On Tuesday, the government of Singapore ruled that from 2013, foreign domestic workers – in plain language, live-in maids – can have a weekly day of rest. Campaigners have welcomed the move, which sets Singapore on a path to meet basic international standards on fair labour. But the battle is far from over.
All work, no play
Approximately one in five households in Singapore has a live-in maid, the majority of them from the Philippines. And yet in this wealthy city-state, whose laws, in theory at least, put a heavy emphasis on religious toleration and minority rights, employers don't have to give domestic workers any days off. By contrast citizens and foreign workers who are not in domestic jobs have been entitled to at least one day off a week for decades.
The new law brings Singapore closer in line with the International Labour Organisation's convention on “Decent Work for Domestic Workers”, which enshrines the right to one day off in every seven. But there is much still wrong: employers can continue to make maids work seven days a week, as long as they pay them extra; the domestic labour industry is badly regulated, leaving many women vulnerable to abuse; and unlike other regional centres, such as Hong Kong, there is still no minimum wage for domestic workers.
The divided reaction to the new law is another sign of just how far, socially and culturally, Singapore still has to travel. Some families said they were against giving maids days off because of the risk they would socialise and become pregnant during their free time, while others complained that if they had to give their domestic workers Sunday off, they wouldn't get any rest themselves.
Race to the bottom
Singapore is still a long way off from fully respecting international labour rights, but it's still a step in the right direction – and one which other countries, particularly in the Middle East, would do well to emulate. Human Rights Watch's 2011 World Report noted that female domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates suffer "unpaid wages, food deprivation, long working hours, forced confinement, and physical or sexual abuse". Last summer, Indonesia – which supplies hundreds of thousands of domestic workers to Saudi Arabian households – stopped all placements to the kingdom after an Indonesian maid was beheaded for murdering her employer.
Sadly, such moves have limited power: after the Philippines established a minimum monthly wage of $400 a month for its citizens working in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis simply switched their recruitment focus to workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, where workers will settle for $130 a month.
Further reading: The UK's Observer newspaper reports on the the plight of domestic workers.