You is kind, you is smart, you is important. – Aibileen Clark from The Help
That is the profound line that remains etched in the minds of those who have watched the award winning film, The Help, which explores the issues of racism and discrimination that black maids faced as they work for aristocratic white families during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. As words of pseudo wisdom by one of the protagonists imparted to a child—whom she had been taking care of throughout her time as maid—the line is also symbolic of how the tables should have turned for the blacks in America. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, or national origin, which led to the emancipation of the blacks and the abolishment of slavery in America.
Yet, there is an uncanny resemblance of the situation in the 1960s America to the present Singapore. As much as it is a dismaying revelation and a painful one to admit, Singapore is home to modern day slavery.
According to the State Courts, there were 26 maid abuse cases filed in 2014, nearly double the figure in 2012. This brings the total number of abuse cases to 90 in the past five years. While statistics by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) suggest a downward trend in the number of maid abuse cases, this cannot be taken as proof of a non-problem. Statistics are, according to Aaron Levenstein, like a bikini; what they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. More often than not, these official statistics are greatly undermined as they do not account for instances when cases of abuse go unreported as a result of fear, and instances when there is insufficient and unsubstantial evidence.
The local media has been paramount in foregrounding the issue by reporting high profile maid abuse cases over the years. For example in 2006, an Indonesian maid was reported to be severely abused by her Singaporean employer for nine grueling months before she died from her injuries. The deceased was scalded by boiling water, jabbed with sharp objects, and repeatedly beaten by her employer. In 2014, another Indonesian maid was reported to be kicked and beaten until she bled and just recently, a couple was charged for causing their maid to be malnutrition.
Sadly, these are just a few among many others that went unreported; maids in Singapore face a slew of other unjustified and unreasonable mistreatments such as sleep deprivation, confinements, sexual harassments, and bans on ownership of communication devices. The situation here appears to be graver than we think and it is high time that we take a closer look at the issue of domestic workers in Singapore before it escalates to become a societal norm; a situation that is unduly accepted.
Domestic workers in Singapore are not legally recognised by the government as part of the workforce. Due to the nature of their labour as reproductive work—a term referring to the work done to care for, nurture, and sustain human beings and that is typically done by a woman—domestic workers are seen as mere outsourced assistants to the women that they are helping. Despite being paid, their non-representation in the workforce means that there is a lack of formal and structural guide to their labour maintenance. The onus is then transferred to their direct employers to ascertain their duties, with the flawed assumption that they will uphold the ethical responsibility to care for their employee. For that reason too, maids in Singapore bear the brunt of employers’ negligence which is further exacerbated by the lack of legal worker’s protection.
As the Singapore workforce witnesses an increasing participation of women, domestic workers are also playing an increasingly important role. Without them, Singapore risks a threat on her social fundament; undermanaged households, uncared children and elderlies, etc. While the government has taken great strides in expanding protection for maids, more can still be done to not only recognise them as a significant player in Singapore’s society but also to empower them.
Of course, it is convenient to call out on the government to protect Singapore’s domestic workers. However, change begins from the ground.
The dynamics of our affluent society has arguably played a massive role in giving rise to the current domestic worker issue here. While we have worked our way up and out of our poverty-stricken days, it is apparent that we are still inadequate in living the high life. We use our material wealth as a measure of our status. The years that we have poured into slaving our way up to a level of perceived superiority impressed us to become self-entitled snobs. We voluntarily stratify our society and recreate the bourgeoisie and proletariat divide: the rich and the poor, the elites and the pariahs.
Them and us.
At the same time, we are quick to go to social media and type aggressively to condemn the injustice present in other countries. We lambast India’s caste system and call out on Malaysia’s pro-Malay policies. We demand for flatter hierarchy at our workplaces and we recognise the ills of discrimination. We smash Wee Shu Min’s ‘get out of my elite, uncaring face’ and we stomp on some of our ministers’ insensitive and elite remarks. Yet, we are oblivious to the stratification that we have purposefully erected and reinforced in our own households.
Let us not be consumed by excessive self-gratification and our own hypocrisy. As we continue to prosper, let us not forget the pockets of people that have helped us achieve that vision. Rather than commodifying them as objects that can be bargained and sold in the marketplace, we should see them as our equals. We need to end the slavery that we have started as a result of our meteoric rise as a nation. As our wealth grow, so should our civic conscience and responsibility. After all, we breathe the same air and we tread the same soil.
Above all else, we are all kind, smart, and important.
Zai is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore and he is currently in his honours year. He reads like he breathes, unless he is stuffing his face in the bellies of his three fat cats. His tagline has always been, ‘Spread legs, not war’ but people always ask for more. He wonders why.