Millennial Voices

It’s The 21st Century, Why Do We Still Treat Maids Like Slaves?

domestic workers singapore

A recent case of a Singaporean couple who abused their maid has yet again brought up discourse over the way we treat our maids, or domestic workers. The mistreatment of domestic workers isn’t unique to Singapore, but knowing that such is the way that Singaporeans continue to treat maids is saddening.

The discrimination against them is one that is so embedded in our culture that most of us don’t even see it – until it is said. Or when the discrimination or bullying escalates enough to capture media attention.

However, there any many instances of ill treatment that has been and still is happening all around us. Many of us have either seen or heard about them before at some point, but we trivialise them. Cases out there bordering on worrying, but not drastic enough to fuss over.

But why do we wait until it’s drastic enough to pay attention?

I’ve never had a domestic worker. My mother considered hiring one, but I was against it because “they very smelly.” If I was my mum, I would have slapped that primary school version of me for being such a rude and ignorant kid.

I exaggerate, but the point is, it is exactly the little things like this that shows our discrimination against them.

There is also this long-standing sense of lowliness that is attached to the work that they do, since they are figuratively ‘bowing their heads down to serve their employer’.

The discrimination and the view of them being lowly shows in the way we ridicule them for having picnics with their Bangladeshi boyfriends. It shows in the way we scorn at them for being too boisterous when they’re gathered at Lucky Plaza on Sundays. And it shows when employers ask:

“Do I really need to give them an off day?”

I cannot vocalise how sad it is when I visit the homes of friends or family and see that the resting spot for their domestic worker is literally that one mattress hidden away at the back of the kitchen, or in a cramped storeroom. From how frequent I’ve seen such arrangements, it seems that this is considered normal.  

Often, employers find that they do not have a choice as there is no other space in the house for the worker. However, would you put someone up in the storeroom, surrounded by household items, if that someone is a friend or family member?

I’d like to think as domestic workers as a part of the family, since they are going to be spending their life with the family, though to some employers, domestic workers are still merely workers.

I spoke to a freegan in Singapore, Colin, who runs a project that blesses Filipina domestic workers with dumpster dived items that they or their family back at home can benefit from. He spoke of some alarming things he has heard from these Filipina about their employers.

There are employers who would steal their domestic worker’s items. Then, there are employers who would rather cut up clothes they no longer want than pass it on to their domestic worker. I’m making a wild guess that these employers think of domestic workers as unworthy – that these workers cannot possess too many material goods. Whether it’s pride, ego, or some masochistic need to assert their authority, I do not know.   

A lot of us are also uncomfortable with the idea of our domestic workers having their own social life here. Similar to how we don’t like to think of our own family member and their sexual relationships, it is hard to think about our helper getting involved that way. It’s also a worry that their romantic relationships get in the way of them performing on their job.

Though, the most alarming of it all is when employers practice superiority in their everyday actions.

My mother was once approached by our neighbour’s domestic worker in the lift, who asked my mother if we had any leftover food we could give her. Upon probing, my mother learnt that the domestic worker was only allowed to eat the family’s leftovers (if there are even any). They even bought a separate loaf of bread just for her, as they did not want her to be eating the same food the family eats.

It was a shocking discovery. Not just because it is a family that has been living right beside us all this while, but because we couldn’t tell at all. We couldn’t tell that beneath the facade of a friendly family with two toddlers and a grandmother, they would do such a thing as to locking their domestic worker at home alone when they go on holiday.

Colin had also told me about having met this Filipina who was so happy to receive a plain plastic cup that is of no value to most people. This domestic worker was scolded for using a cup to drink water on the first day she was at her employer’s home – the employer told her that these cups are theirs, and that she is not allowed to use their cups.

There Are Horror Stories Of These Workers Too

Although, just like domestic worker abuse cases, there has been many cases of errant domestic workers as well.

There was the domestic worker who killed a baby because the baby couldn’t stop crying, another who got jailed for hitting her employer’s elderly mother, and one who sexually exploited her employer’s underaged son.

A colleague’s aunt rehired a domestic worker who had worked for her family for 10 years previously and left to find another job. The domestic worker had wanted to work for them again as she said other places mistreated her. The family took her in out of goodwill, only to find out a year later that she had been stealing items from their house.

My aunt had a fear of maids because of the many horror stories. She hired one after much deliberation, as motherhood and household chore got overwhelming. She ended up with a problematic maid, who would sneak her lover into the house for some fun when she was home alone. Talk about the laws of attraction, huh.

It’s a reflection of ourselves

These cases of domestic workers misbehaving are just as terrifying, and they can really undermine our confidence in them.

Another colleague spoke about how her grandma would treat their maid badly because of a nasty experience with a previous domestic worker. Because the last domestic worker argued with the grandma a lot and called her names like ‘stupid’, the grandma now behaves the same way towards the current maid.

It’s inevitable that we have our guard up when we meet domestic workers that go rogue. But if one is really so suay to hire a domestic worker who has potentially errant tendencies, treating them badly is only going to incite them to misbehave.

And exactly because domestic workers are humans too, there will always be black sheeps.

The horror stories may give us a certain amount of prejudice against them, but it should not stop us from being humane. Seeing them as inferior or not worthy of respect is not only an unreasonable generalisation of domestic workers, it reflects our ignorance and narrow-mindedness.

Punishing them to the point of abuse on grounds that they did not perform well makes us no better than the slave-drivers in stories we hear about the ancient times.

On the other hand, there are so many more hardworking domestic workers who grow to be a crucial part of their Singaporean family.

My cousin’s family maid, Parti, has been with them for 16 years now and is pretty much a part of our family. Parti has seen my cousin, S, through the formative years of her life, and even though my cousin knows that Parti will leave for home one day, it is still a painful prospect for S.

“Recently, there’s been talk about Parti going home for good. I was really upset and affected by that. It’s akin to a family leaving. I know she can’t be with me for life but at the same time, I’m still really sad. But I’m grateful too, because she had to give up her own family to come over here to work. Hopefully, during all these years, I was able to be a part-time family to her as well.”

Like Parti, many domestic workers leave their home to come here to earn a living. They sell their own youth and life to work so their own children, parents, or spouse back at home can have a better life.

Many end up working for their employer’s family for so long that bonds are forged.

An annual ceremony organised by the Association of Employment Agencies awarded 19 pairs of maids with long-service award – One Filipina was honoured (longest-serving maid) for having worked for the same family for 28 years.

We are only here because we are lucky enough to be born at a place more affluent.

At the end of the day, these maids are but young women who have left their home in search of better opportunities. We could have easily been them. 

Just like how we ‘sell our life away’ in our office on Mondays to Fridays to make a living, the maids do too, only, they are selling their life away to earn money. They sell their youth and life away so they can feed their families back at home. The least we can do is to treat them with dignity and compassion.

A previous version of this article included a sentence that can be misunderstood to imply that employers should not feed domestic workers cheaper food. We have made amendments to address that error.

Also read: We Live Under One Roof, But We Don’t Feel Like Family At All.

(Header Image: Flora Isabelle)

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