22 May 2004

On Maid Abuse

It's not even Sunday, and the Straits Times has splashed pictures of the mutilated boobs of a maid working in Malaysia, right across the front page of its Asian news section.

We should look carefully at what kind of 'horror stories' from foreign countries that our papers play up, give prominence to, and what kind of domestic horror stories are underplayed and under-reported.

For example, recent cases of school-going teens committing suicide out of maltreatment or emotional stress imposed by teachers have been reported in the Chinese press, but the English papers have been silent about.

Now, what of this piece of horrifying maid abuse? The Straits Times fails to inform its 4 million readers in Singapore is that "almost a hundred Indonesian maids had died falling from tall buildings in the island republic in the previous three years" - according to Chalief Akbar of the Indonesian embassy here, quoted in a BBC article. In addition, 10 to 20 maids flee their employers and seek refuge with the Indonesian embassy here each day.

The official story is that these maids, coming from rural villages in Indonesia, the Philippines, and subcontinental India, are unaccustomed to working in high-rise flats, and hence scores of maids fall to their deaths here each year while climbing out of the building to clean windows.

I can't see how anyone can take that laughable explanation seriously. It contains several blatant biases and fallacious assumptions:
1. There is no urban centre in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Subcontinent.
2. Because these are backward countries, unlike modern Singapore.
3. Hence, all maids who work here are unable to deal with an urbanised landscape, and kill themselves by falling to their deaths accidentally.
I don't know whether to be shocked at the assumptions in the argument, or at the fact that people buy into this story.

Since two years ago, it has been mandatory for maid agencies to include safe work training in their maid courses. That's not to say that no maid agency has prepared its maids for urban-based domestic work. Now despite all the (compulsory) safety training in the last two years, the death toll still remains at around 100 maids a year falling to their deaths.

Let's look at the figures again: every day, 10-20 maids run away from their Singaporean employers to seek refuge at the Indonesian embassy. Total number of deaths is therefore about 1/3 to 1/6 of runaways. The more likely explanation is that while some maids have the guts to run, other maids sink into depression - being forced to work more than 18 hours a day, without rest days, without permission to socialise outside of their 'workplace' will do that easily. What do depressed, isolated people stuck in a foreign land do? They might well jump to their deaths.

Now, add to the maid fatalities the hundreds of construction workers who lose their lives or are mangled each (normal) year in our building projects... What kind of country do we live in anyway?