Since the beginning of this year, ten maids have died while working in Singapore. The most recent victim, a young woman from Burma, joins nine other Indonesian women in a gruesome tally. Their deaths have been violent; most have fallen from windows or balconies while cleaning windows or hanging clothes to dry. The macabre death count cannot be dismissed as a daily fact of life, or considered a passing grain of sand in the modern mechanism of today’s society
Singapore represents the world’s shining example of globalization. The city-state is modern, functional, clean, served by excellent services and infrastructures, and free from corruption and pollution. Singapore’s qualities, however, hide less noble aspects of its society, such as the exploitation of foreign helpers at home. More than 200.000 maids live in Singapore, half of them from Indonesia, a growing number that is slowly replacing a traditionally Filipino workforce. They are lured by wages that are relatively modest but still more than they could hope for at home, living and working in Singaporean or foreign expatriate homes with little safety or protection and are on call virtually 24 hours a day. Their responsibilities are open-ended, with some maids eventually being forced to clean the houses of their employer’s extended family, or their place of work. Their passport is withheld when they are hired, leaving them virtually powerless to fight for better conditions. The number of official complaints about violence and even torture is likely to be much lower than the reality, as many of the workers would rather suffer than bear the humiliation of being sent home. The government of Singapore is in the process of introducing more stringent laws regulating the hiring and employment of domestic workers, and is trying to promote safety in the workplace in response to repeated protests from Jakarta about the mistreatment of its citizens.
The same condition applies to the Philippines, where more than 10 million of its citizens live abroad, or roughly 10% of its population, and entire economy relies heavily on remittances from expatriate workers. Practically all domestic work in the most advanced enclave of the Chinese diaspora is done by the maids who hail from the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. On Sundays Hong Kong becomes a Filipino island, as the many maids enjoy their weekly free afternoon, and a similar scene is repeated along Singapore’s Orchard Road
The government of Indonesia has gone so far as to ban the emigration of their maids to Saudi Arabia, after an Indonesian women was decapitated for killing (according to a Saudi court) her employer. The trial brought to light an underground world of intimidation, abuse, and discrimination against Indonesian maids who work without contracts and are paid only in cash. Despite the ban, however, illegal immigration is still taking place, and the young Indonesian women who seek a better life in Saudi Arabia find themselves instead at the total mercy of their employers.
Nations that allow such extensive emigration are partially to blame, preferring saber rattling and national pride to creating jobs at home. Their expatriate workers support their economy back home, but they should have the opportunity to find employment in their own country without suffering humiliation and abuse. At the same time, the more prosperous countries should work towards a more compassionate and ethical society. The quality of life you can find in some developed Asian countries should not be mutually exclusive to the basic consideration that prosperity cannot be pursued at the cost of human lives.