Sunday, October 23, 2011

Maids in Singapore

One of the strange things about living in Singapore is the household help situation. Singapore has a huge number of foreign workers, and unlike in the US, it is a two-tiered system. Some workers (like B) are highly skilled and highly paid; others, imported to do manual labor, are paid very poorly and work under very restrictive labor laws.

In particular, Singapore imports a very large number of women from poor countries (including the Philippines, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka) to work as domestic servants. The pay is based on their country of origin and experience, and can be as little as $170 a month (though the employer pays more like $500/month when including government taxes and other expenses). They live in their employers' homes, where they are not entitled to days off, or even a bed (many of them sleep under the kitchen table or somewhere similar). They are also not allowed to get pregnant, and must submit to periodic pregnancy screenings (if they fail, they are immediately deported). If a maid doesn't like her employer, she can quit, but then must immediately leave the country (she can't change jobs); since many maids come to Singapore in debt to a job broker, this is often not a realistic option.

Because maids are so cheap, most people who are middle class or above have one. (One of the reasons the vast majority of Singaporean mothers work.) This includes most expats. All of B's colleagues have maids, and almost everyone in the mothers' groups I have attended does too.

The existence of maids is integral to society here. Some of B's colleagues told him he owed it to his career to get a maid (since then he would be freed from all home responsibilities, I guess). Many of the expat mothers have told me they can't imagine life without their maid: one said, "I can't imagine going shopping with my baby without the maid: how would I get anything done?" Problems of maid management are a popular topic of conversation. I had trouble finding a babysitter, because since everyone has a live-in maid, there isn't much of a babysitter demand/supply.

I really don't want a maid, because 1. we would lose our privacy (though everyone says you get used to it); 2. I don't want to have to manage and train someone (especially because she'd be from a different culture and not educated, so it would be more troublesome); and 3. I have ethical/moral qualms about employing one. I know that they come from very poor countries, and that they freely choose such a job because it's better than their other alternatives. But I still don't like the idea of participating in such an exploitative system, which is based on such fundamental inequality. (Maids frequently don't even eat the same food as the rest of the family; they have to eat cheaper, lower quality food--in the kitchen of course, not at the table.)

Everyone tells us that eventually we will get a maid. Not having one is definitely eccentric (and honestly, tends to make people uncomfortable). Maybe eventually I will get over my liberal guilt and get one. But for right now, I am happier just having a babysitter (even though it is much more expensive by the hour).

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