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What am I, the maid?

I’m no longer living in Singapore, but found that I had one last post buzzing in my head, so here is my meditation on domestic workers in Singapore.

What am I, the maid?

In the US this is a rhetorical question generally employed by people who wish to draw their family’s attention to the fact that they are doing a lot more housework – particularly picking up socks and towels – that should be done by everyone else as well. But in Singapore the question might well be posed by any live-in maid: What am I, the maid? Employee, family member, slave, thief, or spy?

Live-in maids are so inexpensive in Singapore that they are often cheaper to hire than a weekly cleaning service. Just think of how it must feel to live in someone else’s home, not as a renter or roommate, but as an employee. What rights would you have?

Most maids in Singapore come from other, poorer countries – generally Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. Phillipine maids tend to speak more English and can more easily work in ex-pat homes, so they are more expensive. Indonesian maids were so exploited by Singaporeans that the Indonesian government demanded that they be paid an extra $150/month to deter the worst cheapskates (bringing their total pay up to a whopping $450/month). But in any case they are far from home and the protections that might be provided by friends and family – and even the protections they might claim from their own governments are tempered by the fact that the employer or the maid brokerage service keeps their passports.

It starts right away – the passports are locked away so that, if the maid turns out to be a thief, she can’t go home. Fair enough, sort of, since if you have someone else live in your house she necessarily knows where you keep all your valuables. She can meet up with some guy from her home land – say on the one Sunday afternoon off per month you are required to give her – and let him in to take your goods when you’re not home. So why trust this person you have in your house?

Face it – you HAVE to trust the people living in your house, or there’s no peace of mind. And you have to trust the person doing all the scut-work you don’t want to do – caring for your aged parents, caring for your infant children, cooking for you. But how can you trust someone you’ve hired after one interview, or because she’s cheap? Cover your ass – sequester her passport.

Or it could be for her own protection – that sweet-talking guy from her homeland can easily persuade her to run away with him, and then he can sell her into a brothel in Thailand, Vietnam, anywhere they go with their passports. At least if she stays in Singapore she has rights as a registered alien worker – assuming she has the nerve, knowledge, and language skills to assert them. She has the right to an annual trip home, paid for by her employer, likewise three or four annual medical check-ups. I believe she also has a right to have a cellphone – at least I have never met a maid without one – but even that is a prickly question. Does the maid have a right to privacy?

The husband of one of my colleagues checked through their maid’s cellphone records, and examined all the photos she had taken. She had sent someone a photo of herself in her underwear in the employer’s bathroom, which caused a huge kerfluffle – partly because she was showing a stranger the inside of her employers’ house, and partly because the employer often sees himself as responsible for the sexual purity of the maid.

Some employers sexually assault their maids – this happened often enough that maids below the age of 23 are no longer legally employed in SIngapore (I guess over 23 you’re no longer attractive). But MANY employers want to control all the social contacts their maids have, to ensure their own security. You can see how that works – if she has a boyfriend she can have him in the house while you’re away, and who wants that? – but on the other hand it’s tough on the maid, who may well want a social life.

Most maids have Sunday afternoons off – as I mentioned, they’re legally entitled to one afternoon off per month – and on that day they put on their best clothes and go to town. They congregate with others from their home countries and towns, have picnics in the parks, window shop, chat and snack. But this is also when they can make friends with the wrong kinds of people (wrong from the employers’ point of view), who may try to woo them away or worm into your house while you’re gone.

Chinese employers are notorious for overworking their maids. There are several cases a week where maids fall to their deaths from high-rises in the city – not because they were pushed, but because they were cleaning the outsides of windows, leaning precariously out to reach the corners, when already exhausted by all their other duties. Among maids, working for American or European employers is known to be the best option, in terms of workload.

It is illegal to beat a maid in Singapore, and the frequency with which maids are beaten shows in the fact that they had to pass a law to make it illegal. While I was there a police commissioner was found guilty of beating his maid, because (he claimed) she was stupid. He was jailed, and rightly so, but he was one of the few caught and brought to book.

Maids are trained by the brokerage agencies to please their employers by doing whatever they are told. Yet, of course, if you’re asking someone to run your household, watch your children, care for your elderly, you need someone who will use her best judgment. Being a maid militates against exercising judgment – any initiative in any direction is likely to offend the employer. So if the six-year-old demands a pencil from you so she can do her homework, you go get the kid a pencil. One of my friends found her children growing so lazy and demanding that she got rid of the maid – that way the kids at least had to fetch their own pencils.

And finally, maids have to deal with their own families back home. Those cell phones are in constant use, keeping in touch with maids’ own children or husbands, or with parents. Generally this is a good thing, right, to console the maid for being so far away from her loved ones. But it can also be poisonous – the people at home, unemployed, gambling and drinking, can demand more and more money from their industrious daughter/sister, guilting her into handing them her entire paycheck without any provision for her own future security.

So what am I, the maid? What is the maid in Singapore, or anywhere? Trusted family member? Charity case? Spy? Slave? Thief? This question is at the heart of the incessant nattering in Singapore – and any place where hiring domestic help is part of the culture – about the servant problem, the maid problem, the unreliabilty of foreign workers, etc. etc. etc. I found these conversations interesting at first, then tedious to listen to, because there is no answer, and the maid never gets to participate. What is the maid? This question so puzzled me that I couldn’t stomach hiring one and did my own damn work.

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