Singapore’s decision to grant a weekly rest day to its foreign domestic workers, including Filipinos, was significant but fell short of international standards, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

The reform, announced by Singapore’s Manpower Ministry on Monday, would only apply to new contracts and renewals beginning January 2013 and fails to address the exclusion of domestic workers from other key labor protections in Singapore’s Employment Act, the New York-based rights watchdog said.

Basic right

“The Singaporean government’s recognition of a weekly rest day as a basic labor right will make the lives of migrant domestic workers better,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

But this reform, she added, “should go into effect this year and apply to all domestic workers and their current contracts.”

Singaporean families employ approximately 206,000 foreign domestic workers primarily from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many of them work long hours seven days a week, turn over several months of pay to settle charges imposed by employment agencies, and face restrictions on leaving their work place even during their time off, it said.

Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin’s announcement that employers could choose to compensate a worker in lieu of a rest day with the latter’s permission also raised concerns.

Given the imbalance of power between employers and domestic workers, there is a significant risk of abuse by employers who may coerce workers into signing away their rest day, the watchdog said.

“As Minister Tan noted in his speech to parliament, a day off is critical for a domestic worker’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing,” Varia said. “The government should close the monetary loophole and ensure that domestic workers will actually get at least a minimum number of rest days.”

Reforms

Singapore has introduced reforms in recent years to improve the situation of foreign domestic workers, including mandatory orientation programs and stronger regulation of employment agencies. The state has also been increasingly prosecuting employers who physically abuse their domestic workers, resulting in fines and prison terms, Human Rights Watch said. –TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer with a report from Philip C. Tubeza