In less than a decade, the number of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore has spiked to approximately 27% — from about 201,000 in 2010 to 255,800 this year.
Today, every fifth Singaporean household has a maid. In 1990, the ratio was about one in 13, with about 50,000 maids then.
With increasing affluence, a prevalence of dual-income parents and a rapidly ageing population, Singapore families’ dependence on FDWs is set to increase even further.
For many Singaporeans, hiring a FDW is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity.
How many foreign domestic workers are there in Singapore?
As of 2011, there were 201,000 female domestic workers in Singapore on Work Permits as reported by the Ministry of Manpower. Today, there are 250,000 foreign domestic workers who contribute over US$8.2 billion (S$11.2 billion) to the Singapore economy. This was indicated in a study commissioned by the information services company Experian and Hong Kong charity Enrich.
Where do they come from? The majority, by far, are from Indonesia and the Philippines; smaller numbers come from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Thailand, and Bangladesh.
But why do women from these countries seek employment as domestic workers in Singapore? Most are trying to support their families. Their earnings go towards paying for the education of children, brothers and sisters, buying land, extending a family home or simply enabling a family to pay its bills. A few manage to save up money towards starting a small business when they return home.
Can Singaporeans do without maids?
Over the years, maids have become essential to the smooth running of many Singaporean households. They accompany children to school and fetch them, attend to their elderly charges at the hospital and keep Singaporean homes clean, among their many roles. For Singaporeans who work irregular hours, the maids’ presence at home is an “added comfort.”
How did Singaporeans become so dependent on them?
Between the 1930s to 1960s, only expatriates and wealthy local employers were able to get live-in help in Singapore. This was the time of the legendary amahs, women who hail mostly from Guangdong province in China and have become distinct because of their plaited hair and “uniforms” comprised of white blouses and black pants.
Regarded as part of the family, they were figures of respect. Most families gave their amahs the leeway to discipline the children, allowing them to function as another “parent.”
But with Singapore’s fast industrialisation in the late 1960s, more and more Singaporean women got hired in factories and offices, which led to the need for paid domestic help to look after the home.
This development prompted the government to introduce the Foreign Domestic Servant Scheme in 1978, enabling women from adjacent countries, including the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, to be employed as paid domestic help.
From a base of about 5,000 in the late 1970s, the number has grown and continues to rise until today.
Contributing to the rise is the increase in the labour force participation rate of married Singaporean women comprising of citizens and permanent residents from 14.7% in 1970 to 63.2% in 2018.
Unlike the much-loved amahs, maids today are treated by many families as an employee who resides with them in their homes.
The skills required of a maid are also higher today. Some are expected to help children with ever-demanding homework and to have the computer skills to assist them; care for the elderly, which has become more complex in terms of nursing skills; and run the home, which involves operating sophisticated appliances and being able to cook according to dietary demands.
Thus, the increasing demands that a domestic helper has to meet inside a Singaporean household make her an extremely necessary “personality” in the daily life of Singaporeans, regardless of whether these Singaporean employers are expatriates, wealthy people or just ordinary members of Singapore’s workforce. -/TISG