S'pore, rich neighbor and user of RI maids

Posted by Dewi Anggraeni under Labour Watch on 9 February 2006

Indonesia domestic workers are not paid their wage for the first 6 to 12 months as its given to the Employment Agency as fee. Singapore's 2004 per capita income is at US$24 220 but there is no minimum allowable wage; no standard contract for foreign domestic workers. Why?

World Bank statistics put Singapore's 2004 per capita income at US$24 220, and updated Bloomberg data on the country's unemployment rate put it at 3.7 percent.

Indonesia's 2004 per capita income has been estimated at US$1,140 with an updated unemployment rate of 10.3 percent. This may be rendered even more stark when complemented by a reality check.

Even ignoring the hidden unemployment or underemployment in Indonesia, and taking the figure 10.3 percent at face value, 10.3 percent of the eligible working population (of about 120 million) is over 12 million. The actual number of officially unemployed people in Indonesia is therefore over 12 million, almost triple the entire population of Singapore of under 4.5 million.

Added to the above reality are two major contributing factors that drive the need of Singapore households to employ domestic helpers.

First, the education levels of Singaporeans are increasing all the time, which means that more and more women aspire to follow their own career paths; second, is the "Singapore Dream" much aired on electronic, as well as print media in the region, the five 'Cs": cash, car, condo, credit card and country club membership, which have to be supported by two incomes.

With both husband and wife in the workforce, the existing childcare service is not an ideal solution, since what needs to be done at home is a lot more than just looking after the children.

There are chores like cleaning, washing, general tidying-up, even cooking to do. And if there are elderly parents living in the household, they need looking after too.

Market forces come into play, with a little help from the government. Neighboring countries -- Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Thailand -- have a surplus of low-cost human resources, eager to take whatever is on offer. And for Singaporeans, employing a live-in domestic helper means being able to concentrate more on the job in their own places of work.

Govt lays out legal framework

The authorities are very much aware of the spatial limitations of the city-state, and at the same time the attraction of living in a comparatively healthy economy is felt by those in the less wealthy neighboring countries in the region. The combination of the need for the low-cost services of foreign domestic helpers, and the caution not to open the door too wide, is reflected very clearly in the manpower ministry's regulation on bringing in foreign domestic helpers.

According to the government's Foreign Domestic Worker Scheme, a Singapore citizen can apply directly for a foreign domestic helper at the Work Permit Department in the ministry, or through a domestic help agency.

To guard against foreigners flooding in to Singapore with the hidden intention of becoming domestic helpers, the regulation specifies that the person to be hired should not be in Singapore at the time the work permit application is submitted.

She can enter Singapore only after the employer has been given an in-principle approval letter from the Work Permit Department, and the employer has given a security deposit of S$5,000 (US$2,958).

The S$5,000 security deposit, known as a "security bond", is to ensure that the employer repatriates the helper at the end of the two-year contract. Failing to do so will cost the employer the deposit. In the day-to-day routine, this policy effectively engages the employer as an unofficial monitor for the helper's well-being, behavior and, often, whereabouts.

The employer is responsible for the helper's observance of the compulsory initial and subsequent six-monthly medical examinations, and for making sure that the helper does not fall pregnant during the duration of the two-year contract. This responsibility may cause some employers to be reluctant to allow the helper too much freedom of movement.

In the meantime, before the Ministry of Manpower can issue a work permit to the helper, she has to promise to abide by a list of conditions, which include, not to go through any form of marriage or apply to marry under any law, religion, custom or usage, with a Singapore Citizen or Permanent Resident in or outside Singapore, without the prior approval of the Controller of Work Permits, while holding a work permit, and also after cancellation of her work permit.

If she breaches this condition, she will be expelled and prohibited from entering Singapore in future.

If there are any loopholes in terms of the helper forming any relationship with a Singapore citizen or resident, they are closed by the clause where the helper has to promise not to cohabit with any of the above.

In fact, to make sure no children are born of foreign domestic helpers, the conditions also include a promise from the helper not to become pregnant or deliver any child in Singapore during the validity of the helper's work permit or visit pass, or not to engage in any relationship with a Singapore resident that will result in the birth of a child.

No minimum allowable wage; no standard contract

Singapore Law does not recognize foreign domestic helpers as formal workers, so they do not have legally protected rights such as rest days, annual leave, or leave of absence.

Being informal workers, while they do not have a standard contract, the government encourages their employers to have individual contract, specifying the working arrangements.

They do not have a minimum allowable wage, and interestingly, neither do formal workers in Singapore. Market forces play an important role, because both employers and employees have the continuum of the going rates as their bargaining parameter.

In the case of foreign domestic helpers, the only definite amounts payable by the employer in the employment arrangement are to the government: the S$5,000 security deposit, and the monthly levy of S$250, or US$148 (reduced on Aug. 25, 2004 from S$345, or US$204).

The helper's salary is negotiable. Indonesian domestic helpers usually receive between $150 (US$89) and $250 (US$148).

Another cost incurred by the employer is a personal accident insurance for the helper. The employer can shop around for the best insurance cover provided the minimum payout is S$10,000 (US$5,917).

With no standard contract, the terms of employment are potentially very flexible. The government advises employers to draw up an employment contract with the helpers specifying terms and conditions of work such as salary, rest days, medical benefits, and scope of duties, but stops short of making it compulsory.

Employers are also exhorted to develop good relationships with their helpers, and warned not to mete out physical or other punishment themselves in instances of conflict.

Employers found abusing their helpers are threatened with prosecution in court and punished according to the law. What is more, the Penal Code has been amended so that employers found guilty of committing an offense against their helpers face heavier penalties.

(In carrying out the research necessary for these stories the author collaborated with the International Labor Organization (ILO). Dreamseekers; dream and reality of working as domestic helpers overseas will be jointly released by ILO and Equinox Publishing at the end of March)

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The Jakarta Post S'pore, rich neighbor and user of RI maids 01 February 2006

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