Maids with ‘attitude’? Employers, look in the mirror

The following article has been published on TODAY ONLINE on Jan 24, 2011.

Letter from Stephanie Chok

I refer to the Voices Online letter ‘The new breed of “aggressor” maid’ (Jan 20).

It is unfortunate that Ms Tan has had unpleasant experiences with the domestic workers she has employed. However, there are more than 196,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore, and it is unfair to make blanket assumptions that “maids these days” are recalcitrant, disloyal and lazy. I am sure most employers would bristle at their being portrayed, without distinction, as cruel and unreasonable slave-drivers – simply because of the maid abuse cases highlighted by the media.

When employers complain about their employees showing “a black, sulking face”, perhaps it is time to review the root causes of such dissatisfaction.


In the press, employers sometimes complain about their workers showing ‘attitude’. There is often little acknowledgement, however, of the casual links between increasingly lackluster work performance (for instance, inattentiveness or sullenness) and a worker’s legitimate displeasure at her working conditions, such as overwork, lack of rest days and being constantly scolded. These are common situations faced by domestic workers here in Singapore.

Some examples of ‘poor behaviour’ raised by Ms Tan include domestic workers not completing a two-year contract and asking for a transfer because they do not like their employers or cannot take the workload. One could ask, though: Why are these requests automatically framed as unreasonable?

These are the very same reasons many people – regardless of their occupation – switch jobs: they cannot get along with their ‘boss’ and they feel their workload is excessive or unsuitable. Moreover, for live-in domestic workers, not getting along with ‘the boss’ has daily, dire consequences, as they work and reside in close proximity, 24/7, and bear the unrelenting brunt of any unpleasantness.

Furthermore, domestic workers arrive with heavy debt burdens and it is not in their best interest to seek constant transfers of employers, as this increases their debt burden. If they ask to do so, then it is probable that there are genuine tensions in the working relationship that need to be looked into.

Domestic workers are currently still excluded from the Employment Act and most employers in Singapore do not give their domestic workers a day off for the duration of their two-year work contracts. The salaries of domestic workers here are also lower than their counterparts working in the region, such as Hong Kong.

In general, domestic workers have to deal with low salaries relative to their long working hours, restrictions on their personal mobility and freedom, and the indignity of being discriminated against (as demonstrated by the recent news that maids are banned from using many condominium pools and even certain passenger lifts).

While Ms Tan may feel personally victimised by her own experiences of poor employer-employee relations, from a broader perspective, it is definitely not the case that our current system is ‘pro-maid’.

This letter is only available online.

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