This article was originally published in Poskod.sg.
I remember being 4 years old and pasting stickers with the letters R-I-T-A on my pink plastic chair – that was the name of our first domestic worker. I was young and didn’t remember much of her, but over the next two decades, my household benefitted from the help of almost 10 different Indonesian domestic workers.
But there was a stark difference from what I felt in my personal relationship with these women and sentiments towards them in public discourse. Complaints by relatives about their ‘lazy’ or ‘ungrateful’ maids were a reflection of the discursive representations by the Singapore state. The reason of ‘falling into bad company’ is often invoked to justify tight social control, which is in turn based on specific ideas about their sexuality.
Through coercive policies on immigration and migrant workers, the law sees domestic workers either as potential home-wreckers or naive dependants. In the mainstream media, they are alternately either helpless victims or deviant criminals. Rarely are they portrayed as sacrificing heroines who leave their families to earn a living.
An economic necessity?
To support our post-independence capitalist development, women have been encouraged to work outside the home since our 1970s manufacturing phase. At the same time, the state insists that the best care for our ageing population is to be found within the household and family. Meanwhile, our growing urban middle class aspires to a lifestyle that previously only the rich could afford.
In short, women are valorised as workers, mothers and caregivers. But the state has never explicitly encouraged men to take up their share of housework. So who is going to do all the housework?
The solution lies in ‘cheap and disposable’ women from poorer neighbouring countries. Much of our post-independence development has been and is based on migrant labour from nearby Asian countries to fill in labour gaps for low-skilled, low-paid and high opportunity cost jobs that Singaporeans are unwilling to do.
Domestic work is one of these jobs. Migrant domestic workers are the answer in order to free our high-skilled but limited female labour force to work outside the home. They are the convenient response to our ageing population as smaller families mean fewer potential carers in the future.
This idea is accompanied by state policies that make it cheaper and more convenient to hire domestic workers than professional care services or nursing homes. For example, the Jamiyah Darul Takrim nursing home will only take in patients who have ‘exhausted all possible care arrangements such as hiring a domestic helper’.
Today’s pattern of migrant work was characterised by the 1978 Foreign Maid Scheme, which allowed women from mostly Indonesia and The Philippines (but also from Sri Lanka, India and other southeast Asian countries) to migrate temporarily to Singapore to work as live-in domestic workers. There are currently about 201,000 domestic workers in Singapore.
Only as of last year were all domestic workers in Singapore legally entitled to a day off. Previously, about 50 to 80 percent of all workers worked 7 days a week. While the government of The Philippines has made it a law to oblige Singaporean employers to give their Filipina workers a weekly day off, the governments of Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries have no such laws.
Despite these constraints, two Indonesian women tell their stories of how they negotiated for freedoms like regular off days and time during their working day to study for a degree.
Ati, 31, first left Java for Singapore 2000 and has since been working for the same Chinese family. She did not have any off days during her first four working years because she was scared to ask for anything from her employers when she first arrived in Singapore. She even had to work in two different households, which is illegal according to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.
However, after four years and having developed a relatively good relationship with her employers, Ati managed to negotiate for a day off.
Because after the first year I went home her child had a high fever… then my boss said “Please lah please come back to work for me again”. So when I came back I asked to not be too tired because they have three children right. Slowly slowly like maybe they liked my work and so because I was close with their children so they were happy lah. After that, no off day in four years so I said “Okay, I will renew my contract with you but I want to ask for rest day, once a month.” (Ati, 31)
Meanwhile, Mita, 34, who has also been working for the same Chinese family for 14 years, had been given days off from the start of her first contract. Even then, she used to encourage and advise other women to negotiate for days off or a higher salary. To her, a good working relationship is required for a successful negotiation – both parties must be “comfortable” with each other and the employer must want the worker to renew her contract. At the same time, Mita acknowledges that only the employer makes the final decisions.
If don’t have then you can ask, if they give you then your luck lah. If not, then no choice lah. Because sometimes after you finish contract and then let’s say you want to transfer or continue your employer if you are good and comfortable with employer then go ahead. If not, OK lah you ask your off day if want to stay. Because you bargain right, okay I will work for you and you give me money. So if you increase my salary I will stay. If not, I will change employer. (Mita, 34)
Both Ati and Mita are working towards an undergraduate degree in communications from the Open University of Indonesia, through distance learning and tutorials at the Singapore Indonesian School. Their track record – whether as well-behaved, hardworking, trustworthy or efficient domestic workers – played a significant role in determining the success of their negotiation for time in their working day and access to resources like a computer.
Sometimes if I finish work it’s usually 10p.m., so I study 10p.m. to 12a.m. That day I told him “I need laptop for tutorial online.” [He said] “You don’t have to buy lah, don’t waste your money, just use mine.” But it’s old so it’s lagging. Then that day I said again, “Your laptop is so lagging,” and “I want to buy”. [He said] “You don’t have to buy, use my the other one.” So in the end I use the other laptop. I mean, he’s good like that, he’s not, what’s that, stingy. (Ati, 31)
Ati has to use her employers’ computers to minimise distractions from her primary role as a domestic worker. Her employers’ control over her purchases is an outcome of power relations of class, since they provide her income. Although she could use her own money to make expensive purchases like a camera or a laptop, she still requires their permission, which illustrates the boundaries of their control.
Mita enjoys more flexible working and studying hours; she says she is allowed to study any time she likes. She earned her employers’ trust and admiration by first going for computer classes on her days off and being open about how good her employers were. Today her employers pay part of her study fees and her phone bills.
The degrees that they are working towards points to their career goals. Ati plans to return in 2014 to her hometown and start a catering business. Mita wants to work in mass communications, and laughs when she says she wants to be a deejay. Their peers, who work and study like them have ambitions to be English teachers or businesswomen.
Even though these women are a small group and do not represent all domestic workers in Singapore, they help us to see a more optimistic side to domestic work in Singapore – it’s not just all about the abuse and crime we read about in the mainstream media.
Global chains of care
Even though more Singapore women are working outside the home, the inflow of women from neighbouring countries means that women (of a different class and ethnicity) remain responsible for the home – keeping state-endorsed patriarchy intact.
But in the end my boss don’t allow me to go home yet, until 2014, then I can go home if I want. But boss hopes I don’t go home, and stay here forever. I said “You ask me to work here OK lah, pay me $5000 a month as compensation, I don’t get married!” (Ati, 31)While family members (mostly women) carry out some household chores and do care work by themselves, other domestic work is transferred to domestic workers, allowing female employers to enjoy the emotional value of motherhood. As domestic workers are also women, with their own families, this shifting of the burden of care should make us think about whose children and whose families are more important and deserve care: the rich or the poor?
Domestic workers are not the economic necessity that the state and employers often say it is. They are a luxury because they facilitate aspirations and affirm status for those aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle. But they are also a symptom of our state policies and rhetoric on what makes a man, what makes a woman, and what makes a family.
 Sassen, S. (2002) 'Global Cities and Survival Circuits', in B. Ehrenreich and A.R. Hochschild (eds) Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, pp. 254-274. New York: Metropolitan Books.