Singapore's Foreign Domestic Workers

My Experience Working Behind the Scenes

There are 180,000 women employed in Singapore on a work-permit pass. Commonly known as foreign domestic workers, these women come from various parts of Asia such as Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, India or Myanmar.
Since the past year, my role as the Helpline Manager of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) involves listening to foreign workers such as those working to manage household chores. The issues I listen to are often difficult to solve overnight. One such complex issue is the relationship with the female employer.

Considering that domestic workers are not covered under the Employment Act, their working hours are not spelt out nor are their rest time such as public holidays.

Instead, the Ministry of Manpower crystallized their rights in the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act that I feel is yet to stand firm. One such point I'd like to see be spelt out clearly are the working hours and portfolio of domestic workers.

Bringing this back to the role of women employers in a household, contemporary women of today would be those working and managing a household at the same time. Their lives revolve around work and if she has a child, the responsibility is shared with the domestic worker. A working mother would see her kids off to school in the morning and meet them at night for dinner. In between, the domestic worker would pick the kids up, prepare lunch and dinner and look into their homework as well ensuring that they do it before free time.

Apart from managing the children, a domestic worker also washes the laundry, irons clothes and completes other chores such as mopping or vacuuming. Often, the callers TWC2 assisted are those feeling overworked and have insufficient rest. They would call us and ask if they can transfer to new employers or return home. I often would ask such callers if she has a day off on Sundays to rejuvenate herself and sadly, most callers do not have this option.

There are many reasons why domestic workers would not be given a day off and one of the most common concern from female employers is that they are needed to manage the family on Sundays so that the employers (including the male employer) can take time to themselves. I often find that time off can be spent with the children at home as well.

Or for some, a family day out together helps them bond and catch up with things but at the same time, the domestic worker would be asked to tag along. On this, I've noted through chats with employers and arguments shared, that the domestic worker is engaged in the day out as well with the family. However, upon more investigating, I've found that some domestic workers would appreciate having time away from the family.

In essence working mothers do not fully entrust the responsibility of managing her household that is her private space she shares with her family, to the domestic worker, as she is a foreign entity in the household. It is a complex but not complicated relationship that explores trust and professional working attitude between an employer and employee.

I once spoke to Michelle about foreign domestic workers as contemporary feminists of today. I found that their role of being managed by matriarchal employers make them an interesting community of oppressed women by successful and multi-tasking women. I must also add, there is a theory that when you're oppressing someone this is due to the fact that you're oppressed too. Women in general in Singapore are combating societal norms at the workplace already. This makes her privy to being harsh and strict to the domestic worker at home.

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