By: Henry
Recently, Al Jazeera covered the issue of Burmese maids in Singapore getting abused by their employers.

Some important points covered in the report are…

– Since September 2014, Myanmar has banned its citizens from seeking domestic work overseas, due to several reports of abuse. But this hasn’t stopped Burmese women from seeking domestic work in Singapore. They went through agents who bribed government officials into allowing these women to leave Myanmar.

– Under Singaporean law, all foreign maids must be above the age of 23. But again, this hasn’t stopped these Burmese maids, who were below that age. Their agents got them passports with fake birthdates so they could work in Singapore.

These Burmese and Singaporean laws were intended to prevent the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers. But clearly, the laws aren’t working.

Why aren’t the laws working? And could these well-intentioned laws – intended to prevent exploitation and abuse – be actually achieving the opposite of their intentions? Could they be in fact be contributing to the plight of the abused Burmese maids?

Good Intentions, Bad Results

One thing we need to understand, is that well-intentioned laws often have negative unintended consequences. Politicians are often too quick to pass new laws – without understanding (or even considering) these unintended consequences – because politicians are not the ones who would suffer these ramifications.

Take for example, the Myanmar government banning its citizens from seeking domestic work overseas. The intention was to prevent Burmese domestic workers from being abused. The government was trying to help.

But are they really helping? One of the worst ways to “help” someone, is to take a list of their options, and then ban the option that they actually choose.

Why The Laws Aren’t “Helping”

There’s a reason why Burmese women choose to leave their homes and families behind, and go to foreign countries to work as maids.

The reason is the lack of economic opportunities in their home country. Working as maids in foreign countries pays them significantly more than they could earn in Myanmar. Burmese women hope to use that money to lift their families out of grinding poverty. With that money, they could send their younger family members to school, to secure a better future.

And this is why – despite the laws in Myanmar and Singapore – Burmese women below the age of 23 still risk breaking the laws of both countries… and pay agents to smuggle them out of Myanmar… and fake their age on passports to get their Singapore work permits… all just so they can work as maids in Singapore. They do so in search of a better life.

This is not something we can change just by writing words on a piece of official-looking paper (aka “passing laws”).

How The Laws Backfire

In fact, in many ways, the laws only make Burmese maids more vulnerable to exploitation.

Take for example, Myanmar’s ban on their citizens seeking domestic work overseas. As explained above, this ban doesn’t stop Burmese women from seeking domestic work overseas. When there is a demand for something, banning it doesn’t get rid of that demand – it only drives it underground, creating a black market.

Because of this ban, Burmese women seeking domestic work overseas can no longer go through legal channels. They are forced to go through shady agents (who have no qualms about bribing government officials to doctor their passports and other documents).

When Burmese maids are forced to deal with such unscrupulous characters, is it any wonder that they end up getting exploited?

Furthermore, these agents have to recoup their “bribe money” back somehow – which means the Burmese maids must now pay a much higher price tag in order to get domestic work overseas. So the law only ends up hurting the Burmese maids.

It’s no wonder that Burmese maids typically owe their agents the first 6-10 months of their salary. This exorbitant price tag is largely due to the amount of government red tape, that the Burmese maids are dependent on their agents to navigate.

Likewise, Singapore’s minimum age of 23 for foreign maids also doesn’t help. 23 is just an arbitrary number – it doesn’t magically prevent exploitation and abuse. And as reported by Al Jazeera, this law is utterly ineffective – because Burmese maids under the age of 23 are still getting work in Singapore by using doctored documents, and it’s difficult for authorities to detect their real age.

What this arbitrary age restriction does, is make it harder for young Burmese maids to escape abuse. Because it means that underaged Burmese maids who are abused would be afraid to seek help from the authorities, because they themselves are here illegally, so they’re afraid of getting found out.

Handcuffed by Debt

Furthermore, as explained above, the arbitrary age restriction also means that young Burmese maids (under the age of 23) seeking work in Singapore must go through shady agents (to get doctored passports with fake birthdates).

Again, this comes at a cost – a cost that is passed down to the Burmese maid, and ultimately leads to her owing the first 6-10 months of her salary to the agent.

And this high price tag only makes it more difficult for Burmese maids to escape abuse. When a Burmese maid owes 6-10 months of her salary to her agent, she’ll be reluctant to report abuse by her employer – because then how would she get the money to pay her debt to her agent? (As Al Jazeera reported – if she doesn’t pay this debt, her family would be on the hook, and they can’t afford it.)

This is why Singapore’s minimum age of 23 for foreign maids could inadvertently be making some maids more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Now of course, I do understand that age is a factor – if a Burmese maid is too young (say, 16 years old), she tends to be more vulnerable and thus more prone to exploitation and abuse. But instead of imposing a rigid age restriction, perhaps there is a better way.

For example, we could still let them work here legally (thus removing the need for them to hide their real age) – and then, knowing their young age makes them more vulnerable, have counsellors check in on them periodically to find out if everything’s fine. This is a more sensible approach, compared to imposing a rigid age restriction (which forces them to hide their real age, so such problems get hidden instead of revealed).

So as you can see, the well-intentioned laws of both Myanmar and Singapore actually end up creating negative unintended consequences. They end up hurting the plight of Burmese maids, instead of helping them.

(And unfortunately, it’s easy to pass a bad law, but it’s much harder to repeal it. For example, it’s unlikely that Myanmar’s ban would be repealed anytime soon – because that ban has become such a rich source of bribes for government officials.)

The larger lesson here, is that we must be wary of using laws as a cudgel to try to solve problems. Laws are rigid and blunt tools – and most of society’s problems today require a far more nuanced approach in order to solve them.

02About Henry

Trained in the Austrian School of Economics, Henry writes about various economic policies and their consequences.

Article was first published in Libertarian Society Singapore.