Tens of thousands of women sit on cardboard or plastic mats in the shadow of five-star hotels, major bank buildings and storefronts with luxury brand names etched across them in glowing cursive.
Annie, 29, and Nilda, 36, met at the employment office, where they were both handing in their notice, roughly a year ago. An hour after meeting, the two women sat chatting on a raised concrete planter outside the MTR [Mass Transit Railway] station exit.
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So on my day off, I have to stock up on snacks and canned goods to survive the week. Annie, meanwhile, lived under constant CCTV surveillance. In Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, living spaces are notoriously small. Still, the cheap labour of foreign domestic workers attracts even those employers who do not have suitable space in their homes to accommodate them.
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It can also lead to sub-standard living conditions. Those taking part in the survey worked on average 16 hours a day, with nearly half reporting food deprivation. In his experience, the Sunday public assemblies perform an important function in connecting domestic workers to each other. They sing their hearts out. Space is claimed using anything from a circle of bags to a tent, and public ground is transformed into temporary venues for every possible social interaction.
Workers picnic, cut hair, hold protests, or even take part in coordinated dance routines. A group of women might host a roadside bridal shower, passing around a pristine white wedding dress as cars fly past.
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A pop fanclub might meet under brightly coloured banners, proclaiming their appreciation for the affiliated act with screams and laughter. Her club helped her adapt to living far from home. One smog-choked afternoon, under a busy flyover, a worker named Edna, 41, pulled Tupperware containers of macaroni and sticky rice out of a knock-off Fendi bag, and listened to Girlie, 27, tell a familiar tale of negligent employers.
For these women, caught between a home country with no economic plan but to export labour and a city that excluded them from universally held rights, every act of expression is resistance.
Rest days and well-being for foreign domestic worker
File photo of a foreign domestic worker. The rest day regulations imply that this can only happen if the domestic worker freely consents to giving up her rest day.
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But 40 focus group discussions and one-on-one interviews with foreign domestic workers, employers and agency staff conducted by Yale-NUS student Margaret Schumann between and , based on an earlier quantitative analysis of almost 4, online profiles of domestic workers, revealed that many agencies refuse to place new domestic worker applicants who ask for a weekly day off.
This is particularly true for Myanmarese domestic workers.
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Still, for many of them, the ability to earn even a little more money during their first six months of employment, when they are paying off the heavy debt they incurred to come to Singapore, is an attractive proposition. Even this amount is not guaranteed. From interviews with 85 foreign domestic workers, HOME found that only 58 per cent of domestic workers were compensated for working on their rest day.
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If this is the standard applied to workers under the Employment Act, we should not have a lower standard for more vulnerable classes of worker, such as foreign domestic workers, who are currently excluded from coverage under this Act. This amount, albeit small, is fairer compensation for foreign domestic workers who have little recourse when their employer asks them to give up their rest day. That is why this regulatory change should be accompanied by another change that mandates a non-negotiable, minimum monthly day off that employers cannot take away from their workers under any circumstances.
Without a way for a domestic worker to get away from her employer at least once a month, she is incredibly vulnerable to abuse without recourse to seeking help.