SINGAPORE (Reuters) — Singapore's plan to mandate one day off a week for foreign maids after years of outcry by human rights groups is adding fuel to a raging debate about decent jobs and the soaring cost of living on the high-cost island.
From well-paid bankers to labourers toiling in the searing sun, foreigners make up one-third of the 5.2 million people in a small city-state with few resources that has become a first-world hub for trade, high-end manufacturing and financial services.
At least 200,000 are women from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and elsewhere in the region who work as family maids, nannies and caregivers to the old and ill. Wages are low, hours are long and accidents, violence and suicides are not uncommon.
Human Rights Watch said the new plan, which was proposed by the ruling People's Action Party, complemented stronger regulation of employment agencies and more prosecutions of abusive employers in recent years but did not go far enough.
"Singapore's reforms are only a fraction of the change needed to protect women workers, who are too often undervalued and overworked," the New-York based group said. .
Unlike Hong Kong and Taiwan, which require a weekly rest day for maids, Singapore has had no such rule. That will change in January 2013, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said.
"A weekly rest day is regarded internationally as a basic labour right," Tan told parliament, noting that a "significant majority" of foreign maids who are hurt on the job or commit suicide had not been given time off.
Employers who truly need full-time help will be allowed to offer extra pay instead of days off by mutual consent.
The Manpower ministry, juggling concerns about labour supply with demands for tighter quotas on foreign workers, is also rolling out steps to help smaller firms train and hire locals.
Singapore "cannot afford to keep postponing" changes needed to reduce reliance on overseas workers, Tan told parliament, while stressing the employment pass policy was designed to allow skilled foreigners to complement, not replace, locals.
Attracting high-end talent is a key part of Singapore's development but whether low-skilled locals actually want the mundane, dirty jobs often done by foreigners is another matter.
One day off for maids was not popular among some Singaporeans, who cited fears about employees falling in with the wrong crowd or getting pregnant if given too much free time. One told the Straits Times newspaper it was "bad news" for women who work.
"If I let her go out four days a month, it'll be very hectic for me," the woman said. "I need to rest on Sunday too."
Ignatius Low, a columnist at the Straits Times, asked what it said about Singaporeans that employers had to be compelled to take better care of their foreign workers.
"Is Singapore really a civilized and developed society?" he wrote. "If so, why is it that so many of us sometimes refuse to see an issue from anything but the most practical perspective of cost versus benefit, dollars and sense?"
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