Saturday, May 11, 2013

Housework and the City: A Tale of Muslim Domestic Workers

This article was originally published at Aquila Style on 10 May 2013.
Two women from Indonesian recount the challenges they face in practising Islam in a way that is important to them, while working with employers in Singapore.

It’s a combination of circumstances, time and the type of work that I do now to earn money to help my family.

Wati (not her real name) is a 31-year-old Indonesian Muslim woman from Java who has been working as a live-in domestic worker for a Chinese employer – who is Christian – for almost 13 years now. When she first arrived in her employer’s house 13 years ago, she was told that she was forbidden from performing solat, or ritual prayer, in the house. Afraid to anger her employer and her labour agent, and thinking about the debt of almost S$2000 (US$1600) she incurred in getting to Singapore, she meekly nodded ‘yes’. If she had protested, she might have been blacklisted, terminated and sent back to her homeland of Indonesia – just like the stories she had heard in the Jakarta holding centre before flying to Singapore.

Singapore is currently temporarily ‘home’ to at least an estimated 201,000 migrant domestic workers, who are usually referred to as foreign domestic workers or ‘foreign maids’. Since the 1980s, Singapore and other global cities in Asia and the Middle East have been looking to ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’ (female) labour from poorer countries as substitutes for the high cost of local labour. This increasing demand over the last decade means that more and more Indonesian women are migrating for work, with their movement being made easier by offers of capital in the form of debt.

Why did Singapore allow the influx of migrant domestic workers in the 1980s? Why do Singaporeans today hire domestic workers? Economic necessity is the most popular answer to both questions. During the post-independence manufacturing boom of the 1970s, more women started working outside the home. Someone had to pick up the burden of housework and childcare in the (female) domestic sphere; domestic workers from poorer neighbouring countries were the most feasible and logical option in order to free Singapore’s scarce resource of local female labour to engage in high-skilled paid employment outside the home.

The existing pattern of migrant work in Singapore is characterised by the Foreign Maid Scheme of 1978, where women from mostly Indonesia and the Philippines were allowed to migrate to Singapore to work as live-in domestic workers. Most of the women from Indonesia are Muslim, while those from the Philippines are mostly Catholic. However, greater numbers of Indonesian workers were hired in 1995, after the hanging of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino domestic worker, for murder. The execution strained relations between Singapore and the Philippines and resulted in a temporary ban on the deployment of Filipina workers to Singapore.

Two years ago, I spent a few months speaking to some domestic workers about their relationship with their employers; specifically investigating how they negotiated for certain freedoms such as what they were allowed to do while living in their employers’ houses (eg using mobile phones or computers). In this article I speak to the two of them again to find out how they expressed their Muslim identities while working.

‘Perhaps God will forgive me’

I was only following my employers’ demands. I had to accompany their children to church, and almost every day I had to handle and cook pork, which was clearly forbidden in Islam. That was perhaps my fault that I agreed and wanted to work in such conditions. But it was only because I desperately wanted to get an employer…

During the first few years of working for her Chinese employer, Wati was not allowed to pray, fast, eat the foods that she preferred (including halal food), or recite the Qur’an, as she was afraid of being caught. Even though she was receiving a salary far beyond what she could earn back in Indonesia, without being able to fulfil her religious obligations, her life felt dark, as if she had no religion at all. She would think, ‘Perhaps God will forgive me, because my intention is to work and to carry out my tasks.’

Some say such clashes of beliefs happen with Chinese employers, and that Malay employers, most of whom are Muslim, are generally more understanding to Muslim domestic workers. For example, my family not only encouraged our domestic workers to pray and fast, but they also expected them to, regardless of how the women themselves related to their faith. My family expected that a pious worker would not cause any problems such as running away, having a boyfriend, or expecting too much freedom.

‘No time to pray’

Sinta (not her real name), a 35-year-old from Java, was glad to finally be working with a Malay family after transferring between Chinese and Indian employers six times, ‘because those Chinese employers they eat pork. If I have to cook pork, every day I wash my hands with earth.’

Sinta so valued having an employer of the same cultural background and religion, that she was willing to accept a lower salary and less-than-ideal working conditions. Despite being paid late and about S$100 less than the market rate of S$500 (for an experienced worker), and having six children to take care of, she still felt it important to have a Muslim employer so she would be allowed to pray and fast, among other things.

Alhamdulilah, with this one, they let me pray, but no time to pray.

Unfortunately for a domestic worker, work always comes first. Live-in domestic workers are often expected to be on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even though they are now entitled to a day off, by Singapore law. The finer details of how much privacy and day-to-day rest time are usually left to the goodwill of the employer. For Sinta, even though her employers had agreed to give her Sundays off, when they had to attend an event like a wedding, this usually meant that she had to stay at home to take care of the younger children.

When life gives you lemons…

Despite these gloomy accounts, these women also show us how to make the best of such a situation. During her first Ramadhan, Wati longed to fast and decided to do so in secret. She fasted for the first day of Ramadhan with just a glass of water for sahur (pre-dawn meal) because she was afraid to take any food without her employers’ permission. At lunch, she stored her share of food away neatly in the refrigerator for the next day’s sahur, and told her employer she had eaten. She managed to do this for two weeks until she was caught having sahur by her employer, who reported her to the labour agency. Rebukes and tears ensued. Although her employers feared for her safety and energy levels during Ramadhan, Wati was not convinced, but decided not to continue fasting and tried her best to be ‘good, hardworking and willing to learn’.

When her contract came to an end after two years, she wanted to go home. But when her employers wanted her to renew her contract by offering a salary increase, she took the opportunity to negotiate.

Okay M’am, I want to continue and work with M’am, as long as I am allowed to pray, and fast during Ramadhan, because these are my religious obligations, just like when M’am goes to church to pray and surrender to God.

Eventually her employer agreed, as long as she did not neglect her work and did not influence the children by praying or fasting in front of them.

As for Sinta, even though she does not get a consistent salary, she is able to bank on the common religion and cultural background of her employers to understand her religious and academic pursuits. She first asked to take an English class and a sewing course at a nearby mosque. Since she wears the hijab (which reassured her employers that she was a ‘good woman’) and the classes were held at a mosque, it was easy to convince her employers to give her a day off on Sunday to attend these classes.

Even when I used to work three days three nights because of Hari Raya Puasa [Eid ul-Fitr], we always work more, making cookies and whatnot, but the ang pow [cash gift] is only ten dollars. But grateful, alhamdulilah! At least got ang pow.

Sinta shows gratitude and relief for the ease of working with a Malay Muslim employer. Even though she could earn more elsewhere, she thinks she might not be able to practise her religion as freely as she could with her current employers. For Sinta, being able to be a Muslim without fear was the most important factor.


While the experiences of Wati and Sinta are not representative of all Muslim domestic workers, Chinese or Malay employers, or non-Muslim and Muslim employers, they do help to make us aware of the situations faced by women who work in a legal labour arrangement where good treatment is highly dependent on the goodwill of one’s employer. Having an employer of a common cultural or religious background is no guarantee of their attitudes, which can also change over time.

So, who says it’s difficult to be a Muslim?
In fact, it depends on how an individual handles it, because from my own experience and patience, I managed to carry out my duties to my employer and to God.

While Wati and Sinta have shown extraordinary patience and tenacity in handling their circumstances, employers also have to go beyond the idea of treating their workers as subordinates and more as co-workers in managing a household. Treating workers with the dignity and respect they deserve is likely to result in cooperation and a more productive and pleasant working relationship.

Quotes from this article were sourced from Open SEAM and the author’s master’s thesis.

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