August 14, 2014 12:00 am JST

Domestic workers toiling in Singapore hope for something more

ROB O'BRIEN, Contributing writer

Janelyn Pascua is one of 220,000 domestic workers living in Singapore. (Photo by Tom White)

SINGAPORE -- Each night, Janelyn Pascua switches on her laptop to begin her daily transition from maid to boss.

     As a domestic worker in Singapore, she looks after two young children, shops, cooks and cleans six days a week. In the evenings she logs onto Skype to discuss food prices and weather conditions on a small farm she owns with her husband in the Philippines. The farm rears cattle and grows rice, peanuts and fruit.

     "We discuss our plans," Pascua said. "We argue, we talk things out and we (decide) what is the best thing to do." Her husband sold about 8,000 pesos ($181) worth of peanuts from their first harvest last month. It wasn't much, but it all went back into the business.

     Despite her demanding day job and lack of free time, Pascua also manages to squeeze in studies at a microbusiness school in Singapore called Aidha. The school teaches foreign domestic workers some of the know-how they need to run their own businesses -- money management, communications and computer skills.

Treated as "merchandise"

In Singapore, foreign household helpers mainly come from the Philippines, India and Indonesia. They make up about 4% of the city-state's population of 5.3 million.

     They play an important role in the economy but many face considerable hardship. Cases of abuse and exploitation by employers and employment agencies are not uncommon in Singapore and other popular places of work, such as Hong Kong.

     In one recent, high-profile case in Singapore, a local couple was charged for abusing their Indonesian domestic worker. The woman was punched, slapped and kicked. She lost 20kg over a period of seven months.

     Singapore's Ministry of Manpower warned employment agencies over their "undignified" advertising, which likened foreign domestic workers to "merchandise that can be purchased and replaced when found unsatisfactory."

     Long, exhausting hours are standard. A recent survey by the ministry revealed that among more than 2,000 domestic workers who arrived in the city in 2013, only 37% received a weekly day off.

     Isobel, who did not want her full name published, is a Filipina domestic helper who has been in Singapore since 2004, working an average of 14 hours a day. She said she took her first day off in 2012. "My first employer was kind to me, but my contract ended after two years and I asked them for a weekly day off," she said. "They couldn't agree to it because they had an elderly family member who needed extra supervision."

Gradual shift

In 2011, the International Labor Organization passed a convention to extend basic labor rights to the world's 53 million domestic workers, 21 million of whom toil in Asia. That included a comprehensive set of employment standards. So far only 14 countries have ratified the convention.

     "It is generally felt that domestic workers should be on call 24 hours a day," said Nelien Haspels, senior specialist on gender and women workers issues at the ILO.

     Still, a gradual shift in labor policies is underway in some Asian countries.

     Labor laws and regulations in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam provide for one day off per week. Malaysia is planning to follow suit soon. Legislation in the Philippines and Vietnam has even extended to contracts, minimum-wage coverage and other social protections for domestic workers.

     While Singapore was one of eight countries that abstained from voting on the ILO convention, last year the city-state did make it mandatory for all of its 220,000 domestic workers to have one day off per week.

     "These recent legislative developments show that there is increasing recognition in Asia that domestic work is work and that domestic workers are workers," Haspels said. This is something that "eluded many in Asian societies because domestic work is a 'woman's job' and therefore undervalued."

     Evidently, Singapore's weekly day off has yet to be uniformly implemented. "Many Singaporean families do struggle to take care of their loved ones because nursing homes and care services are expensive and the cost of living is going up," said Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, a group that campaigns for migrant workers' rights in Singapore. "Domestic workers are a cheap, exploitable alternative to professional care services."

     What is more, households have the option of negotiating pay in lieu of a day off. "Domestic workers find it very difficult to bargain with their employers, so if employers insist they take the salary in lieu of the day off, they usually have to," Wham added.

     Nevertheless, the changing labor regulations are starting to make a tangible difference to some.

     For Pascua, the budding agricultural entrepreneur, the newly gained weekly day off has given her just enough time to attend Aidha. More than 2,500 women from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have graduated since the school opened in 2006. More than 1,200 microbusinesses have been set up across Asia as a result.

     "The goal is to give domestic workers the opportunity, so that when they go home they have the choice to seek sustainable income for themselves," said Karen Fernandez, chief executive of Aidha, which is funded largely by corporate donations.

     "They learn how to talk to their suppliers, how to present themselves, how to do an Excel spreadsheet and cost out the business as well as entrepreneurship skills, such as risk-taking."

     Some domestic workers join Aidha to start up a business, but many are already business owners, running farms, recycling enterprises or shops back home. "Even if they don't set up businesses immediately," Fernandez said, "they are sending capital back home to their families to help them set up businesses. That is quite a significant contribution to their communities."

     Pascua's training has helped her to save and build her farming business from scratch, and ultimately generate income in the Philippines.

     "We have to save for the future, we're not always going to be in Singapore working," she said. "At some point, we need to go home for our families."