Is Singapore really so civilized? New policies on domestic workers make me wonder.
Sanne van Oosten
Singapore, the country of clean streets, drinking water out of the tap, efficient public transport, jaw-dropping architecture, all the technology you can think of and brilliantly thought-out museums. It almost seems as the height of civilization. Ah, civilization, how much I’ve missed you. But, right after we arrived in Singapore I was quickly reminded that this civilization comes with some pretty icky implications, which made me wonder, how civilized is Singapore anyway?
When seeing a headline in The Straits Times on changes to “Indonesian maid policies”, I had expected the article to be about changes being made to better the situation of the domestic workers who move to Singapore. How wrong I was. The new policies were aimed at reducing risks for employers who take on an Indonesian maid. Only once was the wellbeing of the maids mentioned, in passing.
It did, however, mention the risks the employers were taking at length. “The [current] system has been criticized by employers who have had to terminate the contract with their maid early, and ended up in dispute with the maid agency over the refund of the placement fee. The new system will remove these risks…” Great, I’ve always been so worried about the risks the employers were taking. Of course the maids aren’t taking any risks in moving to another country, working around the clock for ridiculously low pay, while living in the household of their employers, being subject the sexual assault and having hardly any friends or people they can really trust anywhere around them. Nope, no risk at all…
The quote continues: “…and also lessen the financial burden on employers who have problems forking out [!] the placement fees upfront.” Oh lordy, what a burden! Poor poor employers, having to pay all that money so someone can do their laundry and clean their floor. I mean, you can’t expect someone with money to do that themselves right? The placement fees amount to about S$ 3,000 according to the article. So here’s an idea: if the employer can’t “fork out” the fees up front, why don’t they just take care of their own household and clean up after themselves?
Let’s not talk about the financial burden the maids are taking. Or, actually… why don’t we? In the old system the employers were taking the risk of paying for the “placement” and training of their maids. In the new system, the maids are forced to take a loan with the bank and pay the bank back in installments. This means that the risk is being moved from the employers to the maid herself. If the contact between maid and employer is terminated early, she is the one with the loan hanging over her head. So apart from being the one migrating and leaving everything behind, a large enough risk as it is, she is the one carrying the financial risks as well.
Exploitation of maids is not only institutionalized through legal maid agencies, but it is actually set in stone. Let me explain. Our friend we stayed with in Singapore lived in a nice, typical Singaporean apartment. Just off the kitchen is a small storage room next to an even smaller room with a hose and a squat toilet. She uses this storage room as such, but this tiny room is actually meant to house the maid of the household. The maid is supposed to sleep in a room that couldn’t even hold a proper single bed and that doesn’t have any sort of ventilation. Also, even though she would probably clean a proper toilet on a daily basis, she is not allowed to use such a toilet herself, let alone a proper shower.
Domestic workers in Singapore are practically imprisoned. In fact, where I come from, prisoners live in nicer quarters than the maids who work in Singapore. When you see with what disregard the maids of Singapore are treated, one can wonder, how civilized is Singapore actually? Isn’t a part of civilization also the recognition of a certain sense of basic human decency. Yes, the streets are clean, the malls are abundant and the public transport is well-organized, but is that enough to be called a civilized nation?