What’s Wrong With Foreign Domestic Workers’ Day?

By Jolovan Wham
Last weekend, local group Foreign Domestic Workers’ Association for Skills Training and Social Support (FAST) and other partners celebrated Foreign Domestic Workers’ (FDW) Day, an event aimed at appreciating the contributions migrant domestic workers make to Singapore.  There were stalls selling food, and booths where participants could play carnival games. Dance performances and a talent show which featured migrant domestic workers were also part of the day’s festivities.  The event was attended by civil servants, local politicians, and representatives from sending country governments. I was told by many who attended that they had fun. Some of the domestic workers I know took part in the talent show and won prizes.
One of the objectives of FDW Day is to promote harmonious relationships between workers and their employers to stem abuses and exploitation. In her speech at the event, Senior Minister of State Ministry of Health and Ministry of Manpower, Dr Amy Khor emphasized the importance of mutual care and respect: Mutual care and respect underpins the relationship between the employer, his or her family and the domestic worker. Mutual care and respect enables strong working relationships of trust to develop; and this must be facilitated by open and respectful communication. I think this is really important. One of the highlights of the event is the ‘best foreign domestic worker’ and ‘best employer’ awards which has been organized for over a decade. This year’s best employer paid for the university education of her worker’s children, and the ‘best foreign domestic worker winner was described as a ‘devoted caregiver’ who was treated ‘like another family member’ by the employer.
There is nothing wrong in honouring these women’s years of service to their employers. However, when such awards are given without a similar commitment and struggle for equal rights, it reinforces the stereotype and perpetuates the narrative of the selfless, maternal figure who sacrifices herself for the family while expecting little in return. Historically and culturally, women who do household and care work are usually mothers, with love and affection from their families being the rewards of their labour. This has resulted in domestic work’s low status and exclusion from mainstream labour protections. According to Dr Amy Khor’s speech, this year’s winner, Ms. Chona Balisme, ‘looked after family members who were stricken by illness and required constant care.’ But details about Ms Balisme’s working conditions and whether she was fairly remunerated as a result of the constant care required by the family members are not known.
There is little doubt that the theme of this year’s Foreign Domestic Workers’ (FDW) Day, ‘mutual care and respect’ is important. But the organisers’ approach is incomplete because it continues to frame the issue of worker abuse and exploitation as problems which can be resolved through promoting good relationships, treating workers as ‘part of the family’ and celebrating their sacrifices while ignoring the fact that they do not have equal employment protections. We are happy to organize recreational events that show off their talents and skills, but not rallies where they demand their rights. We continue to view them as commodities rather than as people whose dignity should be upheld. We have discriminatory policies which we don’t impose on any other groups except domestic workers, such as forbidding them from ‘breaking up Singaporean families’ and from ‘engaging in immoral activities’. The labour movement continues to exclude them as there are no unions representing their interests. They also cannot protest at Hong Lim Park without fear that their participation may result in the revocation of their work permits.
When we celebrate their long years of service to Singaporean households, we forget that the years spent abroad may have affected ties with their own families, a social cost which countries that depend on the export of labour like the Philippines is paying a heavy price for. Studies done by NGOs and academics in countries of origin have documented strained family ties and re-integration of problems faced by workers who spend long periods of time working abroad. I have no doubt the sentiment behind celebrating domestic workers as part of the family is well-intentioned. But the danger in perpetuating and reinforcing such attitudes about domestic work is that it shifts away the emphasis on rights to that of ‘benevolence’ and ‘generosity’. Domestic workers don’t need an employer who is ‘kind’ and ‘good’ to her.’ What she needs is a decent salary and equal employment rights, such as regulated working hours, regular days off, sick leave, annual leave, and overtime pay. In some cases, abusive employers use the ‘family’ argument to deny rights. Since you are part of the family, it is acceptable for me to pay you late, or make you work long hours because family members make many ‘sacrifices’ for one another.
Policies which are are vaguely worded with phrases such as ‘adequate rest’, and ‘adequate food’ do not provide a standard that can ensure the wellbeing of every domestic worker.  In her speech, Dr Amy Khor said it was important to strike a balance in giving employers and their workers flexibility on how to interpret such terms.  She also said domestic workers must have the responsibility to communicate with their employers if they have concerns.
For instance, if they are still hungry, they must tell their employers, so that they will have the energy to work and be happier. Ultimately, open communication based on mutual respect and accommodation, is the best way to guarantee a good working relationship between the employer and the domestic worker. 
What prompted the Minister’s decision to delve into the dietary inadequacies of migrant domestic workers may have been because of a recent Straits Times article which featured the experiences of abused domestic workers from HOME’s shelter who were deprived of food. In the article, we had said that we were seeing an increase of such cases. It drew a response from the Ministry of Manpower asserting that complaints to the authorities over inadequate food were not on the rise. Nevertheless, the Minister’s comments urging domestic workers to be responsible for communicating their concerns to their employers when they are not given adequate food fails take into consideration the fact that domestic workers are silenced by fear of dismissal and reprisals from employers and agents who have the unilateral right to cancel their work permits.
Non-governmental organisations and trade unions worldwide mark International Domestic Workers Day on June 16th every year to commemorate the adoption of the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention, a bill of rights which sets minimum employment standards for domestic workers. Singapore’s Foreign Domestic Workers’ Day should not just be about model employees and their generous employers, important as they are.  Equality, solidarity, and non-discrimination are values that are worth celebrating and fighting for too.

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