Do Housemaids Need a Day Off?
Stanislaus Jude Chan
SINGAPORE, Sep 24 (IPS) - Gruesome as it was, the discovery of the severed head and limbs of a Filipino housemaid, abandoned in a travel bag on fashionable Orchard Road, has rekindled an old debate on whether foreign domestic workers in this affluent city-state should get a weekly day off or not.
The immediate concern in businesslike Singapore, following the Sep. 9 discovery, was that the rather overworked 'Maid in Singapore' headlines were beginning to overshadow the 'Uniquely Singapore' campaign slogan, carefully crafted for the tourism department.
There were few tears shed for Jane Parangan La Puebla and none for Guen Garlejo Aguilar, arrested for the murder of her compatriot and 'best friend'. They were just more trouble than the usual run of 'havoc maids'.
But the scene was different in the Philippines where demonstrations were mounted in front of the Singapore embassy demanding that Aguilar gets a fair trial and justice. Parallels were drawn with the controversial hanging of Flor Contemplacion for the murder of fellow domestic worker Delia Maga, a decade ago.
Contemplacion's execution strained relations between Singapore and the Philippines and caused many Filipinos to vent their frustration at governments in both countries that were, seemingly, not doing enough to prevent the abuse and stress that are the lot of Filipino overseas workers.
This time, Manila appealed for calm, urging local media to cease sensational reporting on the La Puebla murder. ''I appeal for sobriety from everyone and not to come to rash conclusions on the basis of media reports or stories being circulated,'' Philippine Ambassador to Singapore Belen Anota was quoted by newspapers as saying.
Officials fear the sensational reports could stir up public sentiment and set off an unwarranted reaction against Singapore--though there was relief that this was a case of one Filipino maid allegedly killing another, rather than extreme violence between Singaporean employers and foreign domestic help.
Singapore courts frequently hear cases of housemaid abuse--or those concerning retaliatory murder, the usual plea of defence lawyers on behalf of their clients being that they were driven to homicide after suffering extreme abuse.
Last month, Singapore's image as a destination for foreign job-seekers took yet another beating when homemaker, Sazarina Madzin was arrested for the abuse of her Indonesian maid, Wiwik Setyowati, last year.
The 28-year-old Madzin was charged on 80 counts of abuse, including bludgeoning her hapless victim, Setyowati, with an assortment of household items, including shoes, a tomato sauce bottle and a plastic chopping board.
Apart from fines, Madzin now faces seven years in prison for threatening to kill her employee.
On the other hand, two Indonesian maids who robbed and killed their employer Esther Ang were found guilty of manslaughter last month but escaped the death sentence.
The judge determined that Juminem, 20, ''was suffering from a psychiatric disorder of a depressive nature'' and awarded her a life sentence, while he sent 17-year-old Siti Aminah to ten years in prison after noting that she was only 15 at the time of the crime and that she was ''intellectually and psychologically immature''.
The three cases in the space of a month have dented Singapore's reputation as a safe and lawful city, besides leading to concern over the treatment of migrant workers here.
There are currently some 150,000 foreign maids working in Singapore. Most of them are from the Philippines and Indonesia, with the rest from Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand.
But more than 27 years after foreign domestic helpers first started working in Singapore, debate on issues like whether maids should get a day off and also how much they should be paid, continues.
Filipino maids, who can converse in English, usually receive around 215 US dollars a month while Sri Lankans rate less at 150 dollars. Indonesians get paid around 120 dollars, slightly more than the 117-dollar levy that employers must pay the government per worker.
The wages seem exploitative in a country with one of the most affluent societies in Asia and having a per capita monthly income exceeding 2,000 dollars. And for round-the-clock work.
''Even machines need rest,'' says Filipino domestic worker Ellen Elancanal, who has been here for eight years. ''We work so many hours. We must have a day a week, whichever way we want to spend it''. She gets to spend her Sundays with a church choir, or helping fellow workers in trouble.
''Not giving people time off can make people disgruntled and stressed,'' said Helen Tan, spokeswoman for the Association of Employment Agencies, Singapore.
But many employers are wary of 'social problems' and choose to keep their maids at home.
Employers in Singapore risk forfeiting a 3,000 dollar-security bond if the maid goes missing--or if they fail to repatriate her at the end of the contract or in the event of pregnancy.
''They (domestic helpers) know that if they do that (get pregnant), they stand to lose everything. It's not in their interest to jeopardise the money they send home to their families,'' said Braema Mathi, president of Transient Workers Count Too, an agency defending the human rights of workers here.
''If employers are worried about pregnancy, then workers should have sex education. We can't control human behaviour to that extent and say that we are protecting her by not giving her a day off''.
On the ground though, many employers are sceptical about days off. ''They have boyfriends and all that!'' says Mary Lee, 58, a Singaporean homemaker who has employed several domestic workers over the last two decades.
''Some even go to Geylang (Singapore's red-light district) and earn extra cash, you know? We can't control the maids, so it's best that when we employ the maid, we tell the agent we don't want to give days off,'' Lee said.
Fear of 'social problems' causes employers to deny maids a day off and the stress of working without a break results in pent-up frustrations that create rather than solve a delicate problems which can be tackled on with responsibility and understanding.
''The bold maids are often those who have worked here for some time. Their employers trust them and some abuse their privileges,'' said Alice Cheah, owner of the Singapore agency, 'Caregivers Centre', stressing that 'havoc maids' are in the minority.
''Maids should be given days off. It'd be unhealthy psychologically if the maids are cooped up in the house every day. If the maids treasure their jobs, they will behave well,'' Cheah said.