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Singapore's 'Maids'

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Singapore's 'Maids'
An Indonesian domestic worker was recently arrested for hiding the body of her stillborn baby in a drawer. A look at possible reasons why she did not come forward for help and support reveals the disempowering and infantilising environment in which foreign domestic workers live in Singapore.

Heartbreaking news came through yesterday, popping up as an alert on my phone.

(You can find the story here.)

Foreign domestic workers aren't allowed to get pregnant in Singapore. There are cases of women secretly getting abortions. If they don't terminate their pregnancies and get found out, they lose their jobs and are repatriated.

It's likely that this Indonesian domestic worker tried to hide her pregnancy from everyone, then suffered a premature stillbirth and still didn't feel like she could approach anyone for help. It was only when she felt ill and went to a doctor that the truth came out. She was arrested for concealment of birth by secret disposal of a dead body.

There is so much wrong with this story. Firstly, that a woman who fell pregnant – whether planned or not – couldn't access support and healthcare without being in danger of losing not just her job, but her right to remain in a country. Secondly, that a woman who just gave birth to a stillborn child, most likely alone, couldn't approach anyone, again because of the penalties she would have had to face. And finally, that when someone found out, she was arrested (and will likely lose her job and be repatriated). 

This is an extreme case, yet so many of these problems stem from the way Foreign Domestic Workers (or FDWs, in Singapore's acronym-loving culture) are perceived and treated in Singapore.

Singapore relies heavily on FDWs – these women (and they are always women here) cook, clean, do laundry, wash cars, provide childcare and eldercare, and generally keep households running. They are the cheaper, and therefore more popular, alternative to hiring cleaning companies, sending the laundry out, paying for childcare or retirement homes. As mentioned in a previous Byline column, these women and other low-wage migrant workers form the foundation of Singapore's economic success.

Yet these workers aren't generally respected as adult employees. They are robbed of their agency, which makes them vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation and abuse. This is normalised in Singapore, so much so that we can no longer tell how problematic our language and behaviour are.

Maids, helpers or workers?

Migrant rights groups have long preferred the terms 'Migrant Domestic Worker' (MDW) or 'Foreign Domestic Worker' (FDW), yet mainstream publications like The Straits Times – Singapore's only English-language general news broadsheet, and therefore the most read – continue to describe these workers as 'maids'.

Language matters. While 'domestic worker' indicates that the woman is an employee who performs domestic labour such as cleaning and caregiving work, the term 'maid' suggests she is a servant, and somehow not our equal. 

This mindset is why we're okay with FDWs living and working in conditions we would never accept in our own workplaces. It's why so many FDWs all across the country are deprived of their weekly day off, and why they are all chronically underpaid for the work they do. It's why some employers believe that FDWs are on the clock whenever they're in the house (and they're pretty much always in the house because they're required by law to live there). It's why some employers think it's all right to dictate whether their domestic worker should be allowed a mobile phone, or to determine how much she can eat at mealtimes. It's why there are employer blogs like this that are condescending and dehumanising.

Storefronts and employment agencies

But language is not the only factor contributing to the way we perceive and disrespect FDWs. The whole process of employing a domestic worker in Singapore leads to the infantilising and patronising of adult women in search of work.

Sitting front-and-centre in a mall in eastern Singapore is United Channel. Apart from their office where they meet potential clients, there is a big space, surrounded by glass, where women change bedsheets over and over again, iron clothes that don't need to be ironed, and change nappies on baby dolls. They are essentially made to parade their skills, so that passers-by can see them on display. When I asked about this for a story, one of the employment agents told me that this was part of their training.

Such 'live training' practices – coupled with the ads and celebrity endorsements for various agencies – reinforce the idea that FDWs are not workers like the rest of us, but commodities that can be bought and traded. They are here to serve our needs, and can simply be returned when we change our minds. And because FDWs are not included in the Employment Act, they don't have the right – not even in theory – to appeal unfair dismissals.

Coming from policy

At the core of these issues is state policy in relation to FDWs. We recognise that we need them, but only want them as long as they are of use to us. FDWs are not allowed to apply for residency or citizenship in Singapore, no matter how long they've been in Singapore. As work permit holders they're also required to seek permission from the authorities before they get married to a Singaporean – failure to do so can get one banned from re-entering Singapore

The discrimination is entrenched in the system: while other economic migrants – whom we prefer to call 'expats' rather than 'migrant workers' – are free to apply for residency and marry whoever they want, work permit holders are expected to suspend aspects of their lives and be in Singapore "only for work".

An FDW's work permit – and therefore her visa to remain in Singapore – is also tied to her employer, creating a massive power imbalance. Employers are expected to be responsible for so many aspects of their workers' lives; I met a Cambodian domestic worker in her 30s who couldn't even discharge herself from hospital without her employer coming to sign her out.

Employers then treat FDWs not as adults, but as charges who need to be constantly supervised, even when it should be their time off. I've seen employers who have justified not allowing their domestic worker to make calls or have days off because they're worried the worker will have boyfriends and – God forbid – have sex. Almost every time this justification is followed up with something to the effect of "it's for her own good."

This brings us back to the case of the Indonesian domestic worker who gave birth to a stillborn. It's a tragic story and what she needs is care and support, not arrest and possible criminal charges (in which case I hope she gets decent legal representation). 

But it's not just about her case. It's about the structures we have built in Singapore that keep FDWs working in a culture of disempowerment and fear.

(NOTE: There's another term that lies between 'domestic worker' and 'maid', and that's 'domestic helper'. Although this is much better than 'maid' in that it doesn't suggest servitude, 'helper' suggests that the person is there to do you a favour, and therefore deserves gratitude but not rights. Framing labour performed by women as 'help' is also why contributions by women to both the home and the workplace are often devalued.)

#labour rights, #human rights, #workers, #women, #foreign domestic workers, #singapore


Nicki Liang

4 years ago

This article tries to cover the whole gamut of issues surrounding maids/helpers/FDWs in a few paragraphs which just isn't possible. It is so much more complex than they depict.

If we just focus on the pregnancy issue raised at the beginning of the article, I would agree that it is very sad that the lady in question resorted to giving birth in secret and hiding the baby but if we assume that she knew she was pregnant then she knew the consequences of her actions. As a married woman, she may have been scared to go home to her husband and admit what she had done.

No-one can seriously expect employers to allow their maids/helpers to stay in Singapore and give birth if they get pregnant. Our maids/helpers live in our houses; do they expect us to find room for a baby and then give the maid/helper maternity leave while we bring in another maid? And where is she going to stay?

Maybe it isn't right that they are restricted from a basic freedom but the way the system works means that it just wouldn't work. Even assuming they lived outside, how many employers can afford to pay a maid/helper who is on maternity leave? Surely that would lead to even more curbs on their actions?

The fact that they are not allowed to marry or gain residency is a separate issue although I do think that they should have the freedom to marry a local without having to obtain permission (which I understand is rarely granted) from MOM. As for residency, even working professionals are being turned down for PR in the current climate and I can't imagine the government opening up the doors to another pool of "cheap" labour when there is already so much of an outcry against foreign workers.

All these things need to be looked at in context. What works in one country, won't necessarily work in another.