Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The de-humanisation of domestic workers in Singapore

I've got nothing per se against people hiring willing foreign employees to work in their house on a full-time basis, cooking, cleaning and perhaps looking after the kids.

But, as Jolene Tan, a Singaporean writer at the f word, a feminist online magazine, argues, the manner in which many maids are treated in Singapore is often deliberately abusive and/or degrading with the intention of dehumanising the women who take on this job.

Maids are usually put up in tiny windowless cubby holes without fans or air-conditioning, forced to surrender their passport, given one day off a month (if they are lucky) and scolded over minor complaints (leaving a crease in a shirt, buying the wrong flavour of Ben and Jerry's ice cream for little Johnny, etc).

More importantly, despite the fact that she may often be the driving force behind the household and perhaps have a closer relationship with the children than the parents, the maid is not allowed to behave like a person.

As Jolene puts it:

One sought-after trait, which sadly cannot yet be reliably gauged by even the most competent businesses, is quiescence. The maid mustn’t get ideas above her station, like thinking she is entitled to one day off a month, or considering changing employer if her current post isn’t working out, or - worst of all - eating biscuits, thus forcing you to beat her. Savvy employers sometimes pick Indonesian workers because FDWs from the Philippines are reputed to be more knowledgeable and assertive about their rights, as well as being likely to speak English, the local lingua franca.

There is a strong sexual element here. Singapore, as Jolene mentions and writer Catherine Lim has argued, is a fiercely patriarchal society, headed by the patriarch-in-chief Lee Kuan Yew. Jolene continues:

I suspect that for many Singaporean women, abusiveness towards FDWs is also connected to fear and anxiety about our own place in society. Patriarchal attitudes simultaneously devaluing and gendering care work and domestic work are well-ensconced in Singapore, but the prevalence of foreign domestic workers staves off, to some degree, arguments about the role of Singaporean women in private and public spheres, by replacing the grossly undervalued labour Singaporean women would have been expected to do with grossly undervalued labour that foreign women are made to do. The hierarchy and unfairness remain in place; we’ve just changed the demographic on whom the worst burdens fall. Which is, of course, from a humanitarian perspective, little change at all.

Singapore is still governed by a colonial mentality and, like in every good colonial society, upstanding women are scandalised by the possibility (real or imagined) that dark-skinned domestics will seduce their men.

Thus maid agencies in Singapore ensure that their workers are de-sexualised, using the classic tool for the ritual humiliation of women: forced hair cutting. Maids are obliged to cut their hair short and wear boyish shorts and t-shirts to reduce the likelihood that they will tempt their male bosses into indiscretion.

To reiterate what I said at the start of this post, there's nothing wrong with people hiring maids or with women from poorer countries who are willing to do this sort of work. But it seems bizarre in the extreme that so many Singaporeans are happy to let someone who they distrust so much look after their kids and effectively run their household. It is a classic colonial paradox, where the imperial masters are totally reliant on the native population yet deeply suspicious of them, partly because they know how badly they are treated.

The only difference is that Singapore has had to import its colonial work gangs from the Philippines or Indonesia and, in the strikingly similar case of the construction industry, from Bangladesh and China.


  1. Ben, I understand you have an axe to grind with Singapore over your previous visa problems with it and all, but that shouldn't impair your objectivity or logic on this issue. The 'de-humanisation,' as you describe it, of domestic workers happen in every country where they are employed, including Malaysia, Hong Kong, China (where I live) and even in Indonesia where you are based. Not just in Singapore. It's definitely a problem that begs correction, but to relate what are deficiencies in employment laws to a 'sexual element' or the colonialism mentality of Singaporean women who fear 'dark-skinned' temptresses is amusing, if it were not far-fetched. Worse, it prevents a deeper reflection of a complex issue that range from unfair labour laws to poverty.

  2. a promising title, but unfortunately instead of any real substance the article descends into abstractionist academic feminist drivel about half way through. that said I'm glad you are at least raising the issue.

  3. Well simply the suggestion that there is a direct causal relationship between a patriarchal society/womens' frustrations at finding themselves in such a society and the abusive treatment meted out to maids. Or the suggestion that such a relationship is universal.This waters down the issue of maid abuse by bringing another party, Singaporean women, into the article as co-victims.

    There are many parallels between the treatment of maids and the treatment of male construction workers in singapore, so i dont think such issues are gender specific. I think the issue is deeper and shouldnt necessary be cut down to fit neatly into a feminist theoretical toolkit, just because the individuals involved in this instance are women.

    Pehaps it would have been more useful to examine policies and the reasons for the lack of institutional safeguards in place to protect unskilled transient foreign workers. Perhaps also this dehumanisation has to do with the way economic relations are shaped through policies, strengthening class boundaries and a singaporean mindset about Singapore's place in relation to other nations in the region.

    Some of article's sentences also seem circuitous and do not really make much sense to me, for example the following.....

    "but the prevalence of foreign domestic workers staves off, to some degree, arguments about the role of Singaporean women in private and public spheres, by replacing the grossly undervalued labour Singaporean women would have been expected to do with grossly undervalued labour that foreign women are made to do."

    It could just as easily be argued that "the argument" about the Singaporean women's role in private and public spheres has been implicitly settled by the introduction of maids. The practice of hiring maids shows that increasingly, Singaporean women are not expected to give up a professional career or shoulder an assymetrical burden in the household.