Domestic workers relax in Geylang on their day off. Photo: UN Women/Staton Winter, licensed under CC BY 2.0. Edited by: spf.pdf for Lausan

Beyond a ‘politics of survival’: Transforming Singapore’s migrant domestic worker labor regime

It's time to correct the injustices that enabled Singapore's capitalist success

Read this article in Chinese.

COVID-19 has demanded that the entire world wake up to the question of what work is and how we value work. In Hong Kong, Grassmedia Action’s series Care Workers in the Epidemic is part of a broader effort of exposing mass labor exploitation, lifting up the voices of migrant domestic workers (MDWs), and solidarity-building which has only become more crucial during a time of pandemic. 

The conditions in Singapore for MDWs are similar and have taken shape through a “politics of survival,” Singapore’s economic nationalism as a mode of recovery after British colonization. This pragmatic obsession with economic stability is often said to be a result of colonial trauma, since the British had seen no purpose in investing in the social welfare of its colonial workforce. When the colonial regime withdrew, poverty and malnutrition coupled with a severe lack of hygienic sanitation were widespread. Many dealt with the aftermath of colonialism by turning to an anticolonial economic nationalism, a type of “revenge through success.” This success has come at the cost of the almost 1.5 million migrant workers in Singapore, hundreds of thousands of whom are domestic workers.

Feminist scholar-activists such as Maria Mies and Silvia Federici have long insisted that care work is real work—that is, domestic work and care work in the home are not hobbies or casual part-time appendages to professional white-collar tasks. This continuing perception is what invisibilizes the experiences of MDWs and acts as the state’s justification for their lack of labor rights. These conditions forcefully insist that Singapore must reckon with the centrality of indentured servitude to this “politics of survival” and to transform the conditions of its contemporary workforce. 

Singapore’s migrant domestic worker labor regime 

Like the other “Asian Tigers” (Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea), the labor regime under which MDWs work in Singapore consists of a labyrinthine “guest worker system.” Work permits for MDWs typically last for two years. All pathways to long-term settlement are virtually cut off. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM)’s startling, biopolitical visa guidelines state: “Unless the MOM has approved it, you cannot marry a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident. This applies in and outside of Singapore, and even after the Work Permit has expired.” Further, MDWs must undergo biannual medical examinations to certify their physical fitness. If they are found to be pregnant or with sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis, they are immediately deported.

These rules governing migrant workers in Singapore bear more than a passing resemblance to colonial institutions of slavery and unfree labor. Much like Hong Kong, Singapore’s British colonial period saw imported labor come primarily from China and India. While male workers dominated urban construction, the vast majority of female workers worked as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy British employers and Chinese merchant families. Local political leaders in partnership with the business sector appropriated and expanded the colonial regimes of domestic servitude to propel Singapore into a highly industrialized global postcolonial city.

By 1978, a “Foreign Maids Scheme” had been set up to expand workforce participation to female citizens who could freely devote their energies to educational and career achievements. In this way, the local workforce achieved remarkable growth in educational and career standards, and thus the formation of a sizable middle-class. Like their colonial predecessors, many contemporary middle-class Singaporean families—one in five households—continue to employ migrant women to handle the traditional work burden of an unpaid housewife. The rise of the middle-class and the foundation for explosive postcolonial economic growth were built quite literally on the backs of imported labor.

The rise of Singapore’s middle-class and the foundation for explosive postcolonial economic growth were built quite literally on the backs of imported labor.

The most concerning aspect of MDW employment contracts is their clearly asymmetrical nature with almost all elements weighted in favor of the employer. No minimum wages apply to MDWs by virtue of the live-in requirement: It is compulsory for MDWs to reside in their employer’s household without exception. For all intents and purposes, MDWs live at work. In contrast to migrant workers in public sectors like construction, marine shipyard and process manufacturing, MDWs are the only group who cannot appeal to the national Employment Act. They thus lose the formal right to minimum wage laws, maximum working hours and basic healthcare coverage which often crop up as the most prevalent type of abuse. The state justifies this exclusion by pointing to the “special nature” of domestic work. The unique circumstances and setting of this work, so the logic goes, means that it is impossible to regulate with standardized work contracts. Even recent reforms like compulsory weekly rest days have achieved negligible improvements. Employers are given almost complete autonomy in hiring practices, and will exploit that freedom as long as the authorities issue recommendations instead of legal penalties. 

In Singapore, as travel restrictions under COVID-19 have blocked incoming MDWs, the MOM has used this shortage of labor to make it easier for employers to transfer—that is, fire—MDWs so that they can be sent to other households. Previously, the original employer had to provide a letter of consent to the new employer who then begins a new work permit application. The latest measures allow employers to terminate work permits even if a new employer has not been found. Instead, recruitment agencies are now in charge of managing MDWs during their special 14-day transition period. If a new employer does not show up, the MDW must be repatriated. These arrangements only deepen the vulnerability of MDWs since there are no safeguards should employers renege on their promise. 

Migrant domestic workers and the household

Today, many MDWs, while working as domestic workers in the host society, are simultaneously employers of migrant women in their hometowns. As sociologist Rhacel Parreñas has noted, it is common for women in the Philippines to work as migrant domestic workers in order to afford both private schools for their children and medical expenses for their elderly parents. They themselves employ rural-to-urban migrant women who cannot afford the costs of securing employment abroad, which she calls the “international division of reproductive labor.” This complex subjectivity, of being a local domestic worker and remote madam, is one that hardly crosses the host society’s mind but creates transnational connections across multiple households.

Ironically, the worst cases of abuse and exploitation of MDWs have come from female employers who are themselves trapped in “patriarchal bargains,” which describes the way in which women assert their agency while being confined to the domains of the household. In an era with advanced transportation, the international mobility of MDWs is a popular option for many households who otherwise would have to take up the difficult conversation of allocating household responsibilities. As scholar Pei-Chia Lan argues, female employers often employ MDWs because they cannot control their domineering mother-in-laws but at least can control the domestic worker. Other employers have expressed that without a MDW, their marriage would likely end in divorce because their husbands refuse to pick up a broom or learn basic culinary skills. 

As the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Singapore’s local women’s rights group, has recognized for decades, the female workforce is not as liberated by paid employment as many like to believe. For most women who enter waged work, what happens is not an equal sharing of household duties on the part of their husbands, but rather simply more work in the form of a “second shift.” Hiring a domestic worker is often cited as the solution to a so-called “spousal egalitarianism,” since having someone take over the housework is the only way to sustain the working lives of both man and woman without coming to blows over whose turn it is to clean the house. This type of self-centered feminism espoused by middle-class women has to change and consider women’s rights in every sector, and that goes hand-in-hand with how we think of “work.”

The root of the problem is the fact that most employers do not see MDWs as workers deserving of otherwise normal employment provisions. Because their work takes place in the most intimate of spaces, there is a slippage where MDWs are folded into the private property of employers, who feel that they have fully bought over the disposable services and time of the worker. But for the fatigued worker, the home is where she should be able to retreat to destress and recharge. At home, nobody wants to engage in the emotional labor of acting in socially appropriate ways to appease their bosses or colleagues. And as an intimate space, “the household” is still shot through with bourgeois ideology: One way in which some have tried to sidestep proper labor protections for MDWs is through the discourses of love and the family unit, which has been used affectively to emplace MDWs in the home, so that middle-class women can fulfill the shifting needs of the domestic economy. This manipulation has sadly taken the place of otherwise workable relations with migrant workers in our midst. The prolonged isolation forced upon us by the pandemic is perhaps a chance to work on this fractured relationship. 

Beyond ‘survival’

To be clear, this critical analysis of the MDW labor regime in Singapore is not meant to imply that liberal democratic regimes of the US, Canada and Britain fare any better with regard to the treatment of migrant workers. Existing institutional and legal provisions notwithstanding, activists in these nations have likewise spotlighted the atrocious and brutal conditions that live-in MDWs endure. The type of political regime seems to be irrelevant when it comes to inventing “others” within the nation. The smugness of Global North nations that exceptionalizes the supposed humaneness of their labor regimes can thus be seen as historical legacies of colonial arrogance. We must therefore ask the same questions of all punitive systems of migration and labor. Addressing the circumscribed rights of migrant workers is not a radical proposal meant for only one region or another but should be the work of activists, allies, and advocates everywhere to first prevent further deterioration of migrant worker rights and then the undoing of all unfree labor regimes under which they toil. 

The history of postcolonial survival is sealed: It is on Singapore’s current generation to think beyond a politics of survival about how to correct the injustices waged by our own emergence onto a commercial and hyper-capitalist world stage.

For Singapore today, it is important to not let historical amnesia overtake us when thinking about the capitalist success of Asian Tiger states. The history of postcolonial survival is sealed: It is on Singapore’s current generation to think beyond a politics of survival about how to correct the injustices waged by our own emergence onto a commercial and hyper-capitalist world stage. The recent uproar over the treatment of migrant workers in poorly maintained dormitories in Singapore’s outskirts, for example, give some hope that the tide is turning. But this reorientation cannot stop at brief moments of outrage. 

Nothing less than a complete overhaul on the part of the employer mindset coupled with a stricter regulation of employer violations by the state is necessary for even the smallest correction of this labor exploitation and abuse to occur. Singapore’s economic prosperity, built on the back of migrant workers, has accrued to a stage where the bleak days of survival, in the material sense, can no longer be used to excuse the national ethos of unchecked capitalism.