Recent global economic restructuring and the growing disparities between Asia’s “growth engines” and countries with slower development has intensified the shift in the burden of domestic work from the household to the market. In globalising cities such as Singapore, the high female labour force participation rate and the shrinkage of traditional sources of domestic help have fuelled the demand for foreign domestic workers as substitutes for women’s household labour, whether this be childcare, elderly care or housework. At the same time, broader economic and social circumstances in some South and Southeast Asian countries – including high unemployment and underemployment rates, and the lack of opportunities for upward mobility among working-class and rural families – contribute to the continuous supply of female labour migrants seeking work abroad as domestic workers in gender-specific labour markets. Today, about 160,000 migrant women, mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, are contracted as live-in domestic workers in one in seven households in Singapore.
Migrant women’s decision to leave their families to seek work abroad is often made within the context of the family, and couched in terms of a rational and pragmatic response to larger structural forces. Much is also invested in the idea that the journey is transitory, to be endured because there will be an end – and return journey – and because it will ultimately serve as an economic passport to a better and brighter future for the family and for self. Indeed, few of the women perceive their stint as a transmigrant overseas worker as a preferred or lifetime vocation, not least because they feel no ‘natural’ inclination or aptitude for such work and also because of the wrenching pain of leaving family and home.
In Singapore, the transnational domestic worker is subject to regulatory frameworks in terms of state legislation and surveillance mechanisms put in place to control contract migrant workers. State policies and discourses have (a) contributed to perpetuating the social ideology of housework as women’s work and non-work; (b) ensured that transnational domestic workers remain only a transient workforce in Singapore; and (c) created a gendered and limited degree of incorporation of these migrant women into Singapore society.
Triply excluded from civil space by virtue of being women, domestics and non-citizens, the “place” of transnational domestic workers is arguably one of the most important social barometers of the process of democratisation in Singapore society. Recently, civil society groups have emerged to champion the human rights and welfare of unskilled foreign workers in Singapore, including transnational domestic workers. Concerns about “maid abuse” and the women’s working conditions – including physical and sexual abuse in a minority of cases, non-payment of salary, the lack of a day off in the work week, inadequate living space as well as other “quiet indignities” stemming from the devaluing of domestic work – have led to incipient civil society action and the formation of non-governmental organizations offering support and advocacy services to promote the rights of foreign domestic workers.
Interactions between ‘migrant’ and ‘host’ in developed economies are often predicated on certain class, nationalistic, racialised, and gendered stereotypes of women from less well-off nations. Within such sharply asymmetrical power relations, employers usually concede little ground to their ‘foreign maids’ to express their individuality in the everyday space of the home. However, even as both ‘maid’ and ‘ma’am’ continue to negotiate their identities of difference through the filters of class, race/ethnicity and nationality, both sets of women also share expectations, roles and notions of domesticity that place women at the centre of the home
These negotiations of identity also continue into public space for transnational domestic workers fortunate enough to have a day off. Such negotiations are most evident in the foreign worker enclaves that appear in the city on weekends, when the women employ different styles and strategies to navigate, resist and even contest the use and colonisation of public spaces.
Transnational movements of female domestics are not only physical circuits of migration but may also be regarded as circuits of affection, caring and financial support between family members. The women and their family members define and negotiate her absence through the lenses of family ideals, gender identities and transnational communication. Paradoxically, even as transnational domestic workers’ gendered identities as martyr mothers, dutiful daughters and sacrificial sisters are strengthened during their sojourn abroad, family members ‘left behind’ by the migrant often contest or resist these notions.
This research recognises that transnational journeys are shaped by the charting of provisional futures, whether in terms of a ‘return’ and ‘reintegration’ into the home-nation, or ‘arrival’ and ‘settlement’ in a utopian destination. Many obstacles – including the breaking of hope midstream along a transnational journey as a result of premature dismissal, death or disability – confront transnational domestic workers on their transnational journey. Some are trapped within this ‘pilgrimage’, and find themselves perpetually locked in a state of uneasy transnational sojourning, constantly moving between ‘home’ and destination as a domestic worker, as dreams of either a final ‘return’ or ‘arrival’ recede from the realm of the possible.
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Yeoh, B.S.A, Bifurcated Labour: The Unequal Incorporation of Transmigrants in Singapore. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie (Journal of Economic and Social Geography), 97, no. 1 (2006) : 26-37.
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Huang, S. and B.S.A. Yeoh, Emotional Labour and Transnational Domestic Work: The Moving Geographies of “Maid Abuse” in Singapore. Mobilities, 2, no. 2 (2007): 195-217.
Huang, S., B.S.A. Yeoh and P. Straughan, Sustaining the Household in a Globalizing World: The Gendered Dynamics of Business Travel. Philippine Studies, 55, no. 2 (2007): 243-274.
Devasahayam, T.W. and B.S.A. Yeoh, Asian Women Negotiating Work Challenges and Family Commitments. In Working and Mothering in Asia: Images, Ideologies and Identities, edited by T. Devasahayam and B.S.A. Yeoh, pp. 1-24. Singapore: Singapore University Press and Denmark: NIAS Press, 2007.
Yeoh, B.S.A. and K. Annadhurai, Civil Society Action and the Creation of “Transformative” Spaces for Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore. Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 37, no. 5 (2008): 548-569.
Yeoh, B.S.A. and A.E. Lai, Guest Editors' Introduction: ‘Talent' migration in and out of Asia: challenges for policies and places. Asian Population Studies, 4, no. 3 (2008): 235-245.
Yeoh, B.S.A., Transnational Migration and Women on the Move in Southeast Asia. Canadian Diversity/Diversité canadienne , 6, no. 3 (2008) : 47-50.
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