There has been much talk about domestic helpers in our homes recently.
Parti Liyani’s case sparked off a discussion on various matters, including a call for an inquiry into Singapore’s criminal justice system, into the protection of rights of migrant workers here, down to a more esoteric discussion over whether or not maids should be allowed to work part-time on their days off. The discussion even almost made into Parliament.
But the one common theme of all these articles and opinions is that the arguments are being made by people who are not maids. Singaporeans, no matter how well meaning, are approaching the issue as bystanders and employers. I’ve been reading the forums and the discussions and while there are some (the silent majority, I would argue) who treat their helpers with love and compassion, I somehow get the feeling that no matter how benign the discussion, it is still paternalistic at best and patronising at worst.
We talk about our maids as if we know better. Perhaps in some cases we do, but do we know best?
What we need is a complete dialogue, not just between Singaporeans, or between government departments and maid agencies, or between experts and the man-in-the-street.
We forget the first question about self-determination. What does the group in question, in this case, migrant domestic workers, really want?
That begs the second question. Have we asked them? We think we know what they want… but do we really?
It reminds me of a quote from one of the great fictional characters I grew up admiring, from Harper Lee’s 60s masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird. The excerpt goes like this – Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the southeastern American state of Alabama tasked with defending a black man accused of a heinous crime, tells his young daughter Scout: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
It’s a more evocative twist to the old adage about walking a mile in a man’s shoes. It may be more visceral but no less illuminating.
This is why I was gratified to see the latest video from the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics or HOME, address challenges that migrant domestic workers face from a different angle.
The video, shot in partnership with advocacy group MaidForMore and the Singapore Kindness Movement, takes several common scenarios that maids face, such as negotiating for more time off or personal time to talk to their families during Covid-19, and turns them on their head.
In a role-playing reversal, instead of the helpers asking the employers, the video gets the employers to play the part of the maid, to see things from their point of view.
Nessa Swinn, co-founder of MaidForMore tells The Pride: “We mooted the concept of a role reversal situation to emphasise the power imbalance central to employer-migrant domestic worker relations. Such imbalance is structural and places the employer at an advantage in decision-making situations. Unless stronger labour regulations are made to protect MDWs, workers’ wellbeing, freedom, and safety will continue to be subject to individual employers’ moral decisions to show or withhold kindness.”
She says: “This creates a ‘luck of the draw’ situation for workers, which conditions their precarity. This video alone will not solve many of the issues faced by MDWs, but we hope that it will encourage fellow Singaporeans to always choose kindness, not just because we can, but because we should.”
A spokesman for The Hidden Good, which produced the video, adds: “We often think about the demonstration of kindness as helping our cleaners or the elderly, but kindness can also start at home.”
And HOME, which has been advocating for the rights of migrant workers in Singapore for 16 years, including steadfastly supporting Parti’s defence with lawyer Anil Balchandani, explains to The Pride that the video dealt with pressing issues facing domestic helpers now.
A spokesman for HOME says: “During this exceptional period, HOME has had an increase in calls on our domestic workers’ helpline. Many complained about well-being issues highlighted in this video, such as restrictions of mobile phone usage and inadequate rest days. Migrant domestic workers are entitled to regular rest days.”
And the outcome is interesting. While slightly awkward and bashful at first, the employer and domestic helpers gradually got into their roles and came out of the experience with a deeper understanding of the dynamics between them.
“I was quite surprised that I did not know how to act, like how polite should I be?” shares an employer, Biddy, later in the video. “There were things that I would champion further if it were just me talking to an employer in Singapore”
She added that, as a Singaporean, she would have been more assertive about her rights to a day off but role-playing as her migrant domestic helper Leida made her feel more inhibited from asking for it.
Another helper, Rolyna, shares in the video that “Some employers don’t care, they just care about the work to be done in the house”. And her employer’s mother, Wendy, agrees with Rolyna’s call for better communication between the two parties, adding that employers should empathise with and show compassion to their helpers more.
“They need to be able to talk about their families and tell them the problems they are facing,” she says.
One thing that is clear from the video that the employer-helper duos already had a good working relationship and were comfortable enough to talk, laugh and even cry in front of each other.
That, to me, was my biggest takeaway, that at some point while watching the video, these people on screen in front of me stopped being employers and helpers, Singaporeans or foreigners; instead they were just people talking about their situations, hopes and fears.
That to me, is the start of true dialogue, when we look past what we are, to who we are. Then perhaps, we can continue the journey to finding out what we want and how we can get there.