Lowest of the low: Foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore

This was an article written by Yasuko Kobayashi on 23 September 2004, who is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He also wrote the previous article I reviewed on Masalah Melayu di Singapura: The continuous strive to “succeed”.

Maid rights have never been championed so aggressively by anyone. I find this extremely anomalous simply because the whole maid population themselves can form a powerful lobby group capable of challenging the manpower ministry as well as the government on such basic labour laws. I guess most maids are simply more concerned with sending all their income back home, rather than fight for their rights as workers in Singapore.

Maid abuse can never ever be tolerated simply because its dehumanising, ruthless and immoral. Why I say its immoral is because paying them to be your workers (or servants) does not entitle you the right to abuse them when they do something wrong or not to your liking. Again I must emphasize that they are human beings. What this means is that other than treating them as such, they also carry emotional and psychological baggage with them. You cannot have a foreign person working in your house and expect no problems. Homesickness, family problems, relationship problems – all these come with the employer-employee relationship, especially since the productivity of the worker is directly proportionate to her emotional and physical well being. Sometimes, I must concur that the maid is at fault. Many have heard horror stories of ill-treatment of children under the care of maids or maids running off with they so-called “boyfriends” whom they have met at Lucky Plaza.

But this does not mean they are not entitled to basic rights as workers which include a day off a week for rest or even working hours for the maid. What disgusted me the most was to read a book entitled Foreign Maids: The Complete Handbook for Employers and Maid Agencies, in particular about a list of rules for the maid, which includes her smiling and greeting the so-called employer like a trained dog . Its extremely dehumanising!

There has been changes to improve the maid situation this year, with the age limit, educational qualifications and so on. But I still feel that the professional nature of the employer-employee relationship has yet to be formalised and institutionalised so as to protect such a fundamental layer of the society that we so conveniently overlook simply because they are “foreign”. Here’s the article:

Potential for more abuse

A new government package – a sharp reduction of the maid levy for families with children aged below 12 (from $345 to 250) – to stimulate the birth rate announced on 25th August seems calculated to increase the exploitation of FDWs.

This will make FDWs an even more attractive solution to the problem of child care. With legally unrestricted working hours, FDWs are the ‘ideal’ labour force for this purpose.

Babies cry regardless of time, and children grizzle regardless of time; unlimited exploitation of this unlimited labour force is a likely concomitant of the new baby package.

Unlike for Singaporean employees, the Employment Act does not apply to foreign domestic workers. Hence, the relation between the employers and FDWs is left to their “personal arrangement.” This opens up a huge range of interpretations of what the relation can be.

For instance, it is possible for employers to keep pushing around foreign domestic workers, by saying, “oh this is personal arrangement, you see. No written contract about provisions of working hours.”

Recently, in April 2004, the Singapore government did introduce a compulsory guidance course for both foreign domestic workers and first-time employers of them. And on the 30th of August, the Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen mentioned raising the minimum age of FDWs from the current minimum age of 18 years old. Nonetheless, the Employment Act is yet to be applied to foreign domestic workers.

Maid Surveillance

The government positions FDWs in the lowest social stratum, too, by compelling employers and maid agencies to control them strictly.

For instance, it is compulsory for foreign domestic workers to take a medical examination every six months, and this obligation is left to either the employer or the maid agency. This examination includes an HIV and VDRL (venereal disease research laboratory) test, and a pregnancy test.

If this examination shows the foreign domestic worker to be pregnant, she must return to her original country immediately, and it is a duty of the employer to undertake this repatriation.

If the employer fails to do so, then s/he will not receive a refund of the $5000 security bond that s/he has paid.

Similarly, if a foreign domestic worker commits any illegal conduct, the employer may not have this security bond refunded. If a foreign domestic worker commits suicide, then the employer will not receive a refund of the $3000 personal accident insurance bond that s/he has paid.

The society is thus called on to participate in surveillance procedures by the proffered carrot of bond refunds.

Dehumanising Treatment of Maids

In the ways above, the PAP government creates perceptions within the Singapore society that FDWs are the lowest of the low. Largely as a result of this, FDWs are dehumanized and mistreated by the society.

The most obvious form this takes is physical abuse. Only days ago, on 21st August 2004, another case of abuse was reported by Straits Times. A 31 year old woman who bit her maid, burnt her and slashed her with two knives was jailed for 28 months by a district court.

However, FDWs undergo more subtle forms of dehumanising treatment as well.

Agencies often display their products (i.e. maids) for business purposes. Some display the photographs of their maids with a detailed description of them: age, language ability, housework skills and so forth. These details are called “bio-data.”

Other maid agencies display a videotape of maids. On this videotape, the maid speaks to you about her bio-data. “My name is Sari. I am from Indonesia. I am twenty three years old. I love children. …” Some agencies even have maids sitting in the window to attract customers.

Also there is an internet trade in maids: as commodities. You can obtain a whole set of details of your potential maids as if buying products over the internet. And sometimes you can find maids advertised by “promotion” offers, valid till such and such a date. Hurry!!

In scenes of everyday life, discriminative treatment is equally stark. In a food court, one might see (as I did) a maid told to eat the left-over food from the meal of her employer’s family. Some people have their maids sleep in the kitchen, saying, “A room for a maid ah? No need lah.”

Or you can see this posting on a web forum for Singapore employers: “My best friend takes her servant to tattoo store to make a big tattoo saying “Property of KIM” on her back.. I just saw it and it looks very cool. Anyone else do this to their servants ??”

Need for Policy Change

So, although the most obvious forms of mistreatment of maids are not committed by the PAP government but rather by the Singaporeans, we can see clearly the hand of the PAP government behind it.

Its policies towards FDWs create a social environment where their dehumanization and abuse within the society becomes almost inevitable.

Until the PAP government acts to protect the basic right of FDWs, the brand of ‘lowest of the low’ will be deeply stamped on them, which will cause further dehumanization, abuse and death.

This ugly picture does not fit the self-image of Singapore as a ‘first world’ country, does it?


3 Responses to Lowest of the low: Foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore

  1. andee says:

    tsk tsk, so bitter.

  2. Administrator says:

    I am not bitter! I am just vehemently passionate about maids. So there!

  3. Cindy says:

    I am just curious to know what part of the maid levy that we pay is actually used the govt. for the welfare of the maids! Was searching on internet and read this article! And I agree, it’s inhuman to subject a fellow human being to such behaviour!

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