Domestic Helpers

by Belle Waring on December 10, 2013

The foreign workers in Singapore are divided by gender into two tasks and two entirely different ways of life. I talked below about the men, who do mainly construction, but also work on the oil refineries off the south coast. Women who are guest workers almost all work as domestic helpers, who live with the family for whom they work, and do a variety of tasks: cleaning house, cooking, taking care of children, taking care of elderly or disabled family members, washing cars, shopping at the wet market for fresh food like fish and tofu and eggs and fruit and vegetables, shopping at the grocery store for rice and noodles and frozen chapati and Marshmallow Fluff, etc. etc. Most are from the Philippines, but many are from Indonesia and some from Myanmar or Thailand–some must be from mainland China but I feel I never hear of them. Expats like me would hire them if they were from Beijing and spoke even rudimentary English, because then they could help our children better their Mandarin. Women from the Philippines are paid more, because they are likelier to speak better English and be better educated (not so uncommonly with a post high-school degree, like our first helper, who worked for us for nine years.) They are also paid more because the government of the Philippines has negotiated a minimum wage for them, as I understand it. Indonesian helpers are sometimes 18-year-old girls who have literally come straight from a village where they lived in a house with a packed earth floor, and then they are screamed at because they didn’t use the right setting on the washing machine. They go through training courses paid for by the maid agency, allegedly. I think this is more a spurious reason for the agency to make the fee paid by the workers higher (as in many places, the women often pay a multiple of their eventual monthly salary to the Indonesian agency that gets them a job in Singapore.) The government of Singapore requires employers of helpers to pay a levy of–mmm–$380? (One of those convenient internet banking things). Domestic helpers are now guaranteed one day off a week but only if contracts were signed in 2013; previously Filipina workers were guaranteed one day off a month–oooh, lavish innit–and workers from Indonesia and Myanmar…none.

The challenges these guest workers face are different. Domestic helpers may be lonely because they have no one to speak to in Tagalog (or whatever their native language is), or even anyone to speak to at all. In bad cases they may be physically abused or forced to do unreasonable amounts of work, or not be given enough to eat. The danger is nowhere near so great as in the Gulf States, though, simply because there are so many people around in Singapore, and they are kaypoh anyway (sticking their nose in). If you are in a flat on the 10th floor you can scream out the window, or throw things. There are other flats next to you. Older women counsel younger ones not to go work in the Gulf States, even if they’ve gotten an offer that pays well. There you may end up truly, physically isolated from anyone else, and if you are being abused, you really have no recourse at all. Your employers–I seriously almost typed owners there–can take away your phone and passport, and withhold your wages, and there is no way for your family in Indonesia to come find you. If they were rich enough to do that, you wouldn’t be taking this job in the first place.

Domestic helpers do in the usual course of things go outside and talk to people. They go to the grocery store or hawker centre, or just generally do varying tasks out and about. I think it is a more variegated manner of work and more connected to other human activities. On Sundays they mostly congregate at Lucky Plaza or an adjacent mall on Orchard Road, the main shopping street in Singapore, and meet up with friends. There used to be a grassy place for them too, at the corner of Scotts Road and Orchard Road. They would buy food from Lucky Plaza and go eat it there. Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf won’t let maids sit there with their friends and chat. They have to buy more coffee than an expat would in order to linger by the plugs at Starbucks, to charge the computers they don’t have. But it was a ridiculous piece of land to stand empty, we all knew something would come. They worked round the clock, day and night shifts to build The Ion, mall and attached condos. It was completed in a year, I swear. It has video on the side just like in Bladerunner. “Come, to the offworld colonies. A chance to begin again. A golden land of opportunity and adventure…” The women also send money home using special remittance services, and sometimes meet up with boyfriends, or go get bought drinks by a sketch expat guy in Orchard Towers (sorry expat guy, even you know you’re sketch). Chinese employers are dead set against maids having boyfriends for some reason. Well, the women have to get a medical check-up four times a year, and if they are pregnant, they are kicked out of the country. Abortion is legal in Singapore, so that is an option, but only if you take care of it prior to the test.

I am going to sleep now, so I can’t answer your questions till my morning. We still hire a helper now, our second. She is from the same town as our first helper, Tena Z. [I’ll redact her name in case she’d prefer that]. On re-read I’ve only told you all about Tena. Nevermind whatever.Tena owned some land next to her mother’s house (and a plot in town, but entangled with her husband, whom she was divorcing Catholic-style: annulment after 14 years and two children. I helped her arrange the legal bullshit which involved not seeing his face for 7 years, so she had to do things carefully so that he didn’t sabotage.) She was older than me, and had been working as a maid for all her children’s lives, sacrificing her time with them for money to them, for school, for a good place to live. And god how heartbreaking was it when she went back and they were 18 and 16 and they didn’t care about her. They had only ever felt betrayed. We wanted our family to be the last one she worked for, so we paid for a house to be built on her land, next to her mother’s place and her older sister’s–her father had left the plot in three pieces to them when he died. Her younger sister was working here in Singapore also when she was stricken with cancer (I want to say brain? Lymph nodes on her neck somehow?). Her employers paid for her surgery and chemotherapy, but they had a three-week-old child when the shit hit the fan, so they had to hire someone else also. So Tena’s sister came and lived with us while she was having chemo. She was more cheerful and pleasant to John than Tena, even when she was suffering! Tena was awful to John, really, and we finally blew up and had a fight about it, and parted on bad terms. But I still talk to her via our current helper Malou, and via my mother-in-law, who has kept in contact with her all this while. I went to her place in Pangasinan province, and it reminded me a lot of South Carolina. Flat, beautiful marshes of pewter and acid green; yellow soft sand on the big old beaches; rice paddies but still working, of course. And a man who came around after low tide to say “cockles, fresh cockles, alive alive-o.” Except in her dialect. The cats behind our house spoke her dialect also. She didn’t like to eat near us and she had a table set up at the back of the paved side yard, where the wire mesh fence gave way to a little canal between the back of our house and the backs of the houses on the other street. One house had people playing mah jong almost every night till two or three in the morning! You could hear the clicking of the tiles like anything, like rain on a tin roof. But it was only loud in the kitchen, which was open to the air in places. It was a funny old house. So Tena had a round outdoor table and chairs set up outside the back door and she would sit there after she put out half a damn bag of cat food and talk to all the stray cats. I came out once and heard her. “Do they all speak that?” that is, the dialect of her town, Mangaldan, Pangasinan, on Luzon. “Yes,” she said, as ten or eleven cats ranging from kittens to the ragged-eared marmalade tom who ruled the park fought over the food. “All of them.”



david 12.10.13 at 4:05 pm

I was talking to a friend regarding the Little India riot, and we reflected that there should probably be more planning recognition of the need for migrant workers to be designated places to socialize. There is already a tendency for ethnic enclaves to annex malls – the Thais and then the Vietnamese occupied Golden Mile Complex. The Filipinos go to the downscale, older malls at upper Orchard Road – hence Lucky Plaza and Far East. Then the main threat is renovation or even redevelopment driving the businesses chasing these markets out.

Obviously these places can’t be left to just crumble and turn into slums, but the government has to be as cautious in redeveloping them, as it has been around the working-class HDBs clinging to the few non-condominium residential areas downtown. Like in housing, the URA has been too intent on pursuing the top end of the market, without meeting the demand for lower- and middle-market development.

As with all things Singapore, even the ethnic neighbourhoods need to go high-rise and air-conditioned. But at the very least, buses can’t collide with people inside a mall.


Maria 12.10.13 at 4:50 pm

Hi Belle, thanks for this. Fascinating.

I remember one of the times I was in Singapore a year or two ago, there was a big debate in the English-speaking newspaper about whether these incredibly hard-working women should be allowed a day off a week. The letters to the editor were hilarious: ‘But I need my maid during the week when I’m at work, then also at the weekend so I don’t have to spend it doing housework. I can’t possibly arrange things to give her a day off!’


JW Mason 12.10.13 at 5:07 pm

They are also paid more because the government of the Philippines has negotiated a minimum wage for them

Now there is a very interesting detail! I wonder where one could learn more?

These posts are great. I would buy this book. (I know I said I would buy John’s Squid and Owl, and never did. But this one for real.)


JanieM 12.10.13 at 5:17 pm

These posts are great. I would buy this book.



SoU 12.10.13 at 5:54 pm

glad to see you talking about this Belle. this is a big phenomenon throughout the region – well, in the metropolii at least, (but also in the periphery as that is where the money flows back). and i think that the setting in these cities – these global cities- has something to do with the very real challenge about isolation/lack of public spaces for these individuals to congregate.

re: personal autonomy, boyfriends, days off, etc. i find this whole aspect to be really interesting from a social psychology standpoint. some aspect of micro-fascism or something – it is weird how being an employer can bring out the petty lord in some individuals, even as those individuals experience their own subordinations in their own working life.
in Hong Kong the term for these ‘helpers’ is ‘fei-yong’ (roughly: Filipino servant), which has some minor connotations of possession. not of the register of ‘slave’, no, but not quite ‘servant’ in the sense of ‘service worker’. my friend, who grew up with this all around her, explained the relationship btw employer-employed (in HK) through the analogue of servant in a old English manor. but rather than out on some sprawling field, with an army of fellow servants, it is generally just you, living in some glorified broom closet in the back of a cramped apartment. like, you have all seen how tiny some of the living spaces are in these cities – and yet, they build the servant’s quarters in there no matter how ridiculous it may seem to the outside observer. its in the blueprint, after all!

finally – i get the impression that these agencies, whatever their relevance re: coordination services/etc in the past, have become calcified and could be replaced by a more nimble operation that does not skim so much off the top. but then, the whole phenomenon is this odd chimera mixing the traditional with the modern (circumstances, environment), and in this sense the economics of the phenomenon seem to be only a piece


david 12.10.13 at 6:02 pm

The Singapore government is certainly not new to the importance of creating public spaces for people by state fiat. It takes a great deal of pride in how it used the HDB to do exactly that – by creating void decks – so many decades ago.

The problem is that those spaces are safe spaces for Singaporeans, not for the migrants. So the latter just got… forgotten… amidst all the planning.

But Singapore is Singapore. All the state needs is a single moment of recognition that “spaces for migrant workers” are a thing which is needed, and then successive generations of the best and brightest in the civil service will dutifully ensure that it exists and the box is checked.


MPAVictoria 12.10.13 at 6:30 pm

” The letters to the editor were hilarious: ‘But I need my maid during the week when I’m at work, then also at the weekend so I don’t have to spend it doing housework. I can’t possibly arrange things to give her a day off!’”

My god. People are awful.


Greg 12.10.13 at 6:57 pm

In awesomeness news, the first global confederation of domestic workers was established in Uruguay at the end of October. I am blown away by the people who have been working for years to make this happen, at times being resisted by people who should know better (trade unions, I’m looking at you…):


Matt 12.10.13 at 7:41 pm

Very interesting, Belle. Even seemingly more humane live-in care-worker programs provide lots of difficult, particular problems. I recommend
this very interesting paper by Christine Straehle on the Canadian live-in care-worker program, and some problems with it, to anyone interested in this general subject. It’s a very helpful discussion of such programs, how they might be made better, and what can still go wrong.


Ben 12.10.13 at 8:02 pm

The specific misery of the construction workers in the earlier post was rendered so vividly I wondered why broader strokes were used when talking about domestic workers.

Then: “They had only ever felt betrayed.” Oof.

A great writer is one who makes you pay for second-guessing her.

These posts are great. I would buy this book.



Francis Spufford expressed his desire for a Belle book in a thread from a few weeks ago; his vote must count at least, like, two votes.


Martin Bento 12.10.13 at 9:39 pm

So about what percentage of the population are such migrant workers? Are there many Singaporeans in poverty? I’m not just prompting for stuff I could look up, but I’d like an impression of how well the system works overall in securing a decent life for most people. It is a very rich country, and the wealth does appear to be spread out some. It achieved all this under largely socialized land-ownership. It might be a case study in partial Georgism.


Helen 12.10.13 at 10:39 pm

Fourthed! Make it so, Belle, please!


Ponder Stibbons 12.11.13 at 2:46 am

My mother did the following things to our various Indonesian maids (we didn’t have them simultaneously but serially):

-Constantly calling them stupid, telling them to ‘balek kampung’ (go back to your village), preaching to them about how they are stupid because they aren’t educated whereas Singaporeans are all well-educated, etc.

-Watching them to see if they made friends with other maids and interrogating them about it afterwards;

-Yelling at them if their family called our landline because overseas calls are expensive (we lived in a three-storey corner terrace house with a garden, which costs millions in Singapore)

-When she suspected one maid of lying she forced her to kneel down and ‘swear to Allah’ that she was not lying;

-She once cooked some pork and wanted to give it to the maid to eat without telling her it was pork, to see if the maid would be able to tell it was pork


Zamfir 12.11.13 at 8:13 am

I once visited some friends of my parents Hong Kong, expats from Europe but originally from the Fillipines. From the sound of it, live-in servants in Hong Kong have a similar position as in Singapore.

Which lead to the somewhat scary situation that the condo’s security had let me in the complex, on first sight and without confirmation. While the lady of the house was outside, held up by security for being suspicious. Apparently, that happened a lot.

There too was a grassy space where servants gathered on their off-days. She had visited a few times, presumably feeling home sick. She couldn’t really connect, even though though she came from a not too dissimilar background. Being a servant or not was apparently a greater divide than the potential bond of being middle-aged Filipino women working away from home.


hix 12.11.13 at 10:06 am

“It might be a case study in partial Georgism.”

Hardly anything Singapore does scales up, which makes it difficult to get anything out of Singapore for global use. Whats the most similar case? Theres Hong Kong, the other city staate dictatorship. Closest case of a democracy, maybe Switzerland. Id rather guess Singapore herself will have to walk back on government real estate control, just like on the kind of immigration policy that enables this cheap domestic help during democratic transition.


bjk 12.12.13 at 11:49 am

This doesn’t make me think, “Yeah, guest workers is a good idea. I really hope the Republicans listen to Chuck Schumer so we too can enjoy our own sub-class of exploited foreign temp workers.”


steelpenny 12.16.13 at 1:06 pm

I think I feel they same way about people with servants as Belle does about novels with poorly written female characters. “Helpers” is an offensive euphemism; they’re indentured servants.

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