falls short of international standards."

Singapore's Manpower Ministry announced that employers should pay their workers who choose not to take a rest day.

Families in Singapore employ approximately 206,000 foreign domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India, according to HRW. "Many of these workers labor 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," it added.

A Filipino migrants’ rights group in the Middle East said that Singapore's new policy poses a "real challenge" to governments in the Middle East hosting about 25 million domestic workers from mostly Asian countries.

“We welcome Singapore government policy shift, through its Ministry of Manpower, in granting mandatory day off for foreign domestic workers, including our 65,000 Filipino domestic workers," Migrante-Middle East regional coordinator John Leonard Monterona, also an OFW based in Saudi Arabia, said in a statement.

Monterona said this provides a “litmus test to middle-eastern governments" hosting millions of foreign workers.

“The slave-like view about domestic workers in the Middle East must be changed, first and foremost. This is what the ILO [International Labor Organization] Convention on Domestic Workers had told the host governments including that in the Mid-east that domestic workers have rights too, rights that governments must recognize, guarantee and protect,” Monterona added.

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The HRW, on the other hand, said that Singapore's mandated rest day should apply to all domestic workers and their current contracts.

“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,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at HRW. “The government should close the monetary loophole and ensure that domestic workers will actually get at least a minimum number of rest days.”

The human rights group acknowledged that Singapore has introduced reforms in recent years to improve the conditions of foreign domestic workers, including mandatory orientation programs and stronger regulation of employment agencies.

The group noted that state prosecutors in Singapore have also been increasingly vigilant in prosecuting employers responsible for physically abusing domestic workers, resulting in fines and prison terms.

But it said the country still lags behind those of other countries with migrant workers.  It cited Hong Kong, which covers domestic workers in its main labor laws.

“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 recognized the injustice of discrimination against domestic workers and are making comprehensive reforms to guarantee them the same rights as other workers.” - Rappler.com