Would you say the same things to a co-worker that you would to your sibling or spouse? Here’s why foreign domestic workers deserve to be treated more like employees, and less like family
In this ongoing series on foreign domestic workers’ rights, Karien van Ditzhuijzen from HOME talks us through important aspects of hiring, managing and looking after your helper. Today, Karien focuses on why treating your helper as part of the family may not be as good an idea as it sounds.
Many employers like to say, ‘we are good to our helper, we treat her like part of the family.’ Sounds nice, doesn’t it? So what is wrong with this statement? The problem is, people treat their family in all sort of ways. Good, or like garbage, there are no hard and fast rules. If you shout at your family, take advantage of their kindness, or wake them up in the middle of the night, they will still love you. They know you’d do the same for them.
Between domestic workers and their employers, things are different as this helper highlights in her open letter to an employer. The relationship between a domestic worker and her employer is not equal: one person has power over the other, which makes the latter dependent and vulnerable. This is similar to a relationship between parent and child, but you have to keep one thing in mind here: a domestic worker is an adult. She does a paid job for you, and unlike family members, she might at some point wish to leave you; changing employers is a natural part of any career, and something you would accept in a formal employer-employee relationship without taking it personally.
So what helpers really need, is to be treated as formal workers, with the protection of the law that comes with that. Unfortunately, in Singapore, domestic workers are not covered under the Employment Act. The state says that since domestic workers work and reside inside the house of their employer, it is difficult to regulate what happens there.
What does this mean? It means domestic workers have no regulated working hours – many have days as long as 14-16 hours with limited breaks, and no paid overtime. They have no right to be paid annual leave, no sick leave, no guaranteed weekly day off nor a minimum salary. By law they are required to live in with their employers, which puts them on call 24/7. All of this leaves domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation.
Overwork is one of the complaints domestic workers most often have when they approach HOME, and with them being excluded from the Employment Act, there are no legal implications for an employer imposing excessive working hours on a domestic worker. Neither do domestic workers have access to Labour Court or the Employment Claims Tribunal when their employer does not pay their salary.
How to be a Better Employer
- Set out clear expectations of workload and scope of work – define what areas your helper will be responsible for and prioritise those instead of expecting every single job to be covered. Is looking after multiple kids the focus, or looking after an elderly relative as well as doing light housework, or is she mainly responsible for all the housework and cooking?
- Allow for proper training in areas where you have high expectations, especially if hiring “directly” from abroad versus a transfer helper who may have been previously trained and have more experience.
- Allow your domestic worker her privacy and freedom outside of working hours. Even though her hours can’t always be clearly defined, it is good to go through your requirements on a weekly basis: which nights do you require her for babysitting, or a dinner party, and which can she spend at her leisure?
- If she is not the right fit for you, that does not mean she won’t do well in a family with a different setup. Allow her to transfer and change employers if she wishes – with reasonable notice.
Up Next: Work Pass Regulations
There are many urban myths, horror stories even, circling around that lead employers to err on the side of caution when it comes to managing their domestic worker’s life. Will it cost you your 5000 dollar bond if your helper becomes pregnant? Will you get in trouble when she sells illegally imported handbags on her day off? It can be hard to know what is true, and what is not.
Watch this space in our Foreign Domestic Worker Series for more about ‘Work Pass Regulations’ for migrant domestic workers as issued by MOM. What actually are your rights and duties as an employer, and your helper’s rights as a domestic worker? Find out in our next article on Foreign Domestic Worker Rights.
Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) is a non-governmental organisation that provides services to, and advocates on behalf of, migrant workers.