The plight of the female foreign domestic servants of Singapore (Updated)

Spare a thought for the foreign imported female servants of Singapore. Don’t be fooled by the use of the word ‘helper’ to describe their role. In a 2017 survey of 799 domestic female workers in Singapore, by the independent consultancy Research Across Borders, it was found that at least sixty percent of these foreign domestic workers, invariably female, were exploited by their employers.

The women who are mostly Filipina and Indonesian, and employed mainly as housekeepers and child minders, reported low pay, physical and verbal abuse with very little time off work. Sexual abuse is not unknown either, and these women, in a huge attack on their bodily autonomy are required to take a pregnancy test every six months, along side STD tests, and exams for other infectious diseases.

The study found that only one third of the female workers surveyed reported no coercion or exploitation by their ’employers’ and 23 percent were the victims of forced labor – that is the situation around their so called employment was both exploitative and coercive: they had no choice in working for that family and they were not adequately compensated, well treated, or free to leave. 10 percent of these women helpers were found to be trafficked – that is bought and sold.

These women were found to often be subject to fines for things as ridiculous as cutting the tofu in a way that was not to her employer’s liking. The extent of the trafficking and abuse detailed in the report shocked me.

The report detailed how economically dependent these women become, not just because they are sending back money to their dependents in their country of origin, but also because of debts to the agencies and the employer that cause deductions from their already meager salaries. They are not well compensated, or even adequately, and often are left with an average salary below the average wage in their country of origin. For instance the average salary for an Indonesian female in Indonesia is  316,466,609 IDR or 21,824 US dollars. She would be lucky to earn $900 a month before deductions working a seven day week in Singapore (2021 figures).

​By the time brokers get involved, and these women are tricked and coerced into working as helpers for other women, the power imbalance increases to the point of servitude with no way out. I was horrified to read that some of these women were expected to massage their employers, let alone appalling tales of sexual abuse with the female domestic worker trapped in a family with no way out.

That is not to say all families are equally as abusive to their servants – lets not sugar coat this, calling these women ‘helpers’, but even with the better families and situations there exists so much inequality, and such high expectations for such little money, that it is sickening to think that any civilized person would consider this situation acceptable. It is basically servitude. It cannot ever be seen as acceptable.

Just because you can squeak past basic human right laws does not make it ok!

The patriarchy allows women to abuse other women, these handmaidens of the patriarchy facilitate the abuse of men upon women for a more comfortable place within the hierarchy.

Many of these women are leaving behind families and children of their own. Spare a thought this mother’s day for these women caring for other women’s children, for pay which verges on slavery and abominable conditions. They have little to no privacy, very little time off and incredibly high expectations about the ‘wife work’ they are forced to do day in day out.

One worker interviewed for the 2017 report commented that:

“Sunday is our off days, meanwhile Sunday still normal day, need to work first, tidy the house, walk the dog out, prepare their breakfast, clean toilet first … then leave the house around 9 or 10 and must reach the house before 5 or 6 (at night),”

This is not the way human beings should treat other human beings. This is not an acceptable way for women to treat other women. This is not something to be sugar coated and brushed off as “the way things are’ – it is not the way things should be. It is not just Singapore with this appetite for female domestic servitude, to be frank it is time women world wide should rise up, and say we are not doing this any longer.

As for the traitors and handmaidens of the patriarchy which exploit their less privileged sister, shame on you. I am watching, and when all is said and done, I don’t believe history will look at you kindly. At the very least you are using them to look after you and your children, at the cost of their relationships with their own. At worst you are buying into a system of brokerage that indentures women and keeps them in economic thrall, and participates in their abuse, financial, emotional and physical. If you are white and using Asian women to facilitate your own families because you are too weak or pathetic to raise your own children in difficult circumstances and cannot see the hugely colonial abuse of using women of color to wait and serve on you and your children, for long hours with little break, patting yourself on the back for the small breaks you might give them, then I wish you would look at yourselves and your actions honestly. To be frank I don’t hold out much hope.


    1. The Paltry Sum

      It would help women so much if we could just call out these practices where we see them. For instance if we have American friends over in Singapore, encourage them NOT to employ a servant “helper” . If we let people get away with these abuses, then what does that say about our humanity?

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