“Worst Problem” faced by Domestic Maids: Study

Extract from recent paper by Wessels et.al (2017).

“Overall, a perceived distress as a result of coercive employer behaviour is evident. Abusive employer behaviour was indicated most commonly as the worst problem by the women in this study while working as a FDW in Singapore, while only 15% of FDWs mentioned excessive work to be the worst problem personally experienced, despite 93% of surveyed women facing excessive working days
or hours.

Findings suggest a tolerance towards exploitation, which is further perpetuated by the ease at which employers, particularly in Singapore, are able to deport migrant workers like FDWs back home. This might make it less likely that a FDW would raise any issues she may have with her employment conditions for fear of being sent home.(p. 104)”

My Interest on the matter

The article is concise and gives us a good experiential view of the nature of exploitation of these workers. My interest actually lies in the Singaporean psyche. Yes, the government (Singapore and the countries where the maids come from) and businesses have created a situation conducive for exploiting the maids. Arguably, we as citizens, have very little influence on this. Why is it then, do we have to add to the pain by behaving in abusive way towards the workers? What is the psychodynamic forces underlying the Singaporean culture that lead to “tolerance towards exploitation”? How is this hurting the Singaporean?

The problem with studies surrounding FDWs points the spotlight on the workers’ plight. This direction of attention has proven to backfire, especially with the Singaporean society.  Read this article of rebuttal published in Singapore’s most read english newspaper , and one can see the vehement denial, not of responsibility, but of acknowledgment that practices carried out by the Singaporean employer is a source of confinement and isolation, which are cause of psychological distress.

“Scenarios such as not giving the maid the house keys, needing permission to leave the house or other similar situations should not be considered as “isolation” or “confinement”, said MOM. (Straits Times) ”

I salute this study by Wessels et.al. It is food for discourse and hopefully awareness and change.  I find, however, we are in danger, with good intent to focus almost unilaterally on the plight of the FDWs. We have not not brought adequate attention to the pathological attitudes of the Singaporean society towards the maids, and how this way of thinking and the introjects that lay hidden actually compromise the lives of the average Singaporean themselves.

Certainly, the limitation of the already long paper does not permit this. However, in my opinion, it is a way forward, and needs to be done. Too much focus on the plight of the FDWs set this group deeper into the victim position in the eyes of the Singaporean public /and government.

As is stated in the article, there is a gross power disparity between the two groups: as in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. The problem with focussing of the slave’s victimhood, one gives more power to the perpetrator. The way out of this is to empower the slave is to help him help himself, and to show the master that he is also a victim of the dialectic.

The same group of researchers have written a paper on part of this process that empowers the FDWs to support themselves: How to implement peer-based mental health services for foreign domestic workers in Singapore? 

It is probably time for someone to come forward with the next study, on what this phenomenon can tell us about the Singaporean psyche, and how it is affecting the average Singaporean life today.


Wessels, A., Ong, M., Daniel, D. (2017). Bonded to the system. Labour exploitation in the foreign domestic work sector in Singapore. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321298753_Bonded_to_the_system_Labour_exploitation_in_the_foreign_domestic_work_sector_in_Singapore

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