The Maid

January 2, 2009

This is our maid Puji, together with our daughter Maya. Maids also run under “Nanny”, “Ama”, “housekeeper”, “domestic help” and other terms to describe what they are or what they do. Sometimes they work during the day, for a few hours or full time.
In rich Asian or Middle East countries (Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong etc.) they usually come from the poor neighboring countries like The Philippines, Indonesia, or Sri Lanka/India. They stay with you and are more or less part of the family, taking care of household and children.

Most of these women come from poor backgrounds and work abroad to support their families at home. That means they leave parents, husbands, children behind and stay with someone else’s family for two or more years. Most of the time they don’t see their relatives for a very long time and work on standby between 72 and 90 hours a week (6am to 8pm, six to seven days a week). The conditions they live in mostly depend on the legal protection in their host country and on the treatment they get from their employers.
As one might guess, in some places neither is very good. In the Middle east you often hear awful stories about abuse. Maids have to perform dangerous duties, are sometimes beaten and do not get the appropriate private space. In congested places like Hong Kong it is very common for maids to sleep on the kitchen floor, and even in our pampered Singapore maids regularly have to sleep in the children’s’ room, or in windowless storage rooms or bomb shelters inside their employers apartments. The pay is far below every local standard, regular fixed working hours don’t really exist or there is no control mechanism.
In today’s conditions, the local economies have more or less adapted to the availability of this kind of foreign labor. This means the cost of living is so high that most middle class families depend on a second income which means they need domestic helpers. Thus, the system feeds itself: Cheap foreign helpers create higher (double) family incomes which then lets prices soar. In the end you depend on the maid while there is no market for locals to work part time as cleaners, baby seats etc. Our family is no exception.

To be frank: I welcome the opportunity for foreign people to work in countries where they can make much more money than in their home countries. This means they can support their children, send them to better schools and improve their life. What I don’t like about it is the insufficient legal protection, the lack of regular working hours, and the poor pay compared to local standards. I think “equal pay for equal work” is something that should be achieved everywhere. In my opinion, the current system creates not only a master-servant mentality; it also leads to abuse and a chauvinistic view upon poorer countries and people. Not very healthy for a nation!

So, please, fellow Singaporeans, start to show a little bit more dignity and humanity and make rules that not only protect the maids from abuse but also create a legal environment without too many grey areas. Make it compulsory to provide every maid with a decent room and recreational time! Pay them a fair salary and treat them like employees, not like servants or temporary slaves! Teach your children that every human being has to be treated with respect and dignity and show them that their parents can cook and clean as well, in order to bring up children who will not depend on servants to tie their shoe laces for the rest of their lives!


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