Foreign domestic workers have become integral and essential to many Singaporean households. They pick up kids, take care of elders, clean the house, and cook for the family. Many of them are from less developed Southeast Asian countries, mostly Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines. Since maids-related abuses and crimes are being frequently reported in recent years, the question of whether maids should be banned or substituted are being raised.
For example, during his visit to Malaysia in February 2015, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo felt ashamed when speaking about Indonesia as one of the main domestic worker suppliers in the world. After he returned to Indonesia, he announced that Indonesia planned to stop sending women to work as domestic helpers overseas by 2019 to preserve the dignity of the nation. As of today, however, progress on that issue has not been made fast enough.
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In light of this event, I argue that it will be difficult for Southeast Asia to become a maid-less society because regional socio-cultural norms and economic constraints are embedded in both sending and receiving countries, which impeded effective policy implementation.
Over the years, the lesser-developed Southeast Asian nations face greater socio-cultural problems on issues such as gender inequality, the transitions between traditional culture and modern values, as well as lack of education and language skills. Women, for instance, are regarded as child-bearers, caregivers and are subordinate to men. Because of these deep-rooted images about women from the society and themselves, the government encounters greater difficulty in implementing policies like encouraging women to pursue careers other than domestic work.
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In the eyes of many poor families, it seems to be the only choice to send their daughter overseas to become a domestic worker. Furthermore, even if the maid ban goes into effect in Indonesia, it is highly likely that many will go through informal channels to work abroad, thus putting women at greater risk of becoming victims of labor abuses and human trafficking.
Meanwhile, maid-receiving countries also possess certain socio-cultural preferences that may give, for example, Singaporean households the opportunities to exploit their domestic workers. Although Singapore has strict immigration and labor law enforcement, racial and ethnic discrimination still exist. U.N. special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, Githu Muigai addressed that, while there is no institutionalized racial discrimination in Singapore, certain ethnic groups are still marginalized by the government in various forms in the policy-making process. Therefore, it is highly plausible that some foreign domestic workers, who are from certain social class or ethnic group, are being discriminated and further abused by Singaporean families.
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Economics is another factor that prevents Southeast Asia from becoming a maid-less society. On the one hand, strong economic growth in Singapore and other wealthier Southeast Asian countries has been generating greater demand for domestic helpers. Cheap labor cost, hard-working personalities, and proficiency in household chores made Indonesian and Filipino maids particular attractive to Singaporean households.
On the other hand, international migration for work has resulted in enormous cash flows to the countries of origin. In Indonesia, high domestic unemployment rate and low wages force its citizens to seek opportunities overseas. In turn, remittance from both legal and illegal workers abroad are significant for the Indonesian economy – nearly 90% of them comes from female domestic workers. According to the World Bank, in 2014, migrant remittance to Indonesia has reached over USD $8 billion and has reduced poverty by 26.7% between 2000 and 2007. Therefore, it would be unwise for the Indonesian government to impose the maids ban without finding any substitute industry that has the same capacity as maids have to its economy.
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In short, due to economic and socio-cultural constraints in ASEAN, foreign domestic workers should not be banned or substituted in Southeast Asia, at least not in the near future. Looking ahead, to combat the maids-related crimes and abuses, Southeast Asian nations need to not only empower its domestic workers and combat socio-cultural stigma but also improve and revise their domestic laws so that no certain group is neglected in the policy-making process. All of this would help make the industry a safer and happier for domestic helpers to work in.
Yi Yang (Sunita) is a recent graduate of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Her interests include global governance, gender studies, politics and religion. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.