23 Sep 2004

Lowest of the low

Lowest of the low: Foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore
(Singapore Studies)
The PAP government of Singapore causes mistreatment of FDWs by positioning them in the very lowest stratum of society. How does it do this? By abstaining from specifying the legal rights of foreign domestic workers as employees.

Thursday, 23 September 2004


by Yasuko Kobayashi



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?

4 comments:

friskodude said...

Hicky,

Nice plug today from Simon over at his World in HK. And some very great posts, but I'm still looking for more analysis on that media meltdown and perhaps what was behind the whole affair. Hard to believe it only boils down to money, but then money is the driving engine behind most of what happens in Singapore.

And I'm waiting with baited breath for your great announcement on your secret identity this coming 1 October. Are guesses allowed?

Carl

soci said...

Of course guesses are allowed. But if you look at a few of my early posts it may lead you in a particular direction as to my nationality..

friskodude said...

OK, I'll poke around and see if I can discover something about the mysterious Hicky.

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