It's been almost five years since Anthony Bourdain, the much-beloved celebrity chef who passed away in 2018, visited Singapore. While in the Southeast Asian city-state, he dined at one of its famous hawker centers, where he sat with three locals as they discussed life in Singapore.
“...Everybody's got a maid, looking after their child at home. So maids are kind of like the opiate of the masses," said the woman seated beside Bourdain, referring to the country’s some 200,000 foreign domestic workers, often from other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar.
Their conversation moved to how many Singaporeans skip simple household chores like doing their own laundry or filling a glass of water because of the domestic workers that are at their beck and call.
“It's like bourgeois, man. You're living off the labor of a repressed underclass,” said Bourdain, masking his critique of the country’s foreign domestic worker industry as a joke, as those at the table laughed uncomfortably.
The clip, filmed in 2017 for the Singapore episode of his Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown travel and food series, is now half a decade old. But if it failed to make a splash at the time, on Sunday it went viral on Twitter, resurfacing and sparking heated criticism about conditions in Singapore’s multi-billion dollar domestic helper industry.
In 2018, foreign domestic workers contributed 2.4 percent of Singapore’s GDP, or $8.2 billion. But despite their economic significance, they aren’t afforded the same rights as their counterparts in Singapore’s workforce. They are excluded from the Employment Act, the country’s main labor law which stipulates regulations on working hours, rest days, and overtime pay. And in a household setting where boundaries between work and rest are blurred, the stark power imbalance between domestic workers and their employers has created a situation that advocates describe as “ripe for exploitation.”
Attitudes towards foreign domestic workers in Singapore often veer into the degrading, with the viral thread also bringing to light one prominent agency website, which features guidance on workers’ personalities based on their nationalities. According to the agency, Filipinos have a more “prideful nature,” while Indonesians are more “submissive” and “obedient.” Meanwhile, Burmese domestic workers are apparently favored for their appearance, which is “closer to the Chinese” and “pleasing for Chinese employers.”
The agency also lists the different wages you can pay based on nationality, ranging from S$550-700 ($380-$490) for Indonesians, to S$450-$570 ($310-$400) for Mizoram, "a race found in Myanmar and India" who have "more endurance than the other races."
Singapore’s government has introduced policies to safeguard the welfare of domestic workers. But people in and close to the industry say more can be done, as reports of extreme abuses continue to appear in national headlines, shining a light on the downtrodden labor keeping the city-state spick and span.
Last year, a 41-year-old woman was sentenced to 30 years in jail for killing a foreign domestic worker from Myanmar. She starved her, beat her with a broom, and used an iron to burn her arm—eventually killing her after one particularly vicious attack, which led to irreversible brain damage and a fractured bone in her neck.
In May, another woman was sentenced to eight months in jail for physically assaulting her foreign domestic worker for over a year. The court heard that she had punched the worker just one day after employing her, when the Myanmar national couldn’t understand her instructions.
In 2015, a Filipino domestic worker was underfed for 15 months, only allowed to eat instant noodles and plain bread. During this period, her weight plummeted to just 29 kilograms, and her mobile phone was confiscated by her employers, stopping her seeking help.
Endah, an Indonesian domestic worker who has lived in Singapore for more than 10 years, told VICE World News that she was abused at her former employer’s household, where she took care of two children, the younger of whom was a mere three months old.
“She hit me with a knife, and I just kept quiet. The next time, she slapped me. From there, I couldn't stand it anymore,” she said. “I chose to run. I ran to the embassy.”
But when she arrived at the Indonesian embassy, she was confronted with a dismal choice: if she reported her abusive employer, she would lose her right to work in Singapore. In the domestic worker industry, power is skewed heavily towards employers, with work permits tied to jobs. Employers are therefore allowed to unilaterally terminate and repatriate their domestic workers, leaving them vulnerable to being sent home against their will.
“At that time, the embassy said, ‘Do you want to go home, or do you want to report this to the police?’” Endah said, adding that if she chose to report the case to the police, it would mean that she would lose her current employment contract, get sent home anyway and likely struggle to find new work.
“I told the embassy that I’d choose to close this case as long as I could work again in Singapore.”
The hope for a better life back home is the reason why many domestic workers like Endah persevere through the challenging work. Despite taking home what in Singapore is considered a meager income of a few hundred dollars every month, domestic workers earn far less in their home countries. Drawing a monthly salary of about $600 in Singapore, Endah estimates that working as a domestic worker in Indonesia would earn her just $100.
“I’m very grateful to stay in Singapore for so long and change my economic situation in Indonesia, even if it’s very hard sometimes,” said Endah, who has bought a house in Central Java and plans to go home next year to start her own business.
But even if women like Endah see the upsides to entering domestic work in Singapore, which has uplifted her financially, the working conditions many must endure to get this wage are often harsh.
“I have been working for four months. Every night, they asked me to massage them for one and a half hours until both my hands were turning stiff… I felt tired of doing this every night. What should I do?”
One active Facebook group of over 43,000 members documents the struggles faced by domestic workers, as they share their experiences dealing with unreasonable employers and ask for advice on navigating their unpleasant workplaces. Many posts reveal the often uncomfortable blurring of boundaries, with duties extending into inappropriate territory.
“I have been working for four months. Every night, they asked me to massage them for one and a half hours until both my hands were turning stiff,” wrote one anonymous Facebook user this week. “I felt tired of doing this every night. What should I do?”
Another said that on their one day off a week, they are required to do housework in the morning before they leave the house, leaving them sweaty and with little time to get ready before going out. “It really makes [me] feel uncomfortable to meet with friends,” they said. “I really wish all the employers will understand and give [foreign domestic workers] their own time for that day”
Describing domestic workers as “very devoid of fundamental labor rights,” Jaya Anil Kumar, research and advocacy manager at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a Singapore-based charity for migrant workers, said that exploitation emerges from skewed power dynamics with employers.
“As was pointed out in the [Bourdain] video, many households simply can't survive without a domestic worker,” she told VICE World News. “[But] we become also reluctant as a society to give them what is rightfully theirs.”
“There's the power imbalance that obviously exists between the employer and the domestic worker who's living in your house,” she continued. “The power imbalance informs a lot of the day-to-day life of the domestic worker.”
This often leads to abuse that happens, quite literally, behind closed doors.
A June report by the HOME detailed the hidden emotional abuse suffered by domestic workers—which, unlike the extreme physical and sexual abuse that makes headlines, doesn’t manifest in visible injuries but can result in lasting trauma. Surveyed domestic workers reported being threatened by employers to be sent home, monitored by CCTV cameras even in their own rooms, and forced to work as long as 16 hours a day.
“I think that the treatment of domestic workers within a family presents a situation where it's ripe for a certain amount of an invasion of privacy [and] freedoms,” Debbie Fordyce, the president of Transient Workers Count Too, a non-profit organization advocating for migrant worker rights in Singapore, told VICE World News.
“I think the blame can't entirely be put on the employers, but on the system which allows this to happen.”
Representatives from the Universal Employment Agency, a foreign domestic worker agency, say that they are selective about potential employers who approach them, but remain concerned about the lack of safeguards in place.
“Some errant employers tend to think that it’s their house, their rules and may easily overstep boundaries on how they treat their helpers, especially when there is no witness around in the house,” they told VICE World News.
Over the past decade, Singapore’s government has introduced regulations to improve the welfare of domestic workers, including giving them a mandatory day off every week. For now, employers can still “buy” this day off by paying their workers a day’s salary—though the Ministry of Manpower announced in July that domestic workers must take at least one rest day a month starting from the end of this year.
After a string of high-profile abuse cases, the Ministry is also turning its attention to identifying potential abuse before it’s too late, with doctors now required to track the body mass index of domestic workers during half-yearly medical examinations and check for signs of suspicious injuries.
But more needs to be done, and faster, said rights groups and agencies.
“If we look at domestic work as a form of real work and we decide as a society people who carry out domestic work deserve these rights, then of course, as a society we'll want these changes to happen faster,” said Jaya.
“But there are all these perceptions about domestic workers and domestic work that are still there… We feel like we don't necessarily have to give them these rights because we don't feel domestic work is real work.”