Saturday, June 13, 2015

Domestic Helpers in Singapore

I was watching The Help yesterday, and it reminded me of Singapore and the helper situation here. One of the different things about Singapore, as compared to the US, is that so many people have domestic help here: one statistic makes it about 20% of all households.This number obviously varies with income, and since expats tend to cluster in the high-earning income brackets, most expats have helpers (or maids). They don't wear uniforms (as the workers did in The Help) but in other respects their situations are similar: they cook, clean, and take care of children and the elderly.

Like the workers in The Help, they are also in a low ranking position. They are all foreigners, meaning ethnically/racially distinct from Singaporeans and expats (in fact, one reason Chinese helpers are not legally allowed in Singapore is supposedly to preserve this distinction). By American standards, their working conditions are not great: most work at least 14 hours daily, six days a week (maids are entitled either to one day off a week, or more money for working that one day, but many work seven days a week for a variety of reasons); they are required to get biannual medical exams, which if they don't pass (for being pregnant, for example) they are immediately deported; and they are not entitled to public holidays (though many employers do give them those days off).

All my friends with helpers are much nicer to their helpers than the ladies in The Help. But I have heard acquaintances talking in ways about their helpers that are a bit reminescent of that movie, including not giving the maid a bed (she had to sleep on a pad on the floor) lest she get too uppity, and wanting to search all the maid's belongings before she left on a trip in case she stole something (despite no causes for suspicion).

Now that I am going to have two children, many people have been asking me if I plan to get a helper (I am already pretty unusual in not having one). It's hard to say how I will feel once I am juggling two (never having done it before) but currently I cannot imagine having one, partly because of the loss of privacy, and partly because I don't like the system here (it seems fundamentally unjust) and don't want to participate in it if I don't have to.


  1. Do people ever have part time help? Someone to just clean and/or cook once or twice a week for a few hours (such as a U.S. housekeeper)?

    When I had my third child last summer and drastically cut my work hours (and thus income), we cut many luxuries, but kept the housekeeper. She is worth every penny!

    1. Yes, there are plenty of cleaning services (or freelancers) offering "part time maids", where someone comes in once or twice a week to do cleaning and other house chores. The situation there is much more like the US: the workers are paid Singaporean wages (around $15-20 a hour) and are Singaporean citizens or permanent residents, so enjoy all the legal protections of a typical worker. It's much more expensive than having a maid if you want more than just occasional cleaning, though, as maids are paid around $500/month.

      I have a cleaner too (she comes once a week for four hours) and agree that it is great. I love my cleaner and agree that it is a very worthwhile luxury!