I see them every day, taking children to school, shopping for provisions, hanging out the washing, chatting among themselves when free. They are women who come to Singapore to work as maids — not all that different from men like me who also came here looking for better opportunities.
Of course, we have to take the rough with the smooth and some of the maids seem happy enough, despite being far from home, cut off from their families. But life can be tough, and some are cruelly abused by their employers. We have come across horrific accounts in the press: one maid was abused — kicked, punched, scratched — 79 times in 10 months; another maid was put to work as a prostitute by her employer, who also expected her to do the house work and look after the children.
The courts are quick to punish abusers and the government is trying to protect the maids.
But now that an international human rights group has taken up the issue, the government is accusing it of gross exaggeration.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch does not mince its words in its report, Maid to Order: Ending Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore. "Between 1999 and 2005, at least 147 migrant domestic workers died from workplace accidents or suicide, most by jumping or falling from residential buildings," it says.
Maids have to work "16 hours a day", "seven days a week", "for pitifully low wages", it adds, and are not protected by the Employment Act. The government disputes that. "Foreign domestic workers receive full protection under Singapore’s laws, including the Employment of Foreign Workers Act," says the Ministry of Manpower in an online statement.
It is a fact, however, that wages are low and maids are not entitled to any days off. There is a move to encourage employers to give them one day off a month but there is no law to that effect.
One in seven Singapore households has a maid, says the BBC, and the government wants to let them decide whether the maid should have a day off. But Human Rights Watch says maids in Singapore should be entitled to a weekly day off, same as in Hong Kong.
There are maids in Singapore who already get Sundays off. They can be seen shopping, chatting and having a good time with their friends. But there are also people who worry about their maids falling into "bad company" if allowed to go out and have a day off.
Still, more than 80 per cent of the maids are happy, says the Ministry of Manpower — MOM, for short — quoting a survey made by a local media group two years ago.
Whatever may be the case, Singaporeans are not likely to run short of maids. About 150,000 women — mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka — work as maids in Singapore, says Reuters. They need the money. Don’t we all?