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Feminspire | April 21, 2014

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The Forgotten Feminist Fight for Domestic Workers

The Forgotten Feminist Fight for Domestic Workers

In economically developed countries in Southeast Asia and Middle East, domestic workers — or ‘maids’ as they commonly known — are seen as commonplace in most homes. Often, the domestic workers are women from countries that are struggling economically, with a majority coming from Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, moving towards their richer neighbouring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, and my country, Brunei.

A domestic worker’s job is to clean the house, cook, and even take care of the children and/or elderly members of a household. They stay in the house full time. Often, domestic workers come to more developed countries in the hopes of escaping the poverty they lived through in their own country. In other cases, they are given the bright image that living and working in these countries will provide better lives with their modern resources. The reality, though, does not meet the expectation.

To get an idea of what it’s like being a live-in domestic worker, one example is the Facebook page titled A Maid’s Eye View of Singapore Employers. Most of these stories are harsh, and while reading them one should consider the possibility that some stories are shaped to make adequate living conditions seem worse than they are, while others are completely genuine. Not every maid experience is terrible. My parents have employed maids all my life, and they’ve had many throughout the years who became part of my family. So take these stories with a grain of salt, but don’t write off anyone’s experiences automatically.

Countries where the employment of domestic workers has normalized as a part of society see a growing or strong middle class. Domestic workers are employed because families cannot juggle work and caring for the home. In some families, two domestic workers are employed, with a driver thrown on the side, all of which tend  to makes life easier. Domestic workers are supposedly welcomed into a family. After all, they are being employed and seen as essential, and the fact that some people make the decision to employ them shows a level of trust by allowing a stranger into the home.

However, quite often, employers treat them with such degradation that it has been seen as modern day slavery. Just look at some of the posts in the Facebook page I included above for countless examples of this.

amnesty internationalThere have been many cases where domestic workers become victims of physical abuse, which is one thing that Indonesia — one of the world’s largest provider of domestic workers — has been public about. Growing cases of abuses from employers, some of which have resulted in death, led to the country restricting domestic workers to be sent to several countries unless their rights are insured and implemented by the government where the workers are being sent to. Such rights include a day off, higher wages and better protection against abuses. Although people from these countries — these employers — have been turned off by this restriction because of their inability to hire domestic workers, it’s a step that I personally applaud Indonesia for.

While physical abuses are rife, many smaller abuses that would anger most people are continually practised, which is representative of the attitude that people have towards domestic workers.

An example is a casual conversation I had with someone recently. Let’s call her Anna. We found ourselves in a discussion with someone who spoke about how the domestic workers issue has become a diplomatic affair between Middle Eastern and selected Southeast Asian countries with Indonesia. Anna employed what I see as a holier-than-thou attitude, but the way her nonchalance presented itself reflects the fact that she doesn’t see why what she said was wrong. She said, “It’s hard to get good maids these days because they are so demanding for the kind of work they want to do. Like, they’d rather work in restaurants in another country than be maids, which I don’t understand!”

This argument is upsetting because it signifies the privilege of a middle class woman who has the benefit of working for the government of which she is a citizen. This is an attitude employed by a lot of people. It’s troubling because: 1) it assumes that people of the lower class should not be given the choice to pick what kind of job they want, 2) being forced to do work they’re not capable of is not something a person with more economic mobility would have to accept, and 3) it takes away the rights of workers to choose what they want. If the tables were turned, any middle class women, even one who spoke about how domestic workers are being picky, would not settle for a job she dislikes or has no talent for if she had the opportunity for something better. There is a double standard here that disturbs me.

As mentioned above, cases of physical abuse are coming to light more and more. Even in households where they do not occur, the verbal abuse is something that often goes unnoticed. I’ve listened to people complain about their maids being stupid, a conversation that is sickening to hear. I’ve heard people use nationality as a term of insult, regardless of the fact that our ethnic make-up is close to these domestic workers. Employers often utilize verbal abuse, including shouting in order to control domestic workers. They give the reason that they’ve attempted speaking kindly before to no effect. These are things employers think are acceptable as long as they’re not beating their employees. Quite often, the women’s movement in Southeast Asia talks about protecting women against abuses and rape, but hardly ever do they mention the rights of domestic workers, many of whom have to endure verbal or physical abuse for every small mistake.

I’ve heard complaints claiming that a domestic worker temporarily stopped working because their heart ached from missing their family. These employers argue that they shouldn’t stop working just because they miss their family. As someone who studied overseas for three years and spent 10 percent of my time thinking about and longing for my family, I experienced a great deal of stress that prevented me from doing my coursework. However, never once did people tell me that I should continue writing essays and push through it. Instead, they insisted I take a breather before I continue. Why is the treatment I got so different from the treatment these women receive on a daily basis? Where is the human decency?

A friend once told me that a feminist movement is compromised once they leave out the rights of foreign domestic workers. Although certain countries impose strict regulations on abuses of domestic workers, there is less concentration on the tropes an employer uses against their employees. While feminists in these countries fight against the word ‘slut’ targeting women who dresses in skinny jeans, there are very few people standing up against the use of words like “stupid” or “idiot” against domestic workers who go through miscommunication of language. These words can potentially be just as harmful. Meanwhile, in other cases, employers also don’t want domestic workers who are “too smart” or savvy, for fear that they have the potential to cause “trouble.” Such savviness includes asking for their right to days off in a week, which is a fundamental right that has been robbed from them. In this situation, we can see that there is no way domestic workers can win, therefore compromising their personalities and their dignities. It is selfish for a women’s movement to ignore the well-being of domestic workers. They are women too, and they are living in their country. Women’s movements should not be limited to people whose identity cards state the “right” kind of citizenship.

domestic worker protests

I’m not saying that every domestic worker is innocent, perfect, or above fair, humane, constructive criticism. My family has had negative experiences with some employees, but that doesn’t mean one person’s fault represents a whole group, or a whole nation. Shouting at people who are doing the work you don’t want to do is not a treatment they deserve, nor is expecting them to do everything perfectly all the time. Remember that time when you accidentally locked your keys in your car? It would have sucked if someone screamed at you for ten minutes for a mistake you made.

I know people who are familiar with this topic might roll their eyes, saying that I’m seeing life through rose-tinted glasses, that I’m being self-righteous. But I can safely say that I’ve made the decision long ago to not employ a maid in my own home because I don’t believe in the concept. If you’re angry at how the maid system works or complain about how bad the experiences you’ve had with maids have been, why are you still employing one when you know the risks and difficulties that comes with it? And why is it okay for you to pay $157 US dollars per month for a service where you determine when the person stops working in their daily life? If your boss did that with you in your comfortable air-conditioned office, would you have accepted it?

It is bad enough that domestic workers are not paid well, have no set work hours, and that they are overly scrutinized by the citizens of the country they work in; don’t make it worse by thinking that, as a privileged person, you are given the right by higher forces to control every aspect of their lives, or that they are not relevant to your movement. They are.

Written by Teah Abdullah
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Header image courtesy of Carolyn O’Neill Photography