By Veera Velu
The recent debate on whether domestic helpers in Singapore should be given a mandatory day off is appalling. By this I don’t even mean that some of the arguments are reprehensible, though they are and I will highlight some of them. I mean that the very fact that there is any debate and that there needs to be a regulation in place to ensure we treat human beings as human beings is disgraceful.
Here is a sampling of some of the offensive and degenerate comments made in response to the suggestion of this regulation (text copied as found):
“Yippeee hooray! Maids get to get weekly off days by Jan 1st 2013. More horny maids will get more sex with more virile Blangladeshi labourers! More maids will get pregnant! More off day maids will spend and borrow more money and more maids will be indebted. More maids will become thieving maids! More maids may get killed by crimes of emotion. More employers will have more and more maids’ troubles on their hands. Inevitably, more employers will loose more money to replace more maids!” (AsiaOne News Comments Forum)
“Easy for you to say maids are human, give them freedom bla bla, but can’t you see if the maid gets pregnant there’s a hefty 5k fine for you? that’s the main issue for most. Dam if you do dam if you don’t…” (Stomp!)
“With mandatory off days for maids, geyland’s budget hotels [Geylang is where one will find Singapore’s red light district) will be in for a booiming business. Maybe more killings.” (AsiaOne News Comments Forum)
“Good for those Hotels at Geylang earn alot of money.Better have sex with Bengalla than their Master”(Stomp!)
This is quite clearly, first and foremost, a human issue – whether domestic helpers are men or women is ultimately beside the point. Regardless of gender, domestic helpers are human beings whose employment (and human) rights should be no different from those of any other member of the workforce (and any human being).
It has however become a feminist issue because a) the majority of domestic helpers in Singapore are women and more so because b) one of the most outstanding arguments made against giving them the day off is that this day off would provide them opportunities to develop romantic relationships and/or have sex which might then lead to them getting pregnant. There is also the recurring suggestion on online forums that a day off for domestic helpers will increase prostitution – the gross assumption being that domestic helpers, who are mostly from impoverished communities in The Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka and Cambodia, will use their day off to engage in illegal prostitution to supplement their income.
It is rather frightening that there are people who are against female domestic helpers having romantic and/or sexual relationships and also people who do not believe these women have a right to make choices about getting pregnant. The assumption is that if they do become pregnant, it is most certainly a careless and irresponsible mistake. Additionally, implying that these women would necessarily use their time off to prostitute themselves is both unjustified and betrays disturbing prejudices against women, particularly women who come from impoverished communities.
There are of course many who support the regulation and have come forward to argue the case for human rights and respect saying that domestic helpers are entitled, like everyone else, to companionship, romantic love, intimacy and sex and that the very fact that they are far from their homes and families means they especially need some of these things.
The comments from those who are against the ruling reveal concerns about how domestic helpers would spend their day off and what responsibilities would fall on employers should their domestic helpers get pregnant or ‘into trouble’. It would seem fair to be concerned about the former if employers were to be liable for what their employees do in their time off.
There has been much contention around this point, as foreign domestic helper contracts require that once a domestic helper gets pregnant she must be deported. Her employer would forfeit the security bond they would have paid to the Ministry of Manpower when hiring the helper and have to pay the helper’s airfare back home.
This regulation in itself is concerning for various reasons, not least because it limits these women’s choices. Also, making employers responsible for the social choices of their adult employees is akin to guardianship, which is quite a different relationship from that of employment. However (arguably) these women have freely signed employment contracts that stipulate these as terms of employment and are aware that if they violate these terms, they lose their jobs.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower has clarified that since January 2010, employer liability has been limited and employers are not expected to forfeit their security bonds if domestic helpers violate their own work permit conditions by getting pregnant or moonlighting. In spite of this, countless ill-informed people raise this ‘financial culpability’ as a reason for why they must be able to constantly monitor their helpers and why they should not be given a day off.
What seems to be underpinning many of the comments left on the online forums reporting this news is a worrying prejudice against women from impoverished communities. The misconception that they are mindless, irresponsible and lack dignity is all too apparent. So is the delusion that women who want intimacy and enjoy sex are akin to prostitutes, or that when in financial need, will necessarily turn to prostitution. Then there is the warped idea that they have given up their basic human rights or that these rights should be limited because they have chosen to work as ‘maids’. At best, this reeks of modern slavery – as a friend disgustedly noted “human beings are not chattels!”
There is evidently a lot more to this debate than what I have raised in this article. Nonetheless, I have limited myself mainly to the issue that disturbs me most – that in debating this matter, people have chosen to focus on and demean aspects tied to a woman’s sexuality and her choices on the matter rather than concentrate on the more integral question of a human being’s most basic rights.
Veera Velu is an archaeologist.
Image credits: stoptheslaverytoday.tmblr, abolish slavery blog, Transnational Institute, Straits Times, Yahoo News, Transient workers count too (TWC2)