Thursday, September 8, 2011

Some Malay employers of Indonesian domestic workers.

The Sunday after Eid ul-Fitr I went and met one of my research participants for the last time before going back to The Hague. It was just my (bad) luck that most of them weren't around -- they were possibly out socialising for Eid. One participant, Y, couldn't get time off (though she usually gets Sundays off to come to the school) because her Malay employer needed her to take care of her children (while she went Eid visiting?).

So me and K just had a pleasant mid-morning chatting about all kinds of things, but we kept going back to the same topic: why do Malay employers disproportionately treat their Indonesian domestic workers badly, in comparison to Chinese and foreign employers, despite having a similar language, diet, religion and culture?

I wrote an essay on this last term and my hypothesis was that these employers tend to see their domestic workers, on the basis of similar language, ethnicity, religion and diet as their own young daughters, and thus they want to protect them in the same way.

For example, not letting them out to socialise is a way of protecting them from the tall, dark (read: Bangladeshi) migrant workers who are ready to take advantage of them. Making sure these women dress 'properly' (read: long sleeves, loose clothes, short hair, possibly headscarf) if they do let them go out is a way of minimising their sexual appearance to again, protect them.



The dampening of their worker's sexuality is also linked to the ethnicity and religion. Since these workers are so similar to the wives, they are seen as a threat, possibly seducing the male employer for material gain (citizenship, money).

After discussing with K, it seemed possible that the many similarities between Malay employers and their Indonesian domestic workers sometimes results in the need to differentiate employer from domestic worker in different ways: class and urbanity.

For example, the rural background (and associated lower education level) of domestic workers is used to justify the complaints that employers make about how their workers do not shower often enough, don't know how to use electrical appliances, save water, etc.

Many employers do not allow their worker's clothes to be washed together with theirs ("dulu baju saya kalau kena baju dia dibuang, disuruh cuci lagi, benar!") -- unknowingly they reproduce ideas about purity and pollution that are associated with class. Poor people are dirty. Rich people are clean. Poor people can contaminate rich people and make them seem poor (the horror!).

One of my participants had to wear a uniform every day during the 4 years she worked with one employer, and she was given 3 pieces: 1 to wear, 1 in the wash, and 1 hung out to dry.

"Saya ngga boleh pakai baju saya, ada uniform, 
yang garis-garis kayak babysitter ada poket dua kat sini, 
lepas tu kat sini ada button tu. Every day I have to wear like that for 2 years.
Sampai baju itu rosak, dia belikan lagi! Adoi."

Class differences at the national level are mimicked at the household level. K had suggested that the higher-educated Malay employers tend to respect their workers better. Since Malays as a whole are disproportionately at a lower socio-economic level than the Chinese in Singapore, do they also disproportionately treat their workers worse?

Statistics of abuses towards Indonesian domestic workers quoted by an official at the Indonesian embassy show that Malay employers are disproportionately enact more physical abuse. Informally, it seems that Malay employers also tend to delay or withhold their workers' salary more often than other employers -- likely due to the unstable income of employers themselves..

Hiring a domestic worker is a way to aspire to middle-class urbanity. For a few hundred dollars a month you can have a spotlessly clean house -- you can have the floor mopped every day, while you wouldn't do this if you didn't have a domestic worker. This extra money comes from both husband and wife working outside the home. You also don't have to upset patriarchy -- why make an effort to equally share household chores between the couple and their children when you can hire a brown Third World woman for the job?

So in the end, class differences trump the similarities of language, ethnicity and religion. I find it especially sad that the material (class) trumps universal values (humanity/Muslims). Both employer and worker being of similar backgrounds seem to point to a common ground for poorer instead of better treatment.

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