Modeling good values by treating domestic workers with respect
by Teo You Yenn
The ongoing discussion on the rights of domestic workers to days off and leisure spaces is not just about how the Singapore state should treat foreign workers who contribute to the economy. Nor is it only about relations between domestic workers and employers. Ultimately, it reveals who we are as a society, and the kind of culture and values we embody. The way we treat domestic workers sends strong signals to our children on the ethics we live by.
The values and beliefs that make up a culture are not passed on through textbooks or formal education alone. Culture is produced through everyday practice. Values are learnt through micro interactions and everyday observations. This is demonstrated embarrassingly to parents when children parrot kid-inappropriate words, or mimic the anti-social behaviour they observe in adults.
When people resist efforts to improve the dignity of workers, they embody values of injustice. When we protest every little “inconvenience” whenever the maid is on annual leave or when we are obliged to share space with people from different classes or ethnic backgrounds, we put into practice attitudes of superiority and intolerance.
Sociologist Raka Ray and anthropologist Seemin Qayum argue in their book, Cultures of Servitude, that children growing up with servants learn much about inequality, class, gender and ethnoracial differences from experiencing the employer-servant relationship every day. Too often, children learn that some humans – their needs, opinions and aspirations – are less valued and valuable than others.
In Singapore, some children learn that their caregivers are different from them when they see their “aunties” sleep in spaces with little privacy. They see this person attend social gatherings only to help with menial tasks. Most also learn that this is the only person in the household doing chores before others are up and long after others have finished work. The domestic worker is the only person working every day – often with only one or two days off a month, sometimes with none at all. Many children also hear adults flippantly discussing their “maid problems.” Despite this, many such children love their caregivers and listen when given instructions. But a fair number can also be heard discussing their caregivers with language like “my maid” and “your maid”; or barking orders and making loud demands. Many even rely on domestic worker caregivers to do things that non-disabled human beings their age should be able to do themselves.
It is true that the needs of some families cannot be met by family members alone. Many Singaporeans also treat domestic workers decently. The employer-domestic worker relationship can be a positive and fair one.
Days off, living wages, access to leisure and public space are basic requirements for human wellbeing. In 2012, when one rest day was announced for migrant domestic workers, AWARE pointed out that this was an important step toward upholding human rights, which are meaningful only insofar as all people have them (“The right to rights”, Today, March 16, 2012). Two years on, we continue to see resistance to the introduction of this basic human right.
As a society, it is time to set higher standards for ourselves. Singaporeans should stand up for domestic workers’ rights because our culture and values are at stake.
Who are we? Who do we want our children to be? Do we hope our kids will treat people with respect and not take their privileges for granted? Do we want our children to learn that being human is not just about doing well in exams, but about performing basic tasks to take care of themselves? Do we want them to see the home as a place of equality and respect rather than injustice and exploitation? If so, we have to start here. The relationships with domestic workers shape many of our homes, and increasingly influence our social ties and interactions beyond the home. As society ages, there will also be a greater need for paid caregivers in various forms.
All Singaporeans, regardless of whether or not they employ domestic workers, are responsible. We live in a society that is cultivating new norms about gender practices, as well as racial and class inequalities. All of us, like it or not, produce “cultures” around domestic labour and the people who perform them. The attitudes we take, the behaviours we model for the children, shape our present and future.
Teo You Yenn is Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, board member at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), and author of the book Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society (Routledge, 2011).
An edited version of this article was published in the Straits Times on 18 March 2014.