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Our Helpers & Us: finding the right balance for a mutually happy relationship

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Singapore leans heavily on our domestic helpers to function as a society.

I believe most of us harbour well-intentioned thoughts when hiring our live-in helpers; ownership of mobile phones, a personal spot in the homes and individualistic freedom after the chores are done. Though there are certainly those who look to enslave these helpers, most employers and employees are often willing to negotiate working terms which both sides agree upon.

Photo Credit: Straits Times

The highly-debated case of Parti Liyani has shone the spotlight on the deployment of FDWs to multiple sites for duties. It is now time we look at ourselves to understand humanity in this situation. There have been repeated calls for more measures to protect helpers.

The deployment of FDWs to more than one place of work may be more common than we imagine.

As Shamsul Kamar, Executive Director of Centre for Domestic Employees, wrote in a commentary published by CNA, in 2019 alone, there were 190 complaints of this nature made to the CDE.

One of the most egregious illegal deployment CDE has handled thus far involved a complainant who had to perform ‘the full extent of domestic work at four different households, and on top of that, doubled up as a cleaner in an office’, Shamsul wrote.

When her employer found out that a report had been made to the MOM, they unilaterally terminated her contract and tried to repatriate her.

Fortunately, CDE intercepted the repatriation and eventually found her a new employer with the aid of our network of employment agents.

The law is clear; a reality not so.

It may not always be fair to penalise the employers as some complaints could have risen out of a misunderstanding between employers and FDWs, especially when FDWs are deployed to care for charges at the homes of close family members in the daytime while employers are at work, says Shamsul Kamar.

Current regulations allow an FDW to be deployed together with her charges to the home of a close family member when the employer is at work so long as the FDW is not required to do household chores in the homes of the family members and receive adequate food and rest.

In reality, it is not always easy to make a clear distinction between household chores of the family members, and household chores that arise from the care of young charges in the homes of the family members.

Important to work out a mutual understanding and agreement

As with any work we decide to forge or take on for ourselves, a mutual agreement as to the extent of our job scope, expectations and concerns is prudent.

A practical approach, says Shamsul Kamar, is for employers to work out a mutual agreement with FDWs on the type of incidental work to be performed in the homes of close family members, barring work not related to caregiving for charges.

“To avoid ambiguity, employers could state these upfront in the employment contract.”

Shamsul Kamar,
Executive Director at the Centre for Domestic Employees.

This is whereas employers, we can play our part to achieve the right balance of work to delegate to our FDWs.  Laws are meant to regulate behaviour. But if our behaviour falls on the right aspect of the moral compass, the laws can be focused on protecting us from more extreme deviants of society.

At this moment, MOM recognises that the laws are often unable to encapsulate all the nuances to it and thus, rules that “FDWs can continue to provide care to their charges under the supervision of the employers’ family members while their employers are at work.” It is ultimately up to each of us to know our behaviour falls in the right spectrum of the moral compass.

We should help ensure FDWs are protected against exploitative employment malpractices that may lead to burnout and subsequent health issues related to stress and overwork. Aren’t we all humans looking to better our lives through the means of employment after all?

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