THIS enduring poster touched my heart and re-emphasises the importance of the four-letter word: Maid.
MP Nee Soon East Louis Ng, a strong advocator for the underprivileged, is also taking the maids-matter up when Parliament sits next month as he’s concerned, like thousands of Singaporeans, how foreign maids are treated.
“I’m sure many of us read the terrible news of the Myanmar domestic helper who committed suicide in Singapore recently. I sincerely hope we can do more to help our migrant workers and will continue to speak up about this in Parliament,” Mr Ng wrote over Facebook.
“I understand that of those who die from suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder. People who die by suicide are frequently experiencing undiagnosed, undertreated, or untreated depression.”
He says he has filed the following Parliamentary Question for the sitting on 3 July: “To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) what is the number of suicides of migrant workers for each year in the past three years; and (b) what measures are there for early detection of mental illnesses amongst migrant workers.”
I know maids’ predicaments fairly well because my diligent Filipino maid (finally) leaves for home on Thursday, after close to 15 years here, to (finally) reunite with her family. I know now how foreign domestic workers really want to support their families.
But, truth be told, in the confines of private homes many are facing daily abuse at the hands of their employers.
For the record, Singapore has relied on low-skilled domestic workers to support its 5.4 million population. Some 220,000 women – many from the Philippines and Indonesia – call Singapore their home. They are commonly known as the “silent army,” keeping households in order – cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly.
Lured by salaries that are five times what they can make at home, on average about S$365 per month, domestic workers leave their families behind to go in search of a better life, but for some, what they find is a brutal reality.
The migrant charity Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) recently rescued a domestic worker who had worked for a family in Singapore without a single day off in two years and just $1,460 in pay. She was living on bread for breakfast and lunch and leftovers for dinner. Neighbours said she had been quietly begging them for food.
In my opinion, maid abuse must be immediately stopped. Abuse of any human being should not be tolerated. Yes, it is a matter of greater concern when the victim is someone who is in a weaker position and, perhaps, too meek to get help.
That description fitted the foreign domestic worker who was recently starved by a Singaporean couple to the point that she weighed a mere 29kg when she was finally hospitalised. Other maids over the years were punched, slapped, kicked and stamped upon. Hair was pulled, breasts pinched and eyes poked.
CARE AND CONSIDERATION
Yes, I understand these are out-of-the-normal cases, as the majority of Singapore employers treat their charges with care and consideration. Yet, by some estimates, an average of one abuse case has arisen here every three weeks over the past few years.
I know from my journalist contemporaries that no doubt, many more go unreported.
The numbers grate all the more because foreign maids have been part of Singapore life for almost four decades, not including those who served as “black and white” amahs during the pre-independence years.
Consider this: The continuum of abuse ought to have shown distinct differences in behaviour, from the past to the present – considering the better education and quality of life available now, as well as maturing social norms.
However, truth again be told, the tales of maid abuse still smack of primitive brutality that one might associate with acts against hardened foes and not a hapless live-in helper. Arms were burnt with heated metal spoons, hot water poured on backs, bleach put on hands and arms, and teeth were pulled out with pliers and knocked out with pounders.
Rather unbelievably, there are sick-in-the-head employers who use a range of weapons to express their ire: Bamboo poles, belt buckles, bicycle locks, hammers, frying pan covers, scissors, metal hangers and plastic stools.
As MP Louis Ng, who is also Nee Soon East Town Council chairman, reiterates, the continuing violence suggests the pathology of maid abuse is still not well understood and, consequently, not adequately addressed. Attitudes everywhere might spring from the way domestic work is “devalued, degraded and made invisible”, as sociologists have pointed out.
I know considerable labour and the right temperament are required to care for the young and old and to maintain households so working adults can focus on economic activities.
But lingering stereotypes still link caring work with women and naturalise domestic work as something done by other nationalities. The maid’s wages are deemed generous (compared with Third World incomes) and some employers try to get their money’s worth by expecting their helpers to be “car washers, gardeners, plumbers (and) nurses, when they should not”, as a Singapore district judge recently noted.
Let’s be realistic: Faced with a growing senior-citizen population, caring for the elderly sick, for example, is serious and specialised work and employers cannot expect the untrained to do it cheaply.
Many hanker after affordable domestic help but, if their workers are treated badly, it is proper for the authorities to bar egregious abusers from ever hiring other maids.
Please remember: Proper treatment can transform even an ordinary maid into a dream helper!
Singaporeans need to recognise that maids are human, too, and deserve to be treated fairly. They are here to work for us, and they play important roles. There is no reason for them to be treated so poorly.
These maids are not as fortunate as us, and we cannot expect them to meet all our expectations. It takes time for them to get used to a new environment.
The law should come down hardest on abusers, and victims ought to be protected at all costs. Employers should treat their maids with respect. No one has the right to physically or verbally abuse these domestic workers.
They are decent people. From Bukit Batok to Bedok, Woodlands to Whampoa, Changi to Chua Chu Kang, wherever they are, the foreign maids also need decent working conditions in order to perform well.