Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The 'need' for domestic workers.

A promotion of DAY OFF, a public education campaign for employers to voluntarily give their domestic workers a day off, resulted in a flurry of heated comments on my Facebook wall.

The most interesting comments were about 1) the need for a FDW and if possible they would not employ one, and 2) the fear of having the FDW get into relationships with Bangladeshi male migrant workers, get pregnant, or run away.

1) FDWs are needed.

There is an interesting study on the "necessity" of FDWs by Audrey Verma, a sociologist from NUS. In her paper 'Unpacking Economic Necessity', she looks at why Singaporeans continue to employ domestic workers despite tensions between both parties. And surprise surprise, the most common reason given is that they need domestic workers.

Why are they necessary? When both husband and wife work, a FDW logically takes over the low-valued work in the domestic sphere. This is the economic rationality in Singapore; this is how our economy works.

How does Singapore construct the ideal Singaporean family? (That the Singaporean interpretation of Islam also parallels.) Men as the head of the household and the main breadwinner, women as the managers of the family and the domestic sphere.  Even though many women now work, they are still responsible for household matters.

A FDW, who is usually from a poorer neighbouring country, does not upset this patriarchy because she is seen as an extension of local women - but better, because she is invisible and unthreatening to the family unit.

Even better, there isn't a clear job scope for a domestic worker. The employer can tell her to take care of children, take care of the aged, do housework, wash the car... the list goes on. One never has to think about fairly sharing the work with other members of the family - indeed, many of us in the middle class (myself included) grow up never learning how to contribute to household chores.
Having a domestic worker is not really economically necessary, but it sure is convenient. They can do all kinds of work and at any time, because they live with us and they can always be on-call. They're cheaper than hiring a specialist for each job we need e.g. babysitter, nursing home. Also, domestic workers have become so common that these specialised jobs are in short supply.

2) FDWs will find boyfriends, get pregnant or run away.

The employer doesn't want this to happen. Is this surprising? It's demanded by law - take a look at the first and seventh conditions of the Act.

"... the employer shall be responsible for the control and supervision of the worker."

Having a domestic worker gives power to the mistress of the household - the worker is subordinate to the employer. A worker does more than sustain their current lifestyle, it also makes possible a middle-class lifestyle. A big house that is always clean, while they can go about our daily lives pursuing our work and interests. 

Often we ask our workers to do things we would not do ourselves if we didn't have a worker. The domestic worker allows us to have a lifestyle that we aspire to.

"The employer shall not involve or allow the worker to be engaged in any illegal, immoral or undesirable conduct or activity."

Some say that it should be enough to treat the domestic worker as part of the family. But it is exactly this aspect that allows employers to enforce control and high expectations. Some are afraid that their workers will get into (sometimes extra-marital) relationships, have casual sex, or run away. 

But from a liberal-humanist point of view, is it really the employer's business? The employer won't lose the SGD5000 bond money if the worker gets a boyfriend, and not even if she gets pregnant. 

However, from a non-liberal point of view, the common culture and religion that many employers share with their workers prevents this freedom. I suppose many employers see it as their responsibility to ensure the morality of their workers too. It is understandable, especially if they feel like the worker is part of their family.

Let's flip it around though. Would you like to work for a boss that is interested in your love life? Or a boss that would prefer you to spend your free time with him/her? Or a boss that supervises your morality?


Anonymous said...

I'm volunteering at the place that I'm at so I should be a free soul, but it sure feels like they're trying to control every aspect of my life. My bosses have been trying to find out about the details of the other staff members' lives, and I know for a fact that they've been trying to do the same to me via the staff. If I don't spend my free time with them and their family, I have limited options as to what I can do, because we're not exactly near the main road where public transport is readily available. Also, although we are from the same religious background, there are things that they do that I find are questionable, but I am expected to follow, or at least not say anything, about these. I do not like it one bit. Actually, it sucks. Very much.

So no, given the choice, I would NOT like to work for a boss that is interested in my love life, who would prefer me to spend my free time with him/her, or who supervises my morality. I might as well be a robot, since really, I almost don't feel human most of the time.

Sya said...

And you're volunteering - it's much easier for you to leave should you want to, compared to a migrant domestic worker under contract.
Thanks for sharing your experience Jo, and may God give you strength for the remainder of your stint.


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