Disagreements between employers and workers are common in any industry, and domestic work is no exception. Given the challenges that come with hiring a foreign domestic worker, disputes can be difficult to handle, particularly since they can also involve employment agencies.
While domestic work is not regulated under Singapore's Employment Act, there are legal avenues that one can follow if a dispute cannot be resolved at home.
Full-time domestic helpers come from foreign countries and backgrounds, which can lead to misunderstandings and different expectations about how things should work. Further, domestic workers in Singapore live with their families, and such an arrangement can be the source of friction.
In the event that a dispute arises between yourself and your maid, do what you can to resolve the problem with her. The most important thing is clear communication and solid efforts to understand one another.
The Ministry of Manpower in Singapore says that if a dispute has come about because you suspect your domestic helper has committed a misdeed, you should not take matters into your own hands by punishing your maid. Rather, employers should report criminal activities to the police.
Some foreign embassies include dispute resolution clauses in the standardised contracts you need to sign when employing a maid from that country. Filipino standardised contracts, for instance, require disputes to be referred to the Philippine Embassy. The embassy will intermediate and refer unresolved cases to the appropriate labour authorities.
Be proactive rather than reactive
The best way to deal with conflicts is to avoid them in the first place. Instead of waiting for a problem to come to the fore, you can establish a healthy working relationship with your maid, based on mutual understanding, trust and care.
Remember that the employment relationship is a two-way street, and both you and your maid should feel free to communicate about any issues before they become a problem. If you cultivate a good professional relationship with your maid, she will likely be more loyal and trustworthy. Plus, better communication will help you to evade misunderstandings and possible disagreements.
When drawing up your employment contract, consider including a clause on what to do in the case of a dispute. You could refer disputes to a neutral third party to take care of, for example.
You should also be clear about all expected duties, rights, obligations and any post-employment training requirements in the contract so that expectations are understandable and agreed upon. Having employment contracts with helpers is not mandatory in Singapore, though it is regarded as best practice.
The contract should also comply with the laws regarding domestic work in Singapore. For example, domestic helpers are only allowed to work for their sponsoring family and should not take up part-time positions or do work that is not related to household and people care. Before employing a foreign domestic worker, employers should be aware of the regulations, costs and procedures involved.
Note that you may not have your domestic helper live away from your home to avoid disputes. The government takes the live-in rule seriously and there may be serious consequences if you do not abide by this requirement. Domestic helpers in Singapore are also entitled to a weekly rest day, the details of which can be included in the work contract to avoid any disputes.
The Singaporean government does take some measures to ensure disputes are avoided. For example, when domestic workers arrive in Singapore, they must attend a settling-in training programme, where they will be told about relationship and stress management, in addition to other topics. Beyond household care, their training in their home countries may also have covered healthy working relationships.
Similarly, first-time employers must attend an orientation training course, where they will be informed about their roles and responsibilities.
Disputes with an employment agency
According to the Ministry of Manpower, if you used an employment agency to hire your maid, it must disclose its dispute resolution mechanism to you. This mechanism is supposed to guide both parties in the event that you have a contractual dispute, or if you are unhappy with the agency's service.
The ministry says that disputes relating to the service agreement, which cannot be resolved through mediation, can be handled by the Small Claims Tribunal of Singapore. It also recommends that employers contact the Association of Employment Agencies for assistance with dispute resolution. The association represents agencies in Singapore and aims to make sure that its members are professional and that they adhere to the Code of Ethics.
Instead of going through an agency in the first place, you can also undertake a direct hire and find the best candidate for your family, based on your own terms with your maid. Alternatively, you can consider hiring a part-time domestic helper (who will likely require less on-the-job training, though this option may not be sufficient for many families, particularly those who need full-time care for children).