“Maid employers in Singapore have raised concerns about plans by Indonesia to stop sending new “live-in” maids overseas” (Live-Out Maids “Will Lead to More Costs, Issues”, Aw Cheng Wei and Joanna Seow).
Concerns over “live-out” domestic workers – that employers may be “unwilling to cover the extra costs of food, lodging, and transportation” or that domestic workers may “fall into bad company or commit crimes if they live elsewhere” (ST, May 19) – I think reflect deeper socio-economic problems in Singapore. The extent to which many households have grown dependent on domestic workers, in other words, is perhaps related to the difficulties Singaporeans now face when trying to balance work and family commitments.
A ready supply of domestic workers from neighbouring countries has improved productivity in Singapore, by allowing both parents – for instance – to take up jobs, and also by reducing reliance on grandparents for these duties. In this vein, from household chores to seeing to the needs of children or elderly persons, domestic workers shoulder many responsibilities, and with rising affluence many Singaporeans have grown accustomed to such convenience.
Yet sharing the same living and working environment can be unhealthy for the domestic worker, increasing the possibility for conflicts too. Notwithstanding the issues of remuneration or employment benefits, living in workplaces may further increase the possibility of abuse, and it is also near-impossible for government agencies to uncover transgressions. It will be argued by some that errant employers are far and few between, but if incidents do happen it would be hard for a domestic worker to see recourse.
How arrangements will pan out is contingent on our Indonesian counterparts, and even though the Ministry of Manpower will have to craft policies in response, it may be meaningful to consider Singapore’s persistent socio-economic malaise. A recent study commissioned by The Families for Life Council found that one in 10 people spent six hours or fewer with their family members a week, which signals poor work-life balance. And in fact, Singaporean workers may be spending more time at the workplace without necessarily achieving productivity gains, so examining our socio-economic assumptions will be useful.
Such discourse should shape policy changes, beyond recent proposals to build more after-school student care centres and the extension of paternity leave, so that working mothers do not have to shoulder child-rearing responsibilities on their own. And if improvements do take root in the future, then our dependence on domestic workers – whether they are “live-in” or “live-out – could ease, and maybe even improve the way we work and live in Singapore.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.