Any minimum wage for a domestic helper in Singapore?

June 2012

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There was a raging debate in Singapore back in 2012 following a suggestion by a well-respected leader about a raise in low wages. But unfortunately, foreign domestic workers were excluded from the discussions.

It’s a renowned professor of economics, Lim Chong Yah, founder and former chairman of the National Wage Council and present director of the Economic Growth Centre of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University who recommended a drastic 3-year plan raising lowest wages by 50% by 2015 and freezing meanwhile the highest wages. It should be noted that Pr Lim is also a member of the presidential council for minority rights. It is easy to understand why many people from private companies managers to government officials have emerged to counter Prof Lim’s proposal despite his undeniable excellent reputation of an eminent wise and very respectable man.

Eventually, the National Wage Council has decided in its 2012-2013 guidelines published in May 2012 to recommend a 50 SGD increase of the monthly salary of low wage workers.

But from the very first day this matter of tackling the income inequality in Singapore was raised, it was said that domestic helpers were excluded from the debate: why so? Any reason to set aside a work force without which the local economy would collapse? Why so when Singapore looks more and more isolated among Asean countries in the way they treat domestic help despite real efforts to improve the protection of this vulnerable labor force? Hong-Kong, Taiwan and most recently Indonesia have imposed a minimum wage for domestic help. This decision of the Singaporean authorities is hard to understand and some NGOs have  expressed their disagreement.

In a context where there is still no minimum wage and no rule either, it is hard to say for an employer how much the salary of a domestic helper should be. However, a few informations may help in making the decision: firstly, it’s good to remember that these women use their salary to financially support their families in their home country.  Financial support means “providing daily food and sending kids to school”  far from any fancy expense ! For the most fortunate or the most money wise, financial support is extrended to health expenses (but only the most serious situations) or to a small investment (a motorbike, a piece of cattle, a piece of land, a bamboo house or even a concrete house, best achievment for many ladies!). But whatever the country of origin, providing for basic needs such as eating and schooling requires a monthly minimum remittance of 400 SGD. Below this amount, the ladies thrive to help their families who in return never stop harrassing them: borrowing money, giving it back , borrowing again and so on, becomes a never ending behavior, some running into hefty debts.

In addition to the salary matter arises the question of other benefits: food allowance? Toiletries? Health expenses? For the food, there are only 2 possibilities: in kind or in cash (food allowance). In kind is to me the best solution: the employer provides for all meals making rice available up to 3 times or more a day even if it’s not part of Western culture. The meals shall be adjusted to Asian taste: no cheese, no fancy typical Western dish! It is also possible to let the helper cook her own food with a few restrictions or recommendations related to some extremely fragrant Asian ingredients (shrimp paste, fish sauce, fried fish, durian, etc) “maybe you can have it when I’m away from home and keep it in a sealed container“. In cash, the food allowance should be given with some precautions: it may happen that the allowance is remitted with the monthly salary, the helper eating white rice only.  For toiletries (soap, toothpaste, feminine pads), it’s easier to add 10 to 15 SGD to her monthly salary thus avoiding any discussion about the prefered brand or the quantity used…About health expenses, it’s very clear according to Singapore law: all expenses shall be borne by the employer: a flu, a sprained ankle, a tooth acheor a dengue fever, etc. And it shall be noted that none of these examples are covered by the compulsory “medical insurance” purchased with the application for the work permit. Only surgery expenses are covered.

And what about salary increases? There is no regulation neither law about this issue of salary increases for domestic helpers in Singapore. MOM only recommends that “any good performance shall be rewarded with a lump sum of money” But should it be a bonus or a salary increase is not said. Following the yearly local inflation should be a minimum, keeping an eye on the infltion in her home country even if it may be tricky to follow on that if ever it becomes skyrocketing. In 2011, consumer index rose in Singapore by 5,2%. Which means that any domestic helper who started with a 400 SGD salary then should get today at last 415 SGD…far from the average 380 SGD… About bonuses, as soon as there is an “extra” ordinary task, for instance washing a car – which is definitely not a house cleaning task! – serving for a party or any task performed beyond previously agreed hourly schedule, the domestic helper should get an extra sum of money.

Definitely today, domestic helpers in SIngapore are far from getting wide protection and benefits from the highest authorities. However, Singapore may surprise us at any time! Who could have said a year ago that Singapore government would grant a compulsory day off to all domestic helpers starting in January 2013?

Hence, let’s be optimistic and keep defending our European chore values of equal justice and treatment for all workers. And let’s be convinced that Singaporeans are not indifferent to our example…