Domestic employment in Southeast Asia’s rich metropolitan centres is often presented as a lucrative, even strategic choice for thousands across the region pursuing better livelihoods, or an improvement in living standards.
In a recent address, a Singapore minister praised his country’s foreign domestic workers (colloquially referred to as “maids”) for choosing to “support their families back home” in this way. His language echoed that of reports in Singapore’s national broadsheet, typecasting domestic workers as “women from impoverished families seeking higher incomes abroad”. Unsurprisingly, state-supported charities like the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training have made it their aim to maximise returns on these women’s decisions to migrate: by “adding value to their work”, and hence “enhancing their future employability”.
Academics within and beyond the region are prone to entrenching this view. Southeast Asia’s domestic workers are mostly portrayed as voluntary migrants who, as one researcher put it, set out to “make money, save it up, and invest it strategically in a transnational manner”. This reading has also begun to shape policy discourse. A briefing released by the UK’s Department for International Development in early 2016, authored with a team at Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, framed labour migration as a “pro-poor livelihood strategy”, undertaken especially by women from “poor households” to support “productive investments” in education and other areas.
A narrative that characterises the decision to seek foreign domestic work as a free, informed, and laudable choice, however, conceals the fact that labour migration in Southeast Asia is chiefly produced by deep-seated drivers of displacement.
Taking a more nuanced perspective would not only allow us to account for the causes of forced migration within the region, but also to address them.
Sending states are a key piece of the puzzle. As early as 2001, Indonesia’s new minister of Manpower and Transmigration stated that his government would “facilitate labour export” as a solution to unemployment, given that “about 40 million people [were] jobless” at the time.
Professor Stephen Castles, a former director of the International Migration Institute, has pointed out that encouraging emigration to ease joblessness can bring “long-term costs to the economy and society”. Nevertheless, political leaders in the region who are unable or unwilling to create employment at home may well perceive exporting domestic labour to be an attractive, and no doubt affordable, policy solution.
But states rarely urge their citizens directly to take up poorly remunerated and ill-protected jobs overseas. Instead, conditions can be created (or left to occur) in which those in difficult positions view the sacrifices involved in doing so as the least bad option relative to other life choices.
A 2015 study by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics found that close to two-fifths of Indonesian, Filipino and Myanmese foreign domestic workers had migrated “to be able to send their children to school”, while 15 per cent reported either problems in the household or a lack of available jobs as reasons why they left.
Solutions to such problems should rightfully be demanded from national governments.
Still, pressures for displacement are not created by sending states alone. The umbrella of responsibility extends much further, to transnational employment agencies which charge extortionate rates and wilfully distort information about working conditions abroad, as well as intermediate authorities at home who willingly overlook stricter safeguards during the recruitment process.
Global and regional market dynamics are also to blame.
Skyrocketing inequality in Southeast Asia means that any gains in regional wealth are enjoyed by a thin, privileged elite, leaving few options for those struggling to make ends meet. This makes domestic work, often in unappealing conditions and far from home, still a desirable option.
To be clear, we cannot afford to overlook the agency of migrant workers in determining their futures: indeed, the willingness of so many to make the best of their circumstances speaks of great personal fortitude and hidden sacrifice.
Yet, applauding choice must not distract us from tackling coercion. A narrative which foregrounds only the voluntary aspects of migration tempts us to think that migrants bring upon themselves the trials they face abroad, and allows those responsible for deprivations endured elsewhere to get away with easy solutions.
We owe them, and ourselves, a better explanation.
Theophilus Kwek is a writer, editor and researcher based in Singapore. He has recently completed a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford University