Maid to order

A maid takes refuge at a shelter in Singapore. Photo by AFP.
04 November 2013
A maid takes refuge at a shelter in Singapore. Photo by AFP.

Singapore’s use of women from poorer, neighbouring nations as ‘domestic help’ reveals a dark stain at the heart of the country’s material wealth, writes BIANCA HENNESSY.

Singapore’s 200,000 house maids are a common feature of middle class homes – about one in seven households have a foreign live-in domestic worker.

At first glance, maids seem to be the clearest embodiment of Singapore’s hardworking national character; each works an average of 14 hours a day, with 12 per cent taking only one day of rest per week. They form a vital section of Singaporean society, allowing women to enter the workforce and public sphere. But, despite their indispensable role, the too-often invisible maid is caught up in a complex web of oppression.

Formally known as Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs), maids in Singapore come from poorer neighbouring countries, like the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Many have university-level qualifications but find that they can earn much more money working as a maid in Singapore. Often, the  money they earn is an important source of remittances for their families and communities in their home countries.

But increased financial freedom doesn’t mean personal freedom. Too often maids suffer physical and personal abuse at the hands of their employers.  

Singaporean press is rife with sensationalised sagas about incidences of maid abuse. These stories focus on the depravity and wealth of the abusers, relegating the maid’s experience to a gruesome list of injuries and sufferings.

The steady supply of maid abuse stories feeds a public fascinated by the capacity for barbarity of some of Singapore’s most privileged citizens. The body of the maid has entered into Singapore’s national imagination as a symbol of a populace teetering on a propensity for violence. Tales of privately enacted horror flourish on the front page, taboo made public for easy consumption.

But, the public obsession with maid abuse has not translated to a significant push for better working conditions and protection for maids. Rather, Singaporeans, who are highly disciplined by the state, privately perpetuate discipline and regulation upon the maids in their homes. Physically, sexually and morally, maids are seen as a source of corruption in need of careful regulation. Blogs of employers reveal long working hours and highly regimented timetables, strict regulation of personal hygiene and restrictions on communication with  relatives and friends.

When maids get a day off (and in a month only about 50 per cent of them do, despite new laws enforcing rest days), her movements and activities are not free from restrictions or surveillance.

Around 50 per cent of employers report that they want or need to control their maid’s social life. According to one report, over two-thirds of maids are not really away from work on their days off; their employers know where their maid is and what she is doing, information that is often gained via interrogation or surveillance. In the lives of many of Singapore’s maids, their employers’ control over their lives is all-pervasive.

The Singaporean state is uncharacteristically reluctant to intervene in the day-to-day regulation of maids’ lives. Maids find themselves in the position of “marginal outsider and intimate insider”. They are excluded from the Employment Act, which would assure them basic standards of treatment at work and protect their employee rights and benefits. This lack of legal protection makes them vulnerable not only to unethical employers, but also to employment agencies which have been known to confiscate passports and charge high fees. Human Rights Watch reports that one-third of maids experienced abuse at the hand of agencies.

All too often maids are thought of as   as commodities to be bought and sold, not as humans who deserve respect. An employer can shop for maids online, or visit an agency in a shopping centre to peruse maid profiles when they buy groceries. One agent’s office in Bukit Timah shopping centre had real maids performing household chores in the window of their shopfront, like mannequins modelling garments.

While the Singaporean state excludes maids from most legislated workers’ rights, it enforces control in other ways.. As a condition of their working visas, FDWs are not allowed to marry, cohabit with a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident, become pregnant or deliver a child, or  engage in “illegal, immoral or undesirable activities including breaking up families”. These conditions ensure that the maid’s presence is controlled, and her threat to the nuclear family – a construct at the core of Singaporean identity – is nullified.

FDWs must undergo compulsory medical checks and tests for pregnancy and HIV every six months. They are expelled from Singapore if these tests show positive results.

Clearly, more must be done on behalf of the Singaporean government to protect these vulnerable and socially isolated workers. Simply advocating for families to manage without domestic help – as is common elsewhere in developed nations – seems to be an unrealistic answer, as many middle class families have a daily need  for domestic help.
FDWs have allowed Singaporean women to continue working throughout motherhood, a benefit to the advancement of gender equality among Singaporeans. It is unacceptable, however, that this should occur at the cost of exploiting and abusing women from poorer nations.

Singapore’s laws and social norms enable the suffering of maids to continue at the hand of their employers – Singaporean working women. A wide range of social and legal solutions are needed to protect the rights of FDWs and encourage Singaporean citizens to view maids as humans who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, instead of seeing them as commodities or a machine from which to extract labour.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off the aspiration of former Singaporean prime minister of 30 years and ‘founding father’ Lee Kuan Yew, who called for the nation to match its material abundance with civic virtue.

Bianca Hennessy is an undergraduate student at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This is an edited extract of an article originally written for the course Southeast Asian Landscapes of Power.




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