How can we improve our relations with foreign domestic workers?

The following article has been contributed by Gregory Wee.


Foreign Domestic Workers, or maids in colloquial speak, have been known to suffer from low wages, no or little time off from work, loss of privacy and extremely long working hours.

The biggest issue here is in justifying to employers and to a larger extent, Singaporeans and the government, on why the same rights has to be accorded to domestic workers.

The prevalent system has been set up to benefit Singaporean employers over these workers. Employers feel that by according the worker proper rights would drive the wages of domestic workers up, but they fail to realise in Singapore the wages earned by these workers are amongst the lowest paid in all the major hiring regions across the world. This stems partly from the levy collected by the Ministry of Manpower.

There are several steps that needs to addressed before such manpower legislation will be received without significant political cost:

1. Tweak levy rates (because employers see levy as part of wages, when it is not). At the moment, levy (the subsidised rates) is around 1/10 of average salaries.

2. Work closely with origin countries authorities to lower agency rates employees need to pay to come to work. (At the moment its anywhere between 1 month – 4 months salary rates for a 2 year contract)

3. Provide a robust training system with options for household workers to tap into certified training programs in nursing and other related courses. This will entice higher quality workers to come to Singapore to take up these courses as a way to “study/work”. It also increases the efficiency and capability of the household worker during her time working here. (Currently, it is a one-day orientation program in Singapore for new FDWs, and training is borne entirely by country of origin).

4. Create options to allow household workers to live outside of the employer’s house and the cost not borne by employers entirely. By doing so, it forces us to think about mandatory hours and wages rates.

This option has been proven to reduce rates of abuse and better mental health for both employers and employees. Doing so also expands the option of domestic workers being able to work for more than one household, significantly reducing the cost borne by employers, specially when hiring specialised help. This might even go as far as considering breaking up the employer-employee relationship, and more like a service. Need an example? Japan has been experimenting it since January 2017 and they eventually rolled it out to the rest of the major urban areas.

5. Tweak security bond ruling to give onus on domestic workers to discipline herself, not introduce some quasi-slave system. (If the argument is that she cannot discipline herself, then resolve the matter with the said person, not drag the employer in)

6. Tweak the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act so that they can be legally covered under the local Employment Act in issues surrounding salary and worker’s rights and benefits.

These policies are aimed to address 3 issues:

1. Increase the quality of domestic workers while controlling or reducing the cost where possible so that domestic help remains affordable not at the expense of being inhumane.

2. Shift the burden from employers in taking care of their employees back to the market forces with government regulations.

3. Open the market of domestic help to a wider range of population in both demand and quality supply. When people who come here to work know its not a deadend job or a desperate option, you get people who have better work ethics since they see this as a stepping stone to better opportunities and social mobility.



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