By Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE (IDN) – The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) – Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group – has called upon the government to provide free childcare to low-income families to enable, especially single mothers, to find sustainable employment.
In a report titled ‘Why are you not working?‘ based on interviews with 47 mothers from low-income families – most of whom come from the minority Malay and Indian communities – AWARE said that the rise of precarious employment, gradual withering away of family backing and lack of public support for caregiving has made it impossible for mothers of low-income families to balance work and caring for the children.
“People like me without qualifications go for retail and F and B (food and beverages) jobs that are easier to get on weekends and public holidays (but) it is a problem for us unless we have family support,” Rosilah Abdul Hamid, a single mother of two daughters aged 10 and 13, told IDN. She is representative of the type of mothers interviewed for the report.
“Problem for me is that childcare is not offered on a 24 hour basis. They don’t offer on weekends and public holidays,” she added.
In recent years, concern has been growing in this affluent Southeast Asian island state of 4 million people, that as the country’s per capita income grows to rank it among the world’s top 10 countries, income inequities have increased. These would have a negative impact on the next generation.
While there has been much debate on the declining fertility rates among the women in Singapore, and its possible effects on sustaining the economic growth of the past two decades, there is hardly any public debate on the childcare policies in this equation.
“When women go for job interviews and the employer finds out they are single mothers they are asked questions about their ability to juggle between work and child-minding; (thus) women end up taking up casual work and there are no safeguards in it,” argues Carrie Tan, Executive Director of ‘Daughters of Tomorrow’ (DOT), a charity providing services to low-income women.
“I don’t think it’s social welfare policies but tweaking of existing policies to help low income families to better cope with social mobility,” she said, when asked by IDN whether the government needs to change its mindset from providing self-sufficiency (to workers) to social welfare to address the issue of income and social inequality.
Most of the women interviewed for the AWARE research report released on August 10 were in their 30s or early 40s and had two children, the average family size in Singapore. According to national data, the vast majority of women outside the labour force in their 30s (83%), 40s (82%) and 50s (72%) are neither working nor looking for work because of family responsibilities (housework, childcare).
“Lack of consistent and dependable family and public support to help redistribute caregiving responsibilities forces women, especially low-income women, to choose between work and care-giving roles,” says the report.
Recently, the Singapore government has taken several steps to make formal childcare more accessible and work more attractive by announcing the creation of 40,000 new childcare spaces by 2022.
“It’s not a point of not being affordable because there are many subsidies available,” notes Carrie. “(But) the concern is that it does not cater to those who work shifts.” This is an issue Rosilah points out as well.
Also Carrie says that the cheap childcare available to low-income families is of poor quality with many mothers complaining about it. “But they don’t feel they have a right to complain,” she points out.
Singapore government has indeed addressed the issue of childcare for low wage earners, especially because the government would like local women to join the workforce to reduce its dependency on migrant labour. Thousands of single Filipino women are employed in the F and B industry here, brought through recruitment agencies. Government has been trying to cut this intake because of public resentment.
To help low-income families to find employment, the government has introduced various incentives for employers such as the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) and subsidies to companies that allow flexible hours for its workforce.
AWARE points out that Singapore approaches the unequal burden of caregiving, particularly for low-income women, through two major types of policies such as redistribution of caregiving responsibilities through subsidised childcare, and achieving decent work through availability of flexible work.
“I have been job hopping for years,” says Rosilah . “I used to just leave jobs without sending in my resignation letters. Leaving a job is always a childcare issue,” she adds.
“Access to high quality childcare services should be a right of every child, given that such services are greatly beneficial to their development,” argues the AWARE report, which recommends that low-income family households be given free childcare, regardless of their mother’s employment status.
Rosilah who now works as a welfare worker at a children’s home, leaves behind her two daughters all on their own when she goes to work, especially during school holidays. “My 10 year old is very independent… I left her at home alone as young as at four years,” she says, adding, “Technically it’s against the law to leave a child of that age unsupervised … but when I made the decision I had no other alternative. I don’t have family support because I was a foster child.”
Many high-income earning mothers hire part-time “baby-sitters” (if they don’t have a 24-7 foreign maid at home) when they need childcare outside the usual working hours, such as at night. But Carrie points out that the income the women bring home from their low wage jobs, is around Singapore$1,200 to $2,000 a month.
“(At DOT) we are embarking on a community child minding program to develop peer to peer network of women who can provide this child-minding support to one another,” says Carrie.
In the meantime, Rosilah says that fast food providers like McDonald’s have a lot of short shifts that could fit in with childcare needs. Since most Singaporeans prefer to eat out than cook at home, fast food industry is large, even though the country’s population is only 4 million.
“So most work in fast food joints. Students can’t work on weekdays and that suites us fine … they do the evening and weekend shifts”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 August 2018]
Photo: Rosilah Abdul Hamid (centre) with her 13 year old daughter Syafeeqah Mohd Rusdi (on the right) and 10-year old Nureen Irdeenah Mohd Rusdi (on the left). Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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