Marjorie, Mei, Linda. These are the names of the women who helped raise me, who were a constant presence in my home, who saw me grow from a baby to the young woman I am today.
In Singapore, where I grew up, one in five households has a full-time live-in maid, or domestic helper. It was a perfectly natural occurrence for me. I had grown up with a domestic helper, and so had all my friends and neighbors. I slowly realized how unnatural this situation was as I grew older and was confronted with the harsh realities facing domestic workers.
The first incident that jolted my conscience was the realization that the domestic helper working right next door was only a few years older than I was. I would walk to the school bus every morning, and pass her as she would be washing her employer’s car. Our trajectories could not have been more different: she was 19 and could only imagine a life as a domestic helper, living and working away from her family; I was 17 and going to school, hoping to get into college in the United States.
It made no sense to me that her dreams were abruptly ended before they could even begin. But how about Marjorie’s dreams? Mei’s dreams? Though they were older than my neighbor’s helper, they too had been forced to follow the only option to earn a decent living for their family: leave home and work hundreds of miles away as a domestic worker.
In South East Asia, the migration of lower-income women from countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar to more developed cities and states to provide domestic care has undoubtedly fueled the breakneck progress we have seen in the region. In fact, one can say that progress has been made on the backs of these women.
South East Asia’s modernization is often applauded without recognizing the sacrifices and inequalities it has engendered. In Singapore, for example, women’s high labor participation rate is due in part to the large presence of domestic workers taking care of children and the elderly in homes across the country.
Domestic workers are so indispensable that families simply cannot imagine a day without them. Singapore just recently passed a law mandating one day of rest per week after heavy opposition from Singaporeans. “This is bad news for women who are working,” said 49-year-old mother of four children Poon Boon Eng, to the national newspaper, the Straits Times. “If I let her go out four days a month, it will be very hectic for me. I need to rest on Sunday too.”
Shocking human rights violations, ranging from physical abuse to lack of rest and pay, highlight the perception that many have of domestic helpers: they are indispensable, but inferior. One of the main criticisms of the new rest day law was that the domestic workers would now have the time to socialize and engage in “inappropriate” activities. One of the employers’ biggest fears is that their domestic helper may become pregnant, and be sent home. (In Singapore it is against the law for domestic helpers to get pregnant).
In response to increasing criticism, recipient countries and cities such as Hong Kong, have guaranteed domestic helpers a minimum wage and a day off a week. These steps, while positive, should not stop us from thinking about the root issues underlying the migration of female domestic workers.
The reality is that the lives of domestic workers around the world are not so different from how they were represented in the movie The Help. While this movie was supposed to highlight how far Americans have come since the days of gender and race discrimination in the 50s, it is actually a timely reminder that this reality is still lived each and every day in households across the world.
We cannot ignore the fact that progress (whether it is economic or societal) is often made at the expense of poor women. We have not solved the problem of women bearing the responsibility of being the main caregivers in their family, whether it is an American woman working full-time but still taking on all of the household responsibilities, or a Filipina woman leaving home to take care of a Singaporean family’s children. The solutions we have come up with (women still sacrificing their careers to care for their children, women passing on their child care duties to other women) fail to acknowledge the real systemic and societal changes that need to occur: men and companies need to be actively involved in supporting child care. Governments of recipient countries have been glad to welcome these women as cheap labor, without taking the difficult measures to introduce sustainable child care institutions, while the governments of sender countries have turned a blind eye to their citizens’ misfortunes, happy to take their remittances into their coffers.
How sustainable is it for domestic helpers to be raising an entire generation of children while they’re away from their own children? How can we ensure the full participation of women in the workforce without subjecting thousands of poor women to lives of near servitude? As Audre Lord rightly said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”. We certainly can’t claim to be free when our freedom lies in the oppression of other women. I cannot claim to be free when Marjorie and Mei’s dreams cannot be fully realized.
Claire Charamnac is a feminist activist and co-founder of Women LEAD, a leadership development organization for young women in Kathmandu, Nepal. She lives in Hoboken, NJ and graduated from Georgetown University in 2011. You can learn more about Claire’s organization by going to the organization’s website, Twitter and Facebook page.