“While often defined by their mobile or migrant status, the Covid-19 global pandemic has rendered domestic workers in Singapore immobile in many respects. Alike people in different contexts across the globe, the pandemic has enforced stillness at multiple scales: within national borders, within urban regions, and within the micro-scale of the home. “, writes Dr Laura Antona, an ESRC postdoctoral fellow in the School of Geography and Environment, at the University of Oxford
Across the past 6-months, there has been wide-ranging discussion of how the world will look and feel when the Covid-19 pandemic resolves itself (if, indeed, it does in a clear fashion). While for the most part this still remains a question to be answered, there have been some hints as to the changes we might expect to remain in place for a prolonged period, as many countries ease from their more severe states of ‘lockdown’ (or from their ‘circuit breaker’ measures, as they were named in Singapore). While not in Singapore during the global pandemic, I maintained contact with several domestic workers that I had previously interviewed during my PhD fieldwork. Knowing about their lives within Singapore before the pandemic, I was intrigued to learn more about how their everyday routines and experiences had been altered. In this blog post, therefore, I draw together these domestic workers reflections, both from informal conversations and more formal online interviews. In order to protect the identity of the people interviewed, pseudonyms have been used throughout this paper.
Increased Bodily Surveillance and Tensions in the Home Space
Unlike labour that takes place in more public settings, both the intimacy and spatiality of domestic labour mark it as distinct, often leaving domestic workers under heightened scrutiny and surveillance from their employers. This is particularly acute for live-in domestic workers, who not only have to work and rest in the home of their employer, but whose presence means they are often overworked and experience increased vulnerability to abuse (Constable, 1997; Anderson, 2000; Parreñas, 2001; Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2002; Huang & Yeoh, 2007). In Singapore, as in many other national contexts, domestic workers are only able to migrate under an employer-sponsored scheme, rendering employers responsible for their salaries, accommodation, food and wellbeing (MOM, 2020a). In addition to their bodily maintenance, the Singaporean state also makes employers responsible for domestic workers’ bodily control, legislating in such a way that leaves them vulnerable to surveillance and control (Chok, 2013; MOM, 2020a). Indeed, prior to the Covid-19 global pandemic, and while conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Singapore, I heard of a great number of employers utilising CCTV in order to remotely monitor their home, and the work being completed there (Antona, 2019).
While many domestic workers are used to a fairly high degree of surveillance, then, the Covid-19 pandemic has further intensified this for many people. When I spoke to domestic workers about this, one of the main changes that the circuit-breaker measures brought was the sustained presence of their employer and their employer’s family. One domestic worker, Benilda, very simply, and in an exacerbated tone, said: “it just means I am being watched all the time”. She explained that she did not have a bedroom of her own and slept on the floor of her employer’s child’s room, so had no space of her own to rest in the day when she was given time off. When usually she would have the house to herself, and so was able to sit at the table or on the sofa to relax, she felt unable to do this in front of her employer and so would not sit down all day, other than to briefly eat in the kitchen.
These sentiments were shared by many other domestic workers I spoke to, who also expressed their frustration with having less rest time and an increased workload. Rose, another domestic worker, said that the amount of cleaning and cooking she had to complete had increased dramatically because the house was never empty, and the family were no longer eating any meals out. She explained: “they always eating, the children playing, making mess, I get so tired from all the work”. Rose also said that she would be able to cope more easily if she wasn’t constantly being watched and could take some time off: “it’s more pressure to be watched as well”.
Aside from the increased bodily surveillance and workload, and perhaps as a result of this, several of the people I interviewed also reported heightened tensions too. As mentioned previously, both the intensive bodily surveillance enacted by many employers and the intimacy of domestic labour, often produce friction between employer and employee, with domestic workers remaining highly vulnerable to mistreatment, abuse and being overworked.
During the current global pandemic, activists, NGOs, politicians, advocates and survivors across the world have spoken about the increase in domestic violence and abuse (Bradbury-Jones & Isham, 2020; End Violence Against Children, 2020; SafeLives, 2020; women’s aid, 2020; Guardian, 2020). Indeed, it has been widely shown that increased societal and household stress – whether it be produced socially, economically, politically or otherwise – often results in higher rates of domestic violence (Aoláin, Haynes, & Cahn, 2011; Tyner, 2012; Bradley, 2018). While none of the domestic workers that I spoke to said that they had experienced any physical violence during this period, many reported increased working hours and more stressful environments. In addition, HOME (the Humanitarian Organization of Migration Economics), an NGO that supports domestic workers in Singapore and operates a helpline, verified a 25% increase in calls since the government had increased restrictions on movements and mandated that people work from home (The Star, 2020). FAST (the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training), another NGO that supports domestic workers in Singapore, also reported increased tensions within home spaces, reporting that the number of domestic workers fleeing their employers’ homes had doubled in March and April of this year (The Straits Times, 2020a). Likewise, shelters in embassies and managed by NGOs, have also reported increases in their occupancy rates since the circuit-breaker measures were enforced.
Removal of Rights and Decreasing Mobility
While often defined by their mobile or migrant status, the Covid-19 global pandemic has rendered domestic workers in Singapore immobile in many respects. Alike people in different contexts across the globe, the pandemic has enforced stillness at multiple scales: within national borders, within urban regions, and within the micro-scale of the home. While being confined to the home space with their employers has had its own challenges, domestic workers have also been unable to travel to and from Singapore as they might have otherwise wanted to. Indeed, one of the domestic workers I interviewed had been hoping to travel to Indonesia to visit her children during the summer of 2020, prior to starting a new employment contract. She explained how upset she was at being unable to travel, knowing that it wasn’t just a case of delaying her trip for a few months, but likely until the end of her next employment contract, two years later.
Of course, beyond not being able to leave the country, many domestic workers discussed the tightening controls and the issues they had with not being able to leave their employer’s home. Domestic workers were encouraged not to leave their employers’ homes on their weekly day off (if they were given one) and so were expected to rest in their workplace. Margielyn was just one domestic worker who expressed her upset with this, explaining “even if I can’t meet with friends, staying in all day always means more work”. Alike others, Margielyn said she understood the need to social distance but felt unable to get any rest without even a room of her own to spend time in. Being at home, and in the presence of her employer, meant that they could ask her to do small ‘favours’ or jobs, meaning she ultimately ended up working every day. While being confined to the home space was a shared experience of Singaporean citizens and migrants alike, the removal of the freedom to move around the city state also resulted in a removal of many domestic workers’ rights to rest and time off from work. Even after the circuit-breaker measures had lifted, Margielyn told me that her employer would not allow her outside on her day off. She explained: “ma’am thinks I will meet with friends and bring back the virus so she don’t allow me out”. The lack of trust within this relationship and the fear of Covid-19, as well as the bodily control that employers’ have, means that many domestic workers who would ordinarily be given a weekly day off are still subjected to confinement.
While some domestic workers felt unable to move from Singapore, or freely within it, other people were unable to move to the country, as processing new work visas was temporarily paused. Indeed, the Singaporean state has been putting measures in place to make ‘transferring’ domestic workers from one employer to another simpler, as fewer people have been migrating (The Straits Times, 2020b). In addition to domestic workers in Singapore, I also spoke to two former domestic workers that I knew, who were both hoping to move from the Philippines abroad again to find work. While not necessarily set on moving to Singapore, they both felt that they would have little chance of moving in the near future, with so many controls in place on mobility within the Southeast Asia region.
Alongside many domestic workers’ immobility, there are some people who are being forced to move from Singapore. The Singaporean state affirmed that it would carry out inspections of key spaces to ensure that domestic workers, along with other migrant labourers, did not (and do not) break any of the circuit-breaker measures (The Straits Times, 2020c). If and when caught doing so, however, the state did not impose the same punishment as it did to citizens. Indeed, instead of just being fined, migrant workers were/are liable to having their work passes revoked and to being blacklisted, meaning they would be unable to work in Singapore again (ibid.). Interestingly, this rule has not only been applied to domestic workers and others considered ‘low skilled’ in Singapore but were also applied to White ‘expats’ who did not adhere to circuit-breaker regulations (The Straits Times, 2020d). In many ways, then, there is some suggestion that the Covid-19 has resulted in a reconfiguring of both mobility and migration within Singapore and Southeast Asia more broadly.
The New Normal? Or the Same Old?
When speaking to domestic workers about the impacts of Covid-19 and the circuit-breaker measures that the Singaporean state had imposed, I had expected that they would all mention the changes noted in the sections above. In many respects, these points were of no great surprise. The most unexpected comments were, however, from those who reported that nothing had changed in their daily lives. Indeed, four domestic workers told me that they hadn’t been impacted by Covid-19 in any meaningful way. Comments such as “no sister, nothing change” (Interview with Florence, August 2020) and “things are quite OK, the same really” (Interview with Siti, August 2020) led me to question how this could be the case. While none of these domestic workers were entirely happy in their employment, their working environments had not deteriorated or worsened during this period. As I spoke to them further, it transpired that none of them were given a day off ordinarily and their employers were regularly at home already.
With so much public attention given to the ways in which the global pandemic has profoundly, and very quickly, changed people’s relationships, labour practices and the ways societies function more broadly, it was striking to me that these women’s experiences differed so much. When reflecting on these conversations, it occurred to me that it is actually many people’s usual privileges that meant their enforced confinement felt stark and impacted their lives so profoundly. For many domestic workers, being forced to live and work in the same space, confined to the same few rooms for months or even years, is a decision that they make because the financial opportunities and gains are so much more significant than any they have in the countries they moved from.
It was only upon reflecting on these comments and sentiments that I re-questioned whether the changes others had stated were actually so different to their normal daily lives. While it was clear that the circuit-breaker measures had heightened issues, they were not actually entirely new. Domestic workers that I spoke to during my PhD research had widely commented on their level of surveillance, a relentless workload, as well as a lack of free-time, rest and basic rights. When interviewing domestic workers about the impacts of Covid-19, it seemed that the ‘new normal’ I was enquiring about, was in fact just more of the ‘same old’. This revelation was, and is, significant in itself, and only strengthens assertions that this form of labour, and the policy surrounding it, needs re-examination and major reform.
Indeed, with rising concern about both the immediate and longer-term physical and mental health consequences of enforced confinement (as there has been globally, with lockdowns and circuit breaker measures), it is important to reflect on those individuals whose daily lives are ordinarily heavily confined. Live-in domestic workers, particularly those with very minimal or no days of rest, regularly experience these kinds of restrictions for extended periods, sometimes years. When taking into account a domestic worker’s inability to choose when and what they eat, the physically and emotionally arduous labour that they perform without rest, the social isolation they are forced to endure (particularly for those people who are not allowed to use their mobile phone and can only speak to their family and friends at limited times) and a precarious status which renders them dependent upon their employer, it is clear, then, that their mental and physical wellbeing should be a much more significant societal priority. Rather than remaining concerned only by the changes that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have brought to Southeast Asia, and the world, it is also important to reflect on those whose daily lives have not changed during this period. Only then might we be able to work towards a more equitable future for all people post-pandemic.
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* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.