April 17th, 2012

Parliament Primer: Little red dot deals with global labour flow

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The following is an excerpt of the debate on tackling human trafficking and protecting foreign domestic workers, which took place during the March 1 and March 5 sittings of Parliament.

HUMAN TRAFFICKING

Christopher de Souza
Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC

Last year marked the start of a serious discourse on the state of human trafficking in Singapore and the adequacy of our legal framework and enforcement activities to tackle the very serious issue.

The Singapore Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons to intensify the coordination of anti-trafficking initiatives between Government agencies here is a positive start. A National Plan of Action to tackle both sex and labour trafficking is currently in the process of being developed, and will detail strategies to reduce the incidence of human trafficking in Singapore, minimise exploitation opportunities by traffickers, and heighten our national response to trafficking cases.

Even as the Government works on prevention by strict border enforcement and thorough immigration checks as well as the prosecution of human traffickers, much more can be done with respect to the protection of victims.

At present, MCYS and MOM fund shelters and dormitories that offer accommodation, medical care and counselling services. I would like to ask the Ministry what other concrete plans they have in mind to improve these victim care and support programmes.

Taiwan, Province of China, for example, has set up 19 shelters to look after victims under the administration of various government agencies, and the government has worked with NGOs to manage the shelters and provide victim support services. Perhaps our Government could look into partnering local NGOs or enhancing support for existing schemes as a means of managing the needs of the victims.

But, in a way, helping victims is already too late an intervention. We need to ensure that traffickers are extremely deterred from trying to place women and children in Singapore, which brings me to the issue of legislation.

The Ministry has said that it will consider whether increased enforcement powers, enhanced victim care provisions and harsher sentences will do the trick. By doing so, it is an acknowledgement, and rightly so, that new legislation indeed plays a pivotal role in enhancing our ability to fight human trafficking at the borders. How will the MHA ensure that traffickers are deterred and, if caught, punished harshly?

Also, given the very cross-border nature of human trafficking – which was acknowledged by the Minister, Mr S Iswaran, in a previous debate we had in this House – how will MHA work with other ASEAN countries to ensure the incidence of human trafficking within ASEAN is significantly reduced?

S Iswaran
Minister for Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry, Member of Parliament for West Coast GRC

We sought public feedback, starting about three weeks ago, on our National Plan of Action. In particular, the plan of action covers prevention, prosecution of perpetrators, protection of victims, partnerships, and enablers to enhance Singapore capabilities to fight trafficking in persons. We want to thank all who have contributed their ideas, and we will be incorporating some of this feedback into the National Plan of Action before it is launched later this year.

We will review existing laws to ensure that Singapore’s legislation adequately addresses the complexity of TIP crimes and that penalties are commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed. This is an on-going process and more details will be revealed in due course.

On a related note, Deputy Prime Minister Teo spoke about the introduction of the Organised Crime Act later this year. This Act will complement our review of TIP legislation to ensure that both enforcement powers and penalties are adequate to deter and punish trafficking syndicates.

On the enforcement front, we have close working relationships with our regional counterparts. There is also active dialogue and cooperation at various ASEAN regional platforms which cover both TIP and the broader scope of organised crime.

MCYS works with NGOs to provide shelters for victims and potential victims. As part of the process going forward, we will review the adequacy of these facilities and we will also take reference from international best practices. But as these are early days yet in the process, it would be premature for me to comment on specifics, but it will again be a part of the process going forward.

FOREIGN DOMESTIC WORKERS

Christopher de Souza

Everyone deserves rest. Maids are no different. Some have said that we should leave it to agencies and the maids to work out contractually whether they will have a rest day. However, the maid is inevitably in an unequal bargaining position with many if not most unable to comprehend contractual terms written in English.

Therefore, any analysis on the topic of rest days must be viewed through that reality. In this House, I had previously raised the issue of rest days for Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs), with the MOM saying it is analysing this. Is the Ministry of Manpower in a position to provide an update on this? After all, everyone deserves rest. We are all human.

Another issue has to do with the controversial Maid Review section of a blog that allows employers to post and view alleged misdeeds of maids. VWOs have complained that the site violated the rights and privacy of maids by revealing details such as their names, photographs, work permit and passport numbers.

Although the Maid Review section has now been made private, the problem is not totally resolved from the domestic workers’ point of view as employers may still have access to their particulars and any uncomplimentary remarks made about them. If something untrue is said of them, this could ruin any prospect of re-employment with a subsequent employer.

This is extremely unfair. Would we want that to happen to ourselves? Surely not. So, whoever it is running that blog, have more compassion. What more can MOM do, to ensure that maids have at least some recourse to action or a channel for complaints to be made? Would the Ministry consider exploring legislation which prevents users from uploading personal profile data such as those in identity cards and work permits?

Tan Chuan-Jin
Minister of State for the Ministry of National Development and the Ministry of Manpower; Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC

As we uphold laws to ensure the decent treatment of our foreign labour force, we must not forget that it also includes our foreign domestic workers. One of the issues raised is related to a blog with a controversial Maid Review section, and many like Mr de Souza find this distasteful. We would like to highlight that there are civil routes for redress for the aggrieved party if the comments are defamatory or in breach of a duty of confidence.

The second issue which Mr de Souza raised, also echoed by Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, is related to the specific provisions for rest days for foreign domestic workers. Let us be quite honest here. This debate on whether to implement a weekly rest day for FDWs has been long standing and contentious. Based on a survey conducted by MOM in 2010, the majority of our employers currently provide at least one rest day a month, but many do not.

Since Madam Halimah Yacob raised the issue in June 2011, we have consulted stakeholders, including FDW employers and FDWs themselves, extensively and considered their feedback carefully. And we received a broad spectrum of views.

I would like to share with Members a sample of what some of these views are. A number of these views have been edited and not included here because they are fairly extreme but this would give you a sense. Some employers felt that their needs should not supersede the needs of their FDW to rest and recharge, and that they appreciated their FDW more after taking over her chores on her rest day.

Other employers felt that their FDWs do not need a rest day because they have enough rest on a daily basis, or that giving FDWs weekly rest day will make it difficult for employers to cope when they themselves need a break during their own days off. Fears were raised about forming relationships or potential comparison of employment terms with other FDWs when the FDWs have their days off.

One oft-repeated concern is the fear that FDWs will misbehave or become less compliant as a result. Some have claimed that married couples’ relationships would be negatively affected if the FDW took time off, and that this would lead to a rise in divorce rates or reluctance to have children. There are many other emails that we have not talked about here.

It is very clear from the robust debate that FDWs play an important role in the lives of many families in Singapore. Improving FDWs’ well-being has a direct impact on the quality of care that their loved ones receive. We need to ask ourselves: How should foreign domestic workers, who make significant contributions to many of our households, be treated? How does this reflect on us as a society?

A weekly rest day is regarded internationally as a basic labour right. More than physical rest, it is an important mental and emotional break from work. We all can attest to that. Local workers and non-domestic foreign workers already enjoy this right under the Employment Act.

We are currently one of the very few foreign domestic worker destination countries worldwide lacking in provisions for weekly rest days. This has led to us becoming less attractive to FDWs compared to other destinations in the region that provide weekly rest days, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, Province of China. Malaysia, too, has recently included this provision in a MOU signed with Indonesia.

While accredited employment agencies currently use a standard employment contract that stipulates the number of days in a month that the worker wishes to take off and compensation for that, not all employers use the standard contract as it is not legally mandated to do so.

Employers may also find that actually improving FDWs’ well-being by giving them regular rest days will have a positive impact on the quality of care that they and their loved ones receive. Increasing Singapore’s attractiveness as an FDW destination will improve the supply of FDW for employers.

Happier FDWs will lead to better care for employers, fewer management problems and greater peace of mind. MOM’s records and feedback from non-government organisations (NGOs) that provide assistance to FDWs in distress indicates that the majority of foreign domestic workers with management problems do not have rest days.

Between 2007 and 2010, a significant majority of foreign domestic workers who suffered work-related injuries or committed suicide did not receive rest days. Places that shelter foreign domestic workers reported that those who run away from their employers generally do not have rest days.

While most employers do ensure their FDWs have adequate rest on a daily basis, this is not the same as providing a weekly rest day for a proper emotional and mental break and rest. In fact, in-depth interviews with FDWs revealed that a rest day provides them a much needed emotional and mental break from work and time apart from their employers.

We should move forward now, but in a balanced and pragmatic fashion. Therefore, we will legislate a weekly rest day for foreign domestic workers. However, we will also introduce flexibility in the regulations to respond to the needs and preferences of foreign domestic workers themselves and their employers.

The family circumstances of some FDW employers may make it genuinely difficult for them to cope without a FDW for one day every week. These employers may have elderly or disabled dependants to care for. We also understand that some FDWs actually, from their feedback as well, prefer to work on their rest days for extra pay.

Employers and FDWs will have the option of providing compensation in lieu of a rest day, as long as this is agreed upon in writing by both parties. The employer and the FDW should mutually agree on the number of rest days she will take each month, and the amount that the FDW will be compensated for the rest days that she does not take. The compensation for each rest day must at least be the worker’s daily wage, and be paid on top of her monthly wage. Assuming that the FDW’s wage is $400, and she chooses to take two days off, the amount the employer will have to pay is at least $31 to compensate for the remaining two days.

Employers, who have frail elderly and are therefore most likely to offer compensation in lieu, will be eligible for the new $120 grant each month to hire an FDW. Announced by the Finance Minister in his Budget speech, this grant comes on top of the existing $95 levy concession for households with elderly, young children or disabled members, and this is more than adequate to cover the rise in costs from having to compensate a FDW for working on her rest days.

For employers and FDWs who agree on taking regular rest days, there will also be flexibility for both to agree on which day of the week this rest day should fall on. Instead of monetary compensation, employers can also give FDWs a replacement rest day within the month.

To give employers time to adjust to the new regulations, we plan for them to take effect for all Work Permits issued or renewed from 1 January 2013. FDWs with Work Permits issued or renewed before 1 January 2013 will not be covered by this regulation until their Work Permits expire and are renewed after 1 January 2013.

One of the key concerns that employers have cited is about FDWs’ activities on their days off. I think this is a very common concern, and it has got to do with the security bond. I would like to emphasise very clearly that MOM does not forfeit employer’s security bonds if the FDW violates her own Work Permit conditions, for instance, if she moonlights on a rest day and gets caught, or if she gets pregnant.

Even in extreme cases where the foreign domestic worker absconds and cannot be located, only half the security bond will be forfeited if the employer has made reasonable effort to locate the foreign domestic worker. In reality, MOM forfeits very few security bonds each year. Last year, 22 security bonds were partially forfeited for missing FDWs. This is not large considering that we have over 200,000 FDWs in Singapore.

The Ministry is also reviewing employers’ obligations for medical costs and the cost of sending FDWs home for exceptional circumstances that employers have little or no control over. This is part of the second phase of the review on EFMA which I mentioned earlier.

The fear and concern over the security bond does shape the behaviour of employers. I would suggest that these concerns are misplaced and I think we should free ourselves of those concerns, and with that managed, the foreign domestic workers are looked after appropriately.

With the provision of a weekly rest day and flexibility for compensation in lieu, I believe we will be taking the correct step. It will be a balanced and pragmatic step forward to improve the employment conditions for our FDWs. While some employers may respond to this decision with apprehension, we really have to ask ourselves what is the right thing to do.

In the course of our consultation, we have spoken to many employers with pressing needs for a FDW to care for their children, elderly or disabled dependents. Some have managed to provide rest days for their FDW.

For example, Mr Sulaiman Abdullah who stays in Jurong. His FDW, Ms Siti Mufidah, has been a big help to his family, caring for four children with two younger ones in pre-school. He recognised that Siti needed a day to herself for her own personal needs. He has better peace of mind knowing that she has a proper break and would be more motivated to continue caring for his children for the rest of the week. Mr Sulaiman told us that Siti has been using her rest days to attend courses and she can even teach his son English now.

Not everyone is ready to do this; so our regulations will provide the flexibility for employers to negotiate different arrangements with their FDW. But as our country develops economically – I think we have developed quite incredibly on that front – we should not cease to ask ourselves about the kind of society we want to build, about the kind of society that we want to live in. How would we ourselves want to be treated as employees, as workers?

We should strive to embody and uphold the right values to our children. Because I am not sure whether we are always aware that our children at home observe our behaviour every day, and they observe the way we talk to and the way we treat our foreign domestic workers. This will have an impact on their own value system and in the way they look at life, the way they look at people and the way they treat people. And we need to help our children learn how to treat our fellow men correctly. This is important because as a society, these are issues we need to address.

Eugene Tan
Nominated Member of Parliament

I would like to ask the Minister of State what are the plans to ensure that employers do observe the contractual arrangements. I think it will take some time for employers to internalise the value of the day-off for foreign domestic workers and the values that underline this treatment. But more importantly, in the meantime, we could expect some employers to not observe the contractual arrangements and the mandatory weekly day-off.

Tan Chuan-Jin

We have decided that we will kick this off in 2013. So effectively, we have nine months to get ourselves ready. What we would expect following this announcement are reactions and responses from society and various groups, and we would start raising awareness, to talk this through.

There will be employers, as we can see from the emails and feedback I have shared, that some employers will find it difficult and awkward because for the longest time they have been operating on a certain basis. But it is a mindset shift that we need to see happen.

It is probably a good thing to start discussing this because it is about how we ought to treat others, and how we should look after the people who are working for us and working with us, living with us. And while nine months, I agree, is not a very long time, but I think we expect to see good conversations taking place and hopefully, that in itself would help employers socialise themselves to get ready. But this is mandated by law.

Read the full transcripts here and here.

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