Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Foreign Domestic Workers: The elephant in the room/house/flat


As promised, from my 6th September 2015 Nomads post I am looking at another elephant in the room that has been totally ignored during this GE. Sort of, as I learned yesterday that a PAP candidate did mention Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) when he tried to argue his case against Minimum Wage for foreign workers.

According to government statistics we have some 222,500 FDWs in December 2014.

My friend ranted on her Facebook page how she had found it impossible to hire any Singaporeans who (1) bothered to attend interviews, (2) did not want to work on weekends, and (3) went on sick leave or simply did not show up for work when the going got tough.

I feel sorry for her and other SME owners like her. (I understand that the MNCs do not have the same issues.) She wanted the freedom to employ foreigners.

Is there any connection between the young Singaporean attitude towards work and the 222,500 FDWs?

I cannot prove this, so you can stop reading here. Most of my evidence is anecdotal but ah, the thinking is original, I hope.

Things happen, and people change, and this type of change is often evident after just one generation. I researched the Chinese in the UK. A respondent tells me that when the Hong Kong Chinese first arrived here to work in the Chinese restaurants, they had one goal: work hard, make money and go home.

Claiming benefits did not even occur to them. But within 25-30 years -- about one generation -- she noticed how younger Chinese were saying, "Why bother to work so hard when the government gives you so much money just for sitting around?"

That generational difference is sometimes translated into the more scientific sounding "cohort effect". So my mother's generation was a generation of hoarders because the cohort had nothing during the Japanese Occupation. My late mother refused to throw away a single rubber band. That was the measure of her previous 'nothingness'.

What then is the cohort effect of children being brought up by FDWs? The first ones arrived in a trickle in the mid-1980s. Then the floodgates were opened in the 1990s, it seemed.

Where previously only the professional families could afford FDWs, suddenly FDWs became a status symbol and lots of households had FDWs although the second income only marginally covered the cost of the FDW. Why?

Some say that FDWs were necessary because couples found it difficult to meet their mortgage payments on just one income. Some intimated that the pressure for women to continue working was exceedingly high, whatever their income.

Few women -- and men -- would admit this: It's much more fun working in an air-conditioned office where you can enjoy banter and gossip with grown-ups than staying at home to look after young children. It gives us much greater esteem: "I did not go to university to wipe my children's bums, you know."

I know. I worked in an NMC. Went on to get a PhD. Then I stayed home to wipe my child's bum. I wonder if Dr Huang (Dr Chee Soon Juan's wife) also -- at times -- felt the same resentment that I felt.

My friends in Singapore have very different attitudes towards their FDWs. Some are introduced as valued "helpers". Some are spoken to as if they have no right to exist. Others are rendered completely invisible. We might as well have been served by a ghost.

Once I asked my nephew to bring me a glass of water. It's the sort of thing I did when I was his age. Auntie visits, we go fetch her a drink. What did my nephew do? He shouted for his maid to bring me a glass of water.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Is it any wonder that this generation of young people do not know the meaning of service? Is it any wonder that my friend found it difficult to hire good service staff? To them, "service" equals "servitude". "Service" is NOT the same as "servitude". 

You can give abysmal, mediocre or excellent service. There is no such thing as good or bad servitude.

So, a generation of FDWs means a generation who feel they are above giving service. The chickens have come home to roost, as they say.

(I had words with my nephew. His family went without a maid as soon as it was possible. Nephew is a lovely young man now.)

Has anyone tried thinking outside the box to ask: How long do we want our children to be brought up by FDWs? What is the alternative to FDWs? How do we mesh in the need for FDWs, the PWP, HDB, etc. with facilitating the return of mothers to the work place?

I hope to explore this is greater detail in a later piece, backed by real research. After the GE.

Video? What about this? For the mothers.

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