Employers, maids adjust to circuit breaker measures

Issues over increased workload, rest days arise as line between work and private time blurs

Fund manager Henrietta Yap, holding her daughter Beth, with her domestic helpers Kay Thi Khaing (left) and Alena Pacardo Palencia (right). With the circuit breaker in place, Ms Yap makes an effort to pitch in more at home. On Friday, she let her help
Fund manager Henrietta Yap, holding her daughter Beth, with her domestic helpers Kay Thi Khaing (left) and Alena Pacardo Palencia (right). With the circuit breaker in place, Ms Yap makes an effort to pitch in more at home. PHOTO: COURTESY OF HENRIETTA YAP

Since the circuit breaker period kicked in on April 7, Filipino domestic worker Jay, 31, has been spending her rest days on Sunday at home, with her employer compensating her if she works on the day.

But a dispute has arisen - she wants to go to Lucky Plaza to remit money to her family, but her employer refuses to allow her to do so.

"He said I'm not allowed to take the bus or MRT and that this is for my safety, but I'm still being asked to go to the market to run errands. I'm worried about my family, who have no income now," said Jay, who declined to give her full name.

As part of elevated safe distancing measures rolled out across Singapore, foreign domestic workers (FDWs), like Singaporeans, have been told to stay home as much as possible - including on their rest days.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), in an advisory on April 11, said FDWs could go out to buy meals or run essential errands, but should return home immediately thereafter.

As the line between work and private time blurred further with this arrangement, employers and domestic workers said that open communication and mutual understanding remained essential.

Most of those interviewed by The Sunday Times said that they were coping well with staying in on their rest days so far.

In a statement on Friday, the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) said that based on feedback gathered online and its network of volunteers as well as ambassadors, FDWs generally understood the severity of the situation and the reasons behind the circuit breaker measures.

"However, we did come across some FDWs who faced some issues - feeling obliged to work on their rest day since they are home, and employers not paying them for working on their rest day," said a CDE spokesman.

Ms Jaya Anil Kumar, case manager at Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), said that it has also seen an increase in domestic workers reaching out to the group over well-being issues.

"There has been an increased workload for domestic workers as employers are at home all the time, and there will be more tasks and work to complete," she said.

Some were also subject to increased surveillance over matters such as mobile phone use.

Fund manager Henrietta Yap, 39, who has two FDWs, said that employers should try to chip in with the housework given the increased workload.

"We take turns to do the laundry, and we try to order food in even on weekday nights, because my helper now needs to cook lunch in the afternoon since everyone is home."

She also prepares dinner on some nights.

Public servant Marisa Low, 42, also takes extra care to remind her three children, aged four to 10, to not disturb their helper on her rest days on Sunday. The helper has stopped going out on her days off since the circuit breaker kicked in.

To address potential issues that may arise between FDWs and their employers amid the Covid-19 situation, Nominated MP Anthea Ong together with Ms Ang Huan Ting, 29, and Mr Abhishek Bajaj, 28, from A Good Space - a not-for-profit initiative which aims to increase awareness of social issues - launched a digital campaign called S.H.A.R.E earlier this month.

The campaign comes in the form of a comic strip outlining five steps for employers to work with their helpers:

  • Share masks and sanitisers with your helper;
  • hands should be washed frequently;
  • ask helpers about their health;
  • respect rest time and days off;
  • ensure health and well-being of everyone at home.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, together with MOM, will help disseminate the information to employers, and posters will also be sent to embassies, employment agencies, town councils, MOM service centres and other organisations that interact with the workers.

Said Ms Ong: "We mustn't forget that, like us, (FDWs) are anxious and scared too with the Covid-19 situation. They left their families to come here to work and help look after ours. We must do the right thing and look after them, especially in these challenging times."

Jay and her employer are meanwhile still in the midst of resolving their issue.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 19, 2020, with the headline Employers, maids adjust to circuit breaker measures. Subscribe