Help Wanted: The Domestic Worker Conundrum

Ask any Southeast Asian student on campus whether they have, or know someone who has, a domestic worker employed in their household. Chances are the answer would be a resounding yes. Although this may be surprising to those not from the region, paid domestic work is a common feature in middle-class Southeast Asian households. Having a driver and two live-in domestic workers is generally assumed to be the norm for a considerable number of urban middle-class families. This is not accounting for a live-in nanny hired to take care of newborns and toddlers when a new addition to the family arrives. How is this possible for so many people, you may ask? Simple: cheap labour.

A day in the normal life of a domestic worker would involve cooking and cleaning, among other household chores such as taking care of their employer’s young children.

83% of domestic workers in Southeast Asia are women, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Migrant domestic workers predominantly come from Indonesia and the Philippines, and more recently Burma and Cambodia. They have two options: either to move abroad to countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, where they are promised higher pay, but generally go through a more rigorous pre-departure training program with a labour agency, or to move to urban areas in their own countries – lower pay, but with less training requirements.

Although they provide critical contributions to the economy both in their home countries and host states, too often, domestic workers are still regarded as ‘second-class citizens’. This overwhelmingly female labour force continues to face disproportionate levels of abuse and lack of clear labour rights.

Mothers, sisters, and fictive family members

Furthermore, the relationship between the domestic worker and the employer seems to be more of a ‘fictive kin’ relationship rather than a contractual working relationship. This form of relationship involves affective relations between the worker and the employer, but it would not be accurate to claim that this relationship is equal to familial relations, though it might resemble one.

It seems that it hinges on a one-way relationship initiated by the worker as the ‘helper’ or ‘giver’, wherein she has a sense of duty to provide for the family. Rather than working, the domestic worker helps. This concept facilitates unfair working conditions and long working hours, because it seems that on the employer’s part, it is an act of generosity to provide lodging and food for the worker. Hence, they do not feel obligated to provide them with minimum wage or holidays. Children call domestic workers in their household ‘auntie’ or ‘sister’, further reinforcing these fictive kin relationships.

A survey commissioned by UN Women and ILO showed that about half of workers who felt that their employer was a good employer said that they treated them like family. Understanding this relationship from the eyes of domestic workers themselves is crucial for policy development: while activist organizations may write this off as ‘false consciousness’ on the part of domestic workers, and that employers merely use this as an excuse to justify poor working conditions, the reality is more complex.

Domestic workers tread the fine balance between work and home life, which can provide a unique perspective on what work is perceived as. Though policymakers have made concrete attempts to protect the rights of domestic workers, such as Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, in many everyday situations, the law is not respected. Perhaps what has made it difficult to enforce these laws is because the domestic worker’s workplace is their employer’s home. Rather than focusing entirely on a top-down notion of formal contractual obligations, perhaps policymakers could look towards domestic workers’ attitudes to those they care for.

The worker’s psyche

The realm of work in the case of the domestic worker is for the most part, her entire life. Being required to live in the employer’s home means that her social activities with people outside the household are severely limited, often only occurring in chance encounters with other domestic workers working in neighbouring homes, such as when grocery shopping.

As a result, the term ‘worker’ cannot adequately encompass the sacrifices domestic workers make. While a job in the professional sector may violate your right for overtime pay on some occasions, for a domestic worker in many parts of Southeast Asia, this is a daily occurrence. There is no such right to refuse work. In many cases, a domestic worker is expected to be at their employer’s beck and call. Domestic workers are also often expected to be single and celibate. Communication with family members or friends is restricted to times when the employer does not require their help.

Power dynamics between the employer and worker are amplified since, in the home, the employer is free to show anger and irritation. However, the worker often cannot respond due to their position. The domestic worker has little freedom to move, to speak, to exist. While one may be inclined to argue that this is just a case of bad employers, it is not so simple. The conditions domestic workers face is a cultural phenomenon tightly linked to the feminization of work.

Playing hot potatoes with care responsibility

Truong suggests that industrial work has developed into a four-tier system. In the first tier, we can locate women in professional work – a position ‘constructed around male norms with a formal wage system and protection’. The second tier contains casual workers, which is constructed around female norms. These roles are restricted to part-time work with hourly wages and irregular work. In the third tier, we find the dependent housewife, who does unpaid domestic labour for her household. The last tier is where we locate paid ‘reproductive workers’: a category which includes domestic workers. Truong emphasizes that the ‘arbitrary and personalized definition of work and non-work’ has resulted in a marginalized identity for workers in the fourth tier.

Care work, which is traditionally done by women in the first to third tiers, is passed down to the domestic worker in Southeast Asian middle-class households. It is not only working women who employ domestic workers, but also housewives. There seems to be an expectation to hire domestic workers in order to secure their status as a ‘proper middle-class household’. While employing a domestic worker secures one’s own status, there can also be a tendency to regard domestic workers with implicitly racist remarks, especially in the case of migrant workers: a ‘let them do our dirty work’ mentality. This is what Truong means by a marginalized identity.

Skewed perceptions

Another way this marginalized identity is corroborated is by arguing that domestic workers need to be treated with ‘discipline’ because there have been cases where they commit crimes. This is not to say that such cases have not occurred – some of them as severe as attempted poisoning – but it is not a very good argument to generalize an entire occupation due to isolated incidents. On a purely cynical level, it is precisely this contempt towards domestic workers that drive some of them to commit crimes. Simply put, to employ someone only to expect them to commit a crime during their duration of work is not the norm for professional jobs: so why do we accept this frame of mind in the case of domestic workers?

It is crucial for Southeast Asians to recognize that an increased participation rate of women in the professional labour force cannot be the only metric for gender equality. Southeast Asia is especially reliant on domestic help, and hence has a much higher rate of transferring domestic work from one woman to another. An overly individualized understanding of gender equality may lead us to believe that simply because we no longer have to commit our entire lives to cleaning and cooking, gender relations have improved. Rather than improvement, this might just indicate a shift in responsibility, with the underprivileged woman taking on a role that no one else wants. 

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