For many expat spouses, the decision to employ affordable live-in help is a no-brainer. It frees up a lot of time that would be otherwise spent on household drudgery and childcare — time that could arguably be better spent elsewhere.
I don’t know what the maid situation is like in other countries, but in Singapore, that role is rarely (if ever) filled by a Singaporean. Instead, the government imports FDWs (Foreign Domestic Workers) from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand.
I didn’t have a live-in helper myself, but 99% the expats I knew did. Some of these maids I met briefly, and some I spent quite a bit of time with over the years, but all shared the same three characteristics:
- They were Filipinas.
- They were hard-working.
- They had children back in the Philippines.
Importing domestic labour is not uncommon, as Jessika Auerbach writes in her eye-opening book, And Nanny Makes Three:
“It’s a fairly simple formula, and one that predictably follows the money: A poor country, rich in nothing but corruption and manpower, will ship its only asset to other, wealthier countries in dire need of cheap labor….The economies of poor Southeast Asian countries rely so heavily on the revenue generated by the laborers they send to work for their oil- and technology-rich neighbors that the money they send home can be those countries’ single largest source of foreign currency.”
This is certainly the case in the Philippines, as the New York Times reported in 2009: “Remittances, which the government says have been rising sharply — from $7.6 billion in 2003 to $17.3 billion in 2009 — now account for more than 10 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product.”
That’s a lot of money — so much, in fact, that critics claim the Philippine government has come to rely on it to provide necessary services, instead of taking responsibility for strengthening the economy and the domestic job market.
Today, though, I’m thinking more of the human suffering that comes from exporting domestic labour. Filipina maids are treated like heroes in their homeland, but at what cost? These women are forced to choose between bettering their children’s lives financially and being with them physically. They see their little ones once a year (if they’re lucky) and over time, their relationship is in danger of becoming more about materialism than maternalism.
Can you imagine how painful it would be to move to another country and leave your children behind? My part-time helper, N, fussed over my girls incessantly because she missed her own so much. She left the Philippines when her youngest child was only six months old. When my girls were that age, I physically ached for them after being away for just a few hours. The thought of not seeing them for an entire year is gut wrenching.
Irma, one of the Filipina nannies Auerbach interviewed for her book, told her, “I just try not to think of my own children, it hurts too much…. I feel I do the best I can for my children, but it means they grow up without me…. It’s not natural for a mother not to see her children grow up. I hope I do the right thing.”
Today is Mother’s Day in many parts of the world. I’ll be spending time with my mother and mother-in-law to thank them for the love they’ve always shown me. But I’ll also be thinking of the women I met in Singapore, for whom Mother’s Day must be a bittersweet reminder of what they’re achieving … and what they’re missing.