Home > Singapore Scene > Remember the Sabbath – You know what it’s like to be a foreigner…

Remember the Sabbath – You know what it’s like to be a foreigner…

Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt. Exodus 23:9

My husband and I understand what it feels like to be a foreigner. For years, Alan had to work overseas. Some years, he travelled a lot. Other years, he was posted overseas. Local companies tend not to give a family package, so often he had to stay alone for months on end in a foreign land. In the last position, because the children were old enough, I went over to join him. We were in Rwanda, where there were very, very few Singaporeans – probably less than 10 at best, and currently probably less than 5.

While we made some really good friends, there was always a hunger for things local – even someone speaking Singlish was a welcome change. Whenever Singaporeans came over for a trade mission, we were sure to meet up. For us, even though internet connections were not the best, we could still chat with the children. When the going got too tough, Alan took leave, paid for our air tickets and came home. At least we had some options.

The foreign domestic worker has no such option. She cannot afford to fly home, no matter how homesick, unless the contract is up. Her well-being is really dependent on the goodwill of her employer.

I hear the concerns of the employers – and I know for a fact that they are not unjustified. I also like the comment of one of my friends. He said “most people are not psychologically and emotionally equipped to be employers” and “we try to equip the maids with various skills, but do we also at the same time also equip employers with HR skills”. Another said this, “Seeing each other all the time can be very grating. Not only does the maid need an off day (as a human being, she also has her social needs and hanging out with us all the time probably isn’t going to cut it!), we also need our private time as a family”

Let me get the security bond issue out of the way first. In actuality, unless you allow or worse still, profit from deploying your maid to work at other places, this is a non-issue. Most employers buy insurance on the bond, and in the event the maid really runs off, you are out of pocket by $250. Unfortunately, many employers do not really believe that this is true, and worries about all manner of penalty. Employer education is necessary here.

I have had maids for many, many years. I do not have one now. I daresay that I have learnt many things along the way. I am by no means a model employer – but I have learnt to cope. It is necessary to treat your maids well. If you don’t, the more vulnerable in your family may bear the brunt. Besides, a happy maid makes for a much happier environment.

Julie worked with me for quite a long time. When Julie first came, she was extremely unsure of herself, and very timid. When I employed her, I was already in my forties – so my on the ground training in HR skills to manage my home must have improved. I am going to share what I did. Every household is different – but I think the principles can be applied.

  1. Define duties – not hours. The total time spent on such chores should be reasonable. Julie had to be made clear what work had to be accomplished weekly. Initially, it was necessary to help her organize her work and prioritise duties. Eventually, she was free to shift chores around to suit her own preferences – such as perhaps she might prefer to iron at night. As long as chores were completed, it did not matter to me if she took an afternoon nap.
  2. Ensure at least 8 hours of uninterrupted rest in the evening. This is critical as much for your sake as for the maid’s. Especially if she is alone to take care of infants or the elderly in the day, the lack of sleep could result in major accidents or abuse. Occasionally, she might have to wake up, say to accompany the child to the toilet. However, being woken up every two hours or less for feeding or cleaning will cause fatigue and may result in dire consequences. When my children were babies, feeding was my job – and my husband and I would be the ones caring for the infants in the night. It was not easy – but nothing about being new parents is easy. On the odd occasion that the maid had to stay up, we tried to ensure she had time to rest in the day.
  3. Be a concerned employer, not an autocratic lawman. One of the first things I told Julie was my interest in her welfare. I warned her about maids being cheated. I warned her about the perils of having relationships. I told her that I was not her mother. Even mothers can only teach and advice. Her life was her own. However, if she broke the rules, then her job and her stay in Singapore was at stake. We as employers must understand that we are not prison wardens. We are not policemen. We ARE merely EMPLOYERS.
  4. Remember the Sabbath. We need space from each other. Julie needed to spend some time with her own people. For me, when the maid is new, I hesitate to let her out alone. Over the years, I have come to know some Filipina maids I trust. In the first few weeks, Julie was allowed out, but only in the company of a maid and friend of mine – Margie. After a while, Julie told me she was not that comfortable with Margie’s church. By then, I knew Julie better, and though I could trust her, I also knew she was too naïve and too fearful to venture out on her own. So I brought her to my church – first to service with me. Eventually, she made friends with the Filipinas, and joined the Filipina service.

    Julie opted for two days off a month, if I remember correctly. However, she was allowed to go to church every week. Day off meant she could go out with her friends after church. For us, Sabbath is Sabbath. . Even if she did not go out, she was allowed to do her own thing, and no chores were given. Sometimes we did ask her to cook simple meals, but that was pretty much it. If we had to entertain, she was warned beforehand. She was then allowed to go out or rest on another day of the week. Julie herself was quite a homebody and preferred to stay at home. In so doing, she saved the most money of all the maids in my employ.

I hear the cries of the employers who complain they cannot do without their maids on Sundays. Why? There are the odd occasions when this might be the case – such as if both parents are out of town or there are emergency duties at the office. Special arrangements can be made. This cannot be true every Sunday. All of us need a break from our routine work. If you do not look after your children in the week, because you are at work, then looking after them on Sunday is not your routine work – and should be looked forward to as family time. If they misbehave constantly, then I am afraid you cannot demand the maid to take them away from you – you need to examine your parenting skills. Think too that if the children frustrate you when you handle them once a week, what is the effect on the maid?  If If Sunday is your regular work day, then give the maid a day of rest on a weekday

I have had my share of problems with maids. One such was the daughter of my Indonesian maid. She was very young, and without her mother’s knowledge applied to work in Singapore. One day, I heard whispering from my maid’s room. I was shocked to see the young lady in there with In. In told me that her daughter had run away from a family who ill-treated her. Like a fool, I swallowed the story. My family and I went to the household she ran away from. The old lady was Indonesian and was here with a few of her grandsons, who were studying in Singapore. She seemed quite kindly, but still, I thought In’s daughter was telling the truth. I took pity on her because she was so young and persuaded my mother-in-law, who did not really need a maid, to take her in. She was not allowed out, except once a week to my house – to help her mother. Actually it was just to give them an excuse for mother-daughter time.

One night, coming back from a meeting, my mother-in-law called me urgently. The girl had run away with her luggage. I called In, then rushed down to mum’s house. Past midnight, she came back, luggage and all, and tried to get in via the back gate. Apparently, when we kindly allowed her to go to bed by about 8 pm, she would wait till my in-laws were engrossed with the tv or other activities, to sneak out the back door. She had met a Pakistani or Indian, who promised to marry her and run away with her. He stood her up. When we opened her bag, she had stolen from my in-laws. I had missing jewellery too which were never found. This girl had no day off – but she managed to get herself into trouble.

We are not able to control what happens to the workers in our midst. They make their choices. Like my friend said, “As for whether the maid gets up to no good when off? Well, she can be up to no good if you leave her alone at home and go out or go to work”. They need to know that their jobs are at stake if they cross certain boundaries. They stand to lose much.

Is legislation of a day off necessary? Do we need the law to force us to treat maids humanely? Are we so moulded by our FINE city that we behave kindly only out of fear? The answer to the last two questions will give the answer to the first.

In fact, if the answer to the last two questions is “yes” then legislation will be abused anyway.

  1. SpeakSpokeWriteWrote
    July 4, 2011 at 5:38 am

    Jonathan Wang commented this in TOC under my article – harder truths about Security Bond

    Generally, Singaporeans are compassionate, charitable and empathize with the less fortunate and the majority of employers treat their maids decently like a human being.
    There is no logic in forcing the employer to be responsible for any misbehavior committed by the maid for which the employer has virtually no control over what the maid does during their off days.
    Thus, to protect themselves, many employers kept their maids “lock up” in the house to protect themselves from being wrongly penalized.
    Most employers have indicated their willingness to grant a day off per week to their maids if the security bond is removed.
    It is most commendable that Madam Yacob, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sport came out in favor of granting a weekly day off to the maids. She said “just like any other workers, domestic workers, too, need to rest and should not be made to work excessive hours that could affect their health and well-being.

    According to a news report in ST, Singapore is among 63 countries that had abstained from voting in an ILO convention held in Geneva to grant domestic workers greater protection from exploitation.

    According to Ministry of Manpower, Singapore would only sign the treaty when it was sure it could implement it in Singapore. That is a queer position to take because, over the years, the government had implemented many unpopular laws and regulations.

    With over 200,000 maids working in Singapore, MOM should play a more constructive and active role as a fair and true regulator to justify its annual earnings of over $500 million annually.

    It should ensure that no employer ill treats and abuses its maid. It should provide a standard working contract between employers and their maids. It should also closely monitor that employers adhere to their contractual obligation.

    According to the Employment Act, both white collar and blue collar employees work a maximum of 35 hours and 44 hours a week respectively and enjoy rest days on public holidays including annual leave with pay from one to three weeks depending on length of service for a full year of continued service,

    Based on these parameters, maids should not work more than 84-hour week (14 hours X 6 day week) which is almost twice the number of working hours than blue collar workers.

    This will allow maids 10 hours rest per day for sleeping, rest, time for eating, bathing, etc. Normally, maids are required to wake up at 5.00am and her duties should end around 7.00pm.

    Let’s show the world – especially to countries that provide domestic workers to help our economy grow – that we are a humane and caring country.

  2. SpeakSpokeWriteWrote
    July 11, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    an example of a maid losing control – when will employers realise that if maids are not given sufficient care, sufficient rest, sufficient chance to meet up with their own friends to alleviate homesickness, a breather by getting out of the house and the family they work for, they might get pushed to go beyond the limit…

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