Region: Asia's domestics - risks and opportunities


Dr Deirdre McKay

Until the 1970s, workers cleaning, cooking and caring for children and the elderly in Asian households were usually poor relations. As industrialization drew Asian women into paid employment, local women left domestic service. However, urban demand for domestic labour accelerated during the economic restructuring of the 1980s. Across Asia, governments have imported 'alien' workers, who are generally paid lower wages than locals. Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong are the major host nations. As of mid 2004, Malaysia hosted approximately 250,000 foreign domestic workers; Hong Kong, about 217,000; Taiwan, about 125,00; and Singapore, 150,000. In these countries, migrant domestic workers support new dual-career households. A live-in maid is necessary to organize household chores and also serves to define newly affluent middle-class identities.

Workers are usually under-employed women from the region's slow-developing nations. The Philippines and Indonesia dominate the Asian market as supplying countries, with contributions also from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, Bangladesh and India. Migrant workers are employed on short contracts and repatriated when contacts are terminated or expire. Contract conditions limit labour mobility and prevent workers from forming long-term ties in their host nation. As non-citizens, they remain the responsibility of their local employers in whose homes they must live. It is comparatively higher wages, not working conditions, which entice these women across national borders.

Doing live-in domestic work in a foreign employer's home is a risky business. Low status, employer prejudice and lack of citizenship can lead to physical, sexual and economic abuse. Wages of between $US100 (Malaysia) and $US500 (Hong Kong and Taiwan) per month, sixteen hour days, seven days per week are the norm. Many employers scrimp on food and accommodation, demand unpaid overtime and 'free' work for family and friends, withhold wages and passports, and refuse requests for days off. Migrant 'maids' are often refused permission to use the telephone or leave the house alone.

However, migration to seek employment often means incurring debt. Local 'training' and 'placement' agencies recruit women to fill international job orders. Moneylenders and agents give loans, with many women going into several years of debt to pay 'placement fees' and travel expenses. While working abroad, migrant workers must meet debt repayments and familial expectations while often being underfed, sleep-deprived and socially isolated.

Horrific cases of 'maid abuse' and rape regularly appear in Asia's news services. Some domestic workers have resorted to desperate measures to escape jobs where they've been virtual prisoners. In Malaysia, according to a government source (The Star, May 2004), some 57,000 maids had run away from employers over the last four years. Since 1999, almost 100 Indonesian maids have fallen to their deaths from Singapore's high-rise blocks 'mostly while cleaning windows or hanging out laundry' (The Straits Times, June 2004). Rarely do they turn on their employers. In response to cases of abuse, some host governments have set up mandatory training courses for first-time and 'serial' employers (The Straits Times, Sept. 2004). Sending governments negotiate bilateral labour agreements and also brief embassy staff on how to assist abused workers. There have been a number of 'show' trials of alleged abusers with prosecutors seeking deterrent sentences.

Despite the risks, migration for domestic work opens up opportunities. Good employers and generous contracts have supported households at home, sometimes for decades, while remittances sent by migrants are transforming rural Asia. Most remittances go towards meeting basic needs housing, health care and education. More secure households invest in land or durable consumer goods. However, little remitted money funds income and employment generating activities with multiplier effects.

Ten per cent of the Philippines' population works abroad 67 per cent of these workers are women. An average of 3,236 workers leave the country each day. Workers remit $US8 billion each year, while the International Labour Organization (ILO) (1999) estimates that another $US8 billion enters the nation informally. Remittances peak in time for annual school enrolments, while remittance-fuelled consumption has boosted economic growth and household savings. Small business opportunities for returning migrant workers or their families, however, are limited. Ways to better channel migrant worker funds and to prevent investments from competing with each other and saturating local markets are a key to future development.

USAID is trying to improve the efficiency with which Filipino families can access remittance funds while UNIFEM is targeting Filipina migrant workers in Singapore with a course on budgeting and planning their return home. Hong Kong's Asian Migrant Centre ( supports reintegration programs, which encourage migrant workers to save and invest in their sending communities. AMC programs connect workers in Hong Kong and Singapore to the Philippines and five other Asian countries. Remittances have the potential to facilitate development, but investments need to be thought through in place-specific, diversified ways.

WATCHPOINT: Migrant banking and savings will be a priority area for national development in countries on the Asian development periphery.


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