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Tasks maids can or cannot do are quite clear

  • The Straits Times Opinion (30 March 2017): Draw up a list of chores that maids shouldn't have to do


Tasks maids can or cannot do are quite clear

- The Straits Times, 6 April 2017


  1. We refer to the article "Draw up a list of chores that maids shouldn't have to do" (March 30).
  2. The role of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore is clearly defined in our laws. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations states that FDWs can only perform household and domestic duties.
  3. Employers cannot use FDWs to help out in businesses. Examples cited in the report are clear violations - FDWs walking dogs as pet boarders, working in restaurants, or as temple medium assistants.
  4. Errant employers will be taken to task. Last year, MOM took action against more than 70 employers for illegal employment or deployment offences.
  5. Many employers hire FDWs to assist in caring for children, or sick or elderly family members. This practice is growing and acceptable.
  6. As the report shows, it is not unreasonable for FDWs to perform caregiving roles if family members are expected to do the same.
  7. Families have the responsibility to ensure that their FDWs are adequately trained.
  8. The Ministry of Health (MOH) even provides grants to support families to train their FDWs.
  9. However, FDWs cannot perform clinical duties that can be administered only by registered healthcare professionals, such as inserting nasogastric tubes. Such clinical duties are regulated by MOH.
  10. In the mandatory Settling-In Programme and Employers' Orientation Programme, FDWs and employers are broadly told of duties to expect.
  11. However, it is impractical to detail every task as these vary with households.
  12. Employers with specific tasks, such as occasional tutoring or rehabilitative massage, should make these known during the hiring process. When in doubt, FDWs should approach their employment agencies or MOM.
  13. The report inaccurately alludes to MOM's unwillingness to regulate this sector because it gives precedence to employers. MOM strives to balance the interests of both FDWs and employers. Where the FDW's safety is at risk, as in the case of window cleaning in high-rise buildings, we have intervened.
  14. Furthermore, FDWs have multiple avenues of help, such as MOM's FDW helpline and the Centre for Domestic Employees.
  15. The report also claims that employers can terminate their FDW's employment contract at will and that they take this decision lightly.
  16. In fact, FDWs have this same contractual right to resign but most employers and FDWs make great effort to manage their employment relationships to avoid disruptions and additional expenses.
  17. Most families and FDWs enjoy good relationships of mutual dependency, support and respect. Ultimately, fruitful employment relationships depend on give and take by both parties.


Draw up a list of chores that maids shouldn't have to do

- The Straits Times Opinion, 30 March 2017


  1. On balmy nights, a Filipino domestic worker in Yishun walks the many dogs that her employer takes in as a pet boarder.
  2. Over in town, in Circular Road, amaid who has already spent hours cooking and cleaning in her employer's home does a double shift at the employer's restaurant as a member of the wait staff. She gets a grand total of five hours off each month. After nine months, she runs away from her employers.
  3. Domestic helpers these days have become jills of all trades. But while that sounds like good news for the one in five resident households here employing a maid, overtaxing them can actually hurt loved ones.
  4. This issue of domestic helpers' duties came under the spotlight earlier this month, when a judge wondered if it was "the system's fault" that a maid dropped a suction cap down a disabled boy's throat.
  5. Kusrini Caslan Arja, 37, was trying to remove phlegm from the four-year-old's windpipe when the suction cap fell down his throat. Her attempts to pull it out caused him to bleed. She was sentenced to four months' jail last week. The prosecution had asked for 18 months.
  6. District Judge Low Wee Ping said: "We employ domestic maids to be car washers, gardeners, plumbers, nurses, when they should not. When they do something wrong, we point fault at them."
  7. One reason for maids' expansive job scopes is that the rules are vague. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act says that foreigners employed as domestic workers can only "perform household and domestic duties at the residential address as stated in the work permit".
  8. What constitutes "household and domestic duties"? Without clarity, employers' whims and fancies dictate maids' duties.
  9. "The reality is that employers have significant power over domestic workers," said Dr Walter Theseira, economist and senior lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences.
  10. Because there is a ready supply of domestic workers, employers get to send them home at will - which is costly for the maid who has paid fees to secure her job, he said.

    Flexibility a double-edged sword 
  11. The Manpower Ministry wants to give employers flexibility, said Mr Jolovan Wham, acting executive director for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, and is "therefore reluctant to restrict what domestic workers can and can't do".
  12. Singapore can do better in defining domestic workers' duties, rather than leaving maids at the mercy of employers' demands.
  13. Among the ludicrous roles that Mr Jolovan Wham has heard of in his interactions with maids over the past 12 years are: masseuse, Kumon-style tutor and assistant to a temple medium performing rites.
  14. Indeed, while younger families may need a domestic worker to help out with household chores and child-minding, those with ailing parents need someone to bathe and change the clothes of the elderly and give them medication. Those with disabled family members need help with caregiving duties, some of which may require special medical training.
  15. A family expecting the maid to do too much can cause harm to their loved ones, when the domestic worker is not adequately trained or is overworked and more prone to becoming negligent.
  16. Kusrini, for example, had only had six years of primary education and was not medically trained. Her lawyer, Mr Mahmood Gaznavi, said that despite this, she was tasked with the care of the bedridden boy and received only two days of training from the boy's parents on how to operate the machine.
  17. Mr John Gee, executive committee member at Transient Workers Count Too, said: "A domestic worker should not take on any medical role for which she has not had proper training."
  18. And even trained helpers should not be given too many caregiving duties and household chores, said experts.
  19. Mr Manmohan Singh, director at AWWA Centre for Caregivers, said: "Even if you're caring for your loved one, the situation can get overwhelming when you're stretched, having to do everything and there's no help. You're going to burn out and break down."
  20. There are maids with caregiving certificates, but they would expect salaries of $650 to $1,000 a month, compared with $550 for regular maids.
  21. Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) president K. Jayaprem said: "Employers are not ready to pay higher salaries. They say they will take on an ordinary domestic worker and train her up."
  22. Singapore is not alone in needing domestic helpers to discharge caregiving duties. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) said this is the "onset of a care crisis" that many countries are facing: an ageing population and more women joining the workforce.

    Drawing parallels elsewhere 
  23. Nor is Singapore alone in not wanting to set hard and fast rules.
  24. The ILO's 2011 Domestic Workers Convention - which sets out to give rights to these workers, including clear employment terms and job scopes - has been ratified by only 23 countries. Another of the organisation's treaties, dealing with discrimination, has 174 ratifications.
  25. In the developing and emerging economies of Asia, 61 per cent of domestic workers remain outside the scope of labour legislation, said the ILO.
  26. One place with clear job scopes for domestic workers is Taiwan. Taiwan has made a distinction between helpers who look after children under six and do household chores, and caregivers whose charges are the elderly and those with disabilities. Those hired as caregivers do not perform household chores. And if a family wants their domestic helper to perform caregiving work, the worker has to consent before the Taiwanese government approves it. As of last month, Taiwan had 224,629 people working as domestic caregivers and just 1,914 maids.
  27. In Hong Kong, certain roles are a no-no. Domestic helpers there cannot give massages or act as chauffeurs. Hong Kong has defined domestic duties as falling under five broad categories - household chores, cooking, babysitting, child-minding and looking after aged persons in the household.
  28. In Singapore, the authorities here have said "no" to some jobs. High-rise window cleaning, for example, must be supervised and maids cannot work for employers' businesses.
  29. But Singapore can do better in defining domestic workers' duties, rather than leaving maids at the mercy of employers' demands.
  30. Among the ludicrous roles that Mr Wham has heard of in his interactions with maids over the past 12 years are: masseuse, Kumon-style tutor and assistant to a temple medium performing rites.
  31. Anecdotally, it seems not uncommon for maids to massage household members - male or female. As Hong Kong has done, Singapore should state clearly that this goes beyond the scope of their work.
  32. Another line that can be drawn by Singapore is mandating that maids be given proper, certifiable training for the medical tasks they are expected to perform.
  33. Since the Government hands out levy concessions for those hiring maids to care for the elderly or those with disabilities, it can also - when approving the concession - make it contingent on the workers having the necessary skills. "The infrastructure to provide the training exists now," said Mr Gee.
  34. However, he said that training maids for caregiving roles should only be a stopgap measure. In the long term, Singapore ought to have "more specialised recruitment and training". He said families should rely on local caregivers to come in and give specialised care, such as bathing a bed-bound patient.
  35. While Mr Wham agrees, others, such as Dr Theseira, feel that if a family member is expected to perform home caregiving roles for a discharged patient after some training from the hospital or nursing home, "then surely a foreign domestic worker can also be expected to do so".

    Empower them 
  36. Barring splitting housekeeping and caregiving roles, the best way to protect helpers and loved ones from sloppy care by an overworked maid is empowering the women with rights and an avenue to seek help.
  37. Mr Gee said: "This means regular days off, being able to hold on to their own mobile phones and communicate freely with the outside world, and being protected against arbitrary dismissal and repatriation.
  38. "If a worker can't get on with her employer or feels that her employment conditions are unfair, it should be made easy for her to change employers without returning to her country first." 
  39. Letting maids live outside employers' homes can also help manage their workload, said Dr Theseira. "The problem of workload is largely caused by the fact that domestic workers are live-in and hence expected by some employers to always be on duty."
  40. If employers cannot ship maids home willy-nilly, it will address the power imbalance between maids and families here, he said.
  41. "Many accept high workloads which sometimes border on abusive because they fear the consequences of refusal - which could include being sent home without completing their contract. If domestic workers believe they have reasonable options in the Singapore market, they will be more capable of resisting unreasonable demands, and employers also will realise that they cannot push their helpers too hard," he said.
  42. And if maids have an avenue to go to for help or to complain, or even an option to up and leave, then perhaps employers will lay off the unreasonable demands.
  43. Until then, the least the Ministry of Manpower can do is draw a red line under some unreasonable demands and have a blacklist of chores that domestic workers shouldn't have to do and a list of chores that they need to be trained for to attempt.