A SYTYCB Entry
Ai-jen Poo and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have pushed domestic workers’ rights into the spotlight in the United States. It’s time to extend that spotlight to domestic workers across the world, the silent force behind the modernization of countries in Asia and the Middle East.
South East Asia’s modernization is often applauded without recognizing the sacrifice, oppression and inequalities it has engendered. The migration of low-income women from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines to more developed states to provide domestic care has undoubtedly fueled the breakneck progress we have seen in the region. In Singapore, where I grew up, women’s high labor participation rate is due in part to the large presence of domestic workers taking care of children and the elderly in homes across the country. One in five households has a full-time live-in maid, or domestic helper.
Domestic workers are so indispensable that families simply cannot imagine a day without them. Singapore just recently passed a law mandating one day of rest per week despite heavy opposition from many Singaporeans. “This is bad news for women who are working,” said 49-year-old mother of four children Poon Boon Eng, to the national newspaper, the Straits Times. “If I let her go out four days a month, it will be very hectic for me. I need to rest on Sunday too.”
Shocking human rights violations, ranging from physical abuse to lack of rest and pay, highlight the perception that many have of domestic helpers: they are indispensable, but inferior. One of the main criticisms of the new rest day law was that the domestic workers would now have the time to socialize and engage in “inappropriate” activities. One of the employers’ biggest fears is that their domestic helper may become pregnant, and be sent home. (In Singapore it is against the law for domestic helpers to get pregnant).
In response to increasing criticism, recipient countries and cities such as Hong Kong, have guaranteed domestic helpers a minimum wage and a day off a week. These steps, while positive, should not stop us from tackling the root issues underlying the migration of female domestic workers.
The reality is that the lives of domestic workers around the world are not so different from how they were represented in the movie The Help. While this movie was supposed to highlight how far Americans have come since the days of gender and race discrimination in the 50s, it is actually a timely reminder that this reality is still lived each and every day in households across the world.
We cannot ignore the fact that progress is often made at the expense of poor women. Women around the world still bear the responsibility of being the main caregivers in their family: American women work full-time but still take on all of the household responsibilities, Filipino women leave home to take care of other families’ children (leaving their own children with family members or with domestic helpers in their own towns).
These “solutions” fail to acknowledge the real systemic and societal changes that need to occur: men and companies need to be actively involved in supporting child care. Governments of recipient countries have been glad to welcome these women as cheap labor without taking the hard measures to introduce sustainable child care institutions, while the governments of sender countries have turned a blind eye to their citizens’ misfortunes, happy to take their remittances into their coffers.
How sustainable is it for domestic helpers to be raising an entire generation of children while they’re away from their own children? How can we ensure the full participation of women in the workforce without subjecting thousands of poor women to lives of near servitude? As Audre Lord rightly said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”. We certainly can’t claim to be free when our freedom lies in the oppression of other women.