Fair Treatment of Domestic Helpers in Singapore

Despite progress, including greater awareness of the rights of domestic helpers, maids are sometimes poorly treated in Singapore and other parts of Asia. Since this worker group remains vulnerable to exploitation, the government of Singapore says it imposes severe penalties on those who abuse foreign maids. Employers should be aware of helpers’ rights, and discuss these during on-the-job orientation and training, and ensure that expected duties remain legal and ethical.

Unfortunately, while many employers treat their domestic workers fairly and well, some do not. In some cases, this may be because they are unaware of their responsibilities and obligations as employers.

Like many countries in Asia and elsewhere, foreign domestic workers are not covered by Singapore’s Employment Act, which means they can be subjected to ill-treatment in the form of excessively long working hours – particularly since they live with their employers.

The government publishes readily-accessible guidelines on how to hire and correctly manage a domestic helper while also ensuring fair treatment.

The abuse and ill-treatment of domestic workers is a serious offence in Singapore, particularly if it relates to physical or sexual abuse. The government urges people who are aware of cases of mistreatment to report such matters to the police. If convicted, employers face severe penalties and will be permanently banned from employing foreign domestic workers.

The Ministry of Manpower says it regards mental or emotional abuse as ill-treatment.

In the case of foreign domestic workers who have not been paid, are overworked, or are not given enough food, the ministry offers a number of ways for the helper or other people to report such issues.

Employers should also note that they can be penalised if they contravene the various work permit conditions, most of which are in place to ensure a fair employment environment. For example, employers may not deploy a helper to work for someone else, or get a maid to perform non-domestic chores (for example, helping to run a business).

Be sure to familiarise yourself with these and other work permit conditions (which also require that employers provide a safe working environment for foreign domestic workers). Failure to do so could lead to having the work permit revoked, the S$5,000 security deposit forfeited, future work permit applications rejected, and prosecution.

Employers are required to pay for their helpers’ food, costs associated with housing, and medical expenses, and must provide maids with a weekly rest day (or pay an extra day’s salary if the maid agrees to work that day). The Ministry of Manpower’s guidelines also state that helpers should be afforded adequate rest time.

Reports of abuse

Reports by various NGOs and other organisations have showed that many domestic workers are not given their mandatory weekly rest day, while some are given insufficient food and others have their passports confiscated, among other transgressions. Recently, reports have surfaced about the illegal recruitment of minors from Myanmar.

Government guidelines for fair treatment

The Ministry of Manpower urges employers to get to know their helpers and to treat them fairly, which includes showing them care and understanding.

The ministry encourages open communication as a means to creating good working relationships and having a domestic worker who is motivated.

It also recommends having an employment contract that clearly defines working terms and things like rest days and the agreed upon salary, and says the contract should be based on mutual agreement rather than a one-sided approach.

You may also decide to include expected working hours and duties in your contract. Like any other job, you may require your maid to work overtime occasionally, but defining working hours and sticking to these wherever possible is one way to ensure that the live-in arrangement is not unwittingly taken advantage of.

Communication is a powerful tool when establishing a good and fair relationship with your maid. Make sure she feels comfortable to approach you if she feels something is not working or unfair. Failure to do so can lead to resentment and a helper who is not motivated.

If she works hard and does a good job, let her know how important her work is to your family. This can make a helper feel proud of her work and loyal. Plus, when your domestic helper is motivated, there will be many benefits to your family and children.

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