This is the year that foreign maids are granted what globally is a basic labour right - a weekly rest day, which Singaporeans and other foreign workers already get under the Employment Act.
Foreign maids hired from Jan 1 must be given a weekly day off or be compensated a day's wages instead.
Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that many employers prefer to compensate their maids rather than give them that rest day.
Checks by The Straits Times with six maid agencies in January showed that 70 per cent of their 400 or so new customers employing maids were not likely to give them rest days at all until they had proven themselves to be trustworthy.
Among maids with contracts signed before Jan 1, less than half have any days off, Mr John Gee of migrant worker organisation Transient Workers Count Too wrote in a newspaper commentary in July.
While the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) intends the rest day requirement to cover all maids by 2015, it would not amount to much if large numbers of employers take the get-out clause offered by compensation.
I employ a live-in Filipino maid and give her a weekly rest day even though her contract, signed last year, stipulates one day off a month. I find the resistance of many Singaporean employers towards giving rest days disturbing.
The sticking point seems to be fear that the maid will get up to no good on her day off. The spectre of her absconding or getting pregnant is often raised, for which the employer could risk forfeiting all or part of a $5,000 security bond.
Signed with the Government, it makes the employer responsible for her upkeep and good behaviour, feeding into a very calculating mindset on the part of employers in managing risks and extracting the most out of the maid.
Perhaps in recognition of these sentiments, MOM has clarified on its website that if a maid becomes pregnant and loses her permit to work here, the employer who reports her will not lose the security deposit.
This has not stopped bosses from being extremely reluctant to give rest days to a maid. Some do so only after she has worked for a year, when the placement fee of more than $2,000 has been paid off. This is what an employer pays to the agency for her to come to Singapore, which is deducted from her salary over a period of time, from several months to a year.
Another common view is that rest days are tied to the maid's performance. But just as one does not deduct or withhold a foreign worker's salary on account of poor performance - employers can be taken to court and fined in particularly egregious instances - a day off should be taken more seriously as a right, and not a reward.
Then there is the misconception that granting a weekly rest day is equivalent to laissez-faire management of a maid. This need not be so; as with any modifications to a labour relationship, boundaries have to be negotiated and established.
Our maid does not do any chores on her rest day, but we require that she be back promptly at 7pm so she can get a good night's rest ahead of the next work week.
Her day of rest is also not fixed, as there are occasions when I have to work on a Sunday. On those occasions, she rests on Saturday and will spend Sunday doing the chores and helping my husband care for our two young children.
Those who argue that their helpers do not need a weekly day off because they get adequate rest during the week need to reflect on the elastic and often laborious nature of caregiving and domestic work.
It starts as early as 6am or 7am, when young children or the elderly wake up, and finishes late, depending on the time employers return home from work. In the Singapore context, this could be 10pm or 11pm.
Essentially, we have delegated the most menial, monotonous and back-breaking domestic tasks to maids - they help care for the very young, disabled, old and infirm, and even our dogs, and make it possible for families to have a better quality of life.
I do not see why a flexible arrangement for both employer and maid cannot be worked out.
The rest day could be split into two half days. Bosses afraid of their maids falling into bad company can set them up with religious groups or charities which run weekend activities or courses.
While trust is key in the implementation of the rest day, it should not be a condition thereof.
If one's relationship with a maid is not working out, the solution is to replace her or find other caregiving arrangements, not to withhold days off.
There are now some 210,000 foreign maids here. One in five households employs them, according to the National Committee for UN Women (formerly Unifem), Singapore. Undeniably, there are issues of quality and training that need to be addressed separately from the day off.
There is also a need, as others have pointed out, to develop more day-care services for special needs and ailing family members, to ease the over-dependence on unskilled foreign labour.
I have heard my share of horror stories of errant or abusive maids, but these have also taken on the status of urban myth which flourishes in the absence of rational, considered debate over the proper boundaries for domestic employer-employee relationships. Too many employers just fall back on entrenched prejudices and refuse to cut their helpers any slack for fear of being taken advantage of.
While some gains have been made in the work conditions of foreign maids, with MOM stepping up penalties for physical abuse and going on an education blitz to stop people from making their helpers clean high-rise window exteriors, the ministry should also study how many maids are actually getting a weekly day off.
Failure to observe the rule only perpetuates an unhealthy, even racist - one law for them, another law for us - mindset.
MOM should also work with employment agencies to persuade bosses of the benefits of such an arrangement. I do enjoy the family time we have on our maid's rest day, as I am sure she values the opportunity to hang out with friends.
Yes, managing a maid can be complicated precisely because she has all the complexities of a person and is not a machine.
That is the trade-off we make for outsourcing family chores to a stranger from a foreign land at relatively low wages.
With it comes responsibility for the well-being of someone's mother, sister or daughter. Whether we are living up to it, is something to think about.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 22, 2013
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