“Four decades ago, there were 5,00 foreign women working in Singapore as domestic help – cooking, cleaning, and minding children. Today, there are 237,100” (Wanted: Maid… or Master of all Trades?, Kok Xing Hui).
The fact that domestic workers in Singapore are forced to take on more roles and duties – as chauffeurs, as tutors, as illegal business workers, and “increasingly hired to care for the elderly or the disabled, and perform medical duties” (ST, Mar 12) – is probably reflective of two unsustainable socio-economic phenomena: that of the over-reliance on domestic workers and the lack of strong legislation to protect them, and that of the policies to care for an ageing population. And as a result of these suboptimal arrangements domestic workers are oftentimes overburdened, the elderly get less-than-adequate care, and the young families supporting and financing these individuals respectively are forced to shoulder more responsibilities.
Part of the difficulty stems from the compartmentalisation of the challenges, with government agencies or charities working in silos. Foreign domestic workers, for instance, are not covered under the Employment Act, do not have the knowledge or capacities to go through legal proceedings to seek legal recourse, and the screening process for employers – and perhaps even agents – is not as stringent. The Ministry of Manpower, in this vein, has to take action. On the other hand with long-term care for the elderly, two working adults might oscillate between sending their parents to a daycare or a nursing home and employing a domestic worker, and even with the Agency for Integrated Care policy gaps between health and psycho-social care may persist.
These are not problems which can be overcome by mind-set shifts – or changes to “social attitudes” – alone. And short-term changes such as training domestic workers in eldercare through courses do little to address longer-term problems. The supply of domestic workers will fall and their wages will correspondingly rise, as the South East Asian region becomes more prosperous and more job opportunities are created in the home countries, and the demand for these positions in the host countries could go down, if they are saddled with even more responsibilities. A logical starting point, in the Singapore context, would be to evaluate the experience of young working adults who balance familial needs with work requirements, and through research or a landscape study identify both the collective challenges as well as the collaborative contributions of ministries or organisations.