I see them around a lot, particularly when I visit Singapore. Young women in faded t-shirts and capri pants, long straight hair pulled back and tied, backs eternally bent, picking up a child, carrying grocery bags, or plucking a dropped possession from the floor. I see them in restaurants, sitting off to one side, maybe cradling a tall glass of carbonated drink if they’re lucky but, more often than not, feeding a toddler or infirm adult or patting a baby to sleep. In Singapore, they are called Foreign Domestic Workers, and they are everywhere. And I don’t know what to think of them.
In 2007 (I think) geneticist J. Craig Venter made a comment about the movie Blade Runner in Wired magazine. And he said:
“The movie has an underlying assumption that I just don’t relate to: that people want a slave class. As I imagine the potential of engineering the human genome, I think, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have 10 times the cognitive capabilities we do have? But people ask me whether I could engineer a stupid person to work as a servant. I’ve gotten letters from guys in prison asking me to engineer women they could keep in their cell. I don’t see us, as a society, doing that.”
— from Wired interview with Ridley Scott on “Blade Runner”
If I had enough money, I’d buy Dr Venter a ticket to Singapore to see for himself the slave class that, it seems, everyone does want. Dr Venter’s “guys in prison” are us. And it’s not a good look.
The problem is, it’s like winning the lottery. You’ve always wanted a lot of money but, now that you’ve got it, you don’t know what to do with it. FDWs are like that too. Everyone thinks they want one but, once they get one, they really don’t know how to behave.
Just because someone can afford an FDW doesn’t mean they should have one. I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve read of workers being physically and sexually abused by their employers, to the point of malnutrition, severe injury, repeated sexual assault and death. And it only takes a brief stroll through the expat fora to also read first-hand anecdotes of expat children slapping their servants or yelling at them, all without a single word of retribution from their parents. One long-time (English) resident of Singapore gets so incensed, he deliberately makes it a point to film any child on his mobile phone abusing his/her maid in public just to try and shame the parents into decency.
And because I was curious about this whole situation, I visited a few maid-hiring websites, only to find that most these women are wives and mothers themselves who have left their husbands and children behind so they could go overseas and earn better money to send home. One site suggested that, in order to maintain good relations, employers should let their maids phone home once a week for a limited time and fly home for a holiday every two years. Such actions would result in a “grateful” worker. Could you, I wonder, stand to see your children only once every two years, or talk to them for only 20 minutes one day a week? And, in between, pick up after your masters, cook the food, babysit the kids, wash the windows and car, and go to sleep every night in a tiny non air-conditioned space with zero privacy? I know this because our Singapore apartment had a Maid’s Room, which doubled as a pantry, and I wouldn’t have been so heartless as to put our cats in there to sleep, much less a fellow human being.
But, on the other hand, I have no reply for those people who say that this is the only way for poor families from other countries to try and get ahead. And surely having one ill-mannered child yell at you is better than working 16 hours a day in a locked, uninsulated warehouse making sneakers or clothes for wealthy patrons till your fingers bleed. The problem is so big, the objections so practised, that I feel impotent before them.
And don’t think I’m singling out only Western people here, although they do tend to go a bit crazy the moment they realise they can afford servants in this part of the world. Wealthier Asians have servants too. Hell, I had them growing up — my parents employed a nanny, a cook, a gardener, a house-cleaner, and a driver. As the spoilt child of privileged parents, I used to order them around with impunity, and I cringe now every time I recollect it. J, as a male growing up in socialist Europe, is horrified by the concept of the FDW. He considers the employment of overseas servants as a manifestation of sociopathy.
It probably doesn’t surprise you to know that we don’t have a live-in maid/servant. The kids help us vacuum the place, brush the cats, sort their own laundry, and are often marched into their rooms to tidy up their beds and toy piles themselves. We’ve also started teaching them how to cook.
If we ever needed extra help around the house for any reason (and it would need to be a pretty big reason), I would choose a local casual worker. Someone who could do a few hours’ work and go back to their family at the end of the day. Not someone who would be at the mercy of my largesse. Who’d have to work 7 days a week with only one day off a month. Who’d only hear her child’s voice at the end of a crackling line once a week. Who’d have the threat of deportation constantly hanging over her head. Who’d have to sleep among the sacks of rice and towers of tinned goods in the stifling heat while I sleep in air-conditioned comfort.
These women, torn from their home communities, look so sad, so resigned, so worn-out, that I feel almost physically hurt every time I see them. Except for an accident of birth, I could be that person. And so could you. And if you and I deserve dignity and respect, then so do they.
POSTSCRIPT: I’m sorry if I’m making it appear that only Singapore has the problem of mistreating servants. It’s a pervasive problem. Hell, it’s human nature.