Maids, Neo-Slavery and NGOs

By Aihwa Ong; from Migrations and Mobilities: Citizenship, Borders and Genders, edited by Seyla Benhabib and Judith Resnik.

The underpaid, starved and battered foreign maid, while not the statistical norm, has become the image of the new inhumanity in the Asian metropolis.  The following cases illustrate the range of assaults against Indonesia maids by well-off households in neighboring countries:

  • In 2002, an Indonesian maid in Malaysia was found to have been held as a “sex slave” for nearly two years by a government employee.
  • In the same year, an Indonesian maid, who had been starved and repeatedly tortured by her Singaporean employer, died from a final blow.  The employer was sentenced to 18 ½ years and to receive 12 strokes of the cane.
  • In early 2003, a Hong Kong housewife, who “filled her afternoons with golf lessons, facials and hair treatments,” beat her Indonesian maid until her liver ruptured.  The housewife was later charged with assault and is serving a 3 ½ year sentence.
  • In July, 2004, news pictures of a foreign maid with extensive burns on her face, breasts, and back exposed a harrowing tale of sadistic torture. Nirmala Bonat, a 19-year-old from East Indonesia, had been repeatedly scalded with hot water and burned with an iron by her employer.  The media disseminated shocking images of Nirmala’s wounds, arousing a sense of national shame.  The prime minister apologized publicly to the victim, and some law-makers called for imposing a life-long sentence on the employer before her trial.

In addition to the above cases of maid abuse and disfigurement, there are other incidents that remain murky and concealed.  For instance, over the past five years, about a hundred foreign maids had fallen from Singapore’s high-risers, plummeting to their death.  The main causes cited were maids slipping off window sills while cleaning the outside glass or hanging laundry to dry on bamboo poles. Others suspect that maids “imprisoned” in apartments were trying to escape or to commit suicide.

The frequency and ferocity of abuses against foreign maids index a brewing human rights crisis over the emergence of neo-slavery in Southeast Asia.  Over the past decade, having a foreign maid in the household has become an entrenched entitlement of middle and upper middle classes throughout Southeast Asia.  Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDHs) from the Philippines and Indonesia compete to cook, nurse babies, clean bathrooms, and perform other bottom-drawer chores for middle classes throughout the region, and beyond.3  There are approximately 140,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore, 4 200,000 in Malaysia,5 and 240,000 in Hong Kong.6  As an expendable and underpaid servant class, they have become key to the maintenance of the good life in affluent Asian sites.  It has been said that these are countries where “the middle classes have no idea how to cope without a maid.”

The cases of abuses by employers and recruiters remain small, compared to the total number of female migrant workers. Nevertheless, there is no easy way to assess the actual number of attacks on foreign domestic workers, but the gruesome nature of violence that has come to light reflects a widespread attitude towards foreign domestic workers as a separate category of sub-humans.  “Maids as slaves” is “Asia’s hidden shame,” a novel mix of rising affluence and mounting abuse that exposes the
“vulnerable millions” of young women on the move.  Low skill foreign women circulate in zones of exception that support the citadels of Asia’s new rich.

For the full essay (and many more), purchase the book, out March 1st.