There are plenty of foreign workers in Singapore. But as Philip Bowring pointed out in an article in the International Herald Tribune on Monday:
"Maids are allowed only from specified Asian countries, with the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka heading the list.”
And then came the rub:
"Chinese are not on the list, which leads some to allege that only ‘brown people’ or those from non-Confucian societies are to be employed in this most menial job."
Phew! But let’s face it: I have never seen a Chinese maid in Singapore. I wonder why. After all, women from China are to be found almost in every other job, as hawkers, shop assistants, production operators, karaoke lounge hostesses, tutors; so why not as maids?
Out of Singapore’s total "population of 4.35 million, 747.900 were non-residents with various kinds of work permits as of 2003," writes Bowring. "Some non-residents are professionals… but most are manual workers, sex workers and, by some estimates, about 150,000 domestic workers."
The maids especially get a raw deal, says Bowring, though the Government is trying to improve their conditions. They may be finally entitled to one day off a month. But in Hong Kong, maids are already entitled to one day off a week and all public holidays, he adds.
Bowring finds the conditions of domestic workers in Singapore "shocking". But that does not stop foreign workers from coming to Singapore. It may be their only chance of a better life some day.
I am reminded of a Bangladeshi worker I met the other day. He services air-conditioners. But back home in Dhaka, he said, he has bought two houses; his parents live on the rental income. He has not yet married. Instead, he is taking a part-time course to improve his job prospects. Who says only high-flyers are ambitious? Some are working their way up.