It’s really about dignity

This article is inspired by this letter by Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of HOME, and the debate over giving domestic workers in Singapore a day off. (See this article on The Guardian.)

Picture credit: The Guardian

Singapore does not have a great tradition of respecting human rights, even basic ones. In fact, the very term itself has been derided by some, including government officials. But as Singapore progresses and becomes more involved in the global community, its behaviour, action and legislations will increasingly be scrutinised by the international community and indeed by its own people. And one of these has to do with the issue of human rights.

But in Singapore, like an infant learning to walk, this will be a slow process as the government – which some still see as a nanny of sort – realises that it needs to loosen the apron strings and indeed do away with it altogether at some point in time.

The migrant workers community in Singapore, which number close to a million, is showing up the shortcomings of a system which fails to take into account the very basic rights of these workers. In a country which is known (and respected and admired) for its clinical efficiency and its brook-no-failures attitudes, its “pragmatic realist” approach to things will unearth a hollow humane core of its society. It must because the simplest matters are dissected and debated down to its minutest details in very pragmatic terms. In the result, it is this pragmatism which invariably triumphs over other considerations.

Witness the current quibbling over giving domestic workers a day off, and the neverending troubles faced by other migrant workers in the city-state because of either poor legislations or lackadaisical government enforcement and protection measures.

Domestic workers in Singapore are not entitled to any days off. Activists and NGOs have been calling for this to be changed. Yes, a single day off per week – which is something all other workers have the rights to, and not just in Singapore but all over the world. To outsiders around the world, depriving rest to workers is unthinkable. Yet in Singapore – a so-called first world country – it is accepted as a necessary norm.

[When I was in Berlin in 2010, I’d mentioned this to a Swiss national. When he heard this, his jaw almost fell to the floor. He was totally shocked and could not comprehend the rationale behind such a deprivation. He did not believe me and said he would do his own research to ascertain the truth of what I said. He went home and a few weeks later, he emailed me and said he was absolutely dumbfounded that what I had said was true.]

The suggestion to grant domestic workers a day off was more recently made by Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Mdm Halimah Yaacob. Before you could say “yes, please”, letters to the local press questioning the wisdom of such a move appeared swiftly.

The government has promised to study it further before making any final decisions.

It is curious to me that any studies would be needed. It is, in truth, a simple matter. No one can or should be expected to work without proper rest. For domestic workers, this is especially so. They are housed in their employers’ quarters seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the entire duration of their contracts, normally two years.

Take a minute to ponder this and ask yourself: Would you accept such employment criterias and work in such conditions?

If you don’t and won’t, why do you expect others to?

Because they don’t mind doing so, you may say. This sort of argument is fallacious and even facetious, really. These workers, more often than not, come from poorer countries and poor backgrounds. Their sole purpose in coming to work in Singapore is for economic reasons. That’s true. They will put up with almost any kinds of working conditions as long as they are able to keep their jobs and make some money which they can remit home to feed their families.

But just because they themselves “do not mind” the exploitative – lets call a spade a spade – conditions does not mean we should allow them to.

This is where “softer” considerations come in – such as (basic) human rights and (basic) workers’ rights.

Only when Singaporeans and the government accept that such things really do matter and deserve respect and must be recognised in law will such simple matters as the granting of a day off not be an issue needing a national debate.

I do not dismiss the pragmatic problems which some employers will face if maids are given days off. Indeed, some employers need these domestic workers to care for their elderly, infirmed, infants and so on, and to have their domestic workers take a day off may disrupt their care.

These are important matters, certainly.

But wanting to care for those in need does not mean we deprive the needs of those providing that care.

On the contrary, those who are assigned such duties should and must themselves be taken care of. They too need rest – for looking after those with special needs is not just a big responsibility (which incidentally domestic maids may not be appropriately trained to do) but also a daunting task.

And as anyone should know, when you’re involved in a stressful job, you need your own space and time to destress so that you can continue to do the job.

This is why legislation is so important.

It prevents exploitative employers from abusing those under their charge or employment.

So, I hope that the government will have the courage to do the right thing and, as it were, put its foot down and legislate a day off – per week – for these workers.

At the end of the day, however you spin it, it is just unacceptable that domestic workers are required to work in such conditions. And it is even more appalling that Singapore’s legislations do not protect these workers in the most basic and simplest matters.

Protecting workers who are at the lowest end of the pecking order reflects on the kind of society that we are or one which we want to be.

In short, it is about dignity for these workers – the same dignity which we expect these foreign workers to show in caring for our sick, elderly and young.