Tom White, a photographer based in Singapore, has been documenting the lives of domestic workers for the past six years. Domestic workers form a foundation of daily life in Singapore by performing routine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and elders. However, their living and working conditions are complicated. The workers — who are always women and come from nearby developing countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia — are required by law to live with the families they work for, but are exempt from Singapore's Employment Act, which provides basic worker protections.
The combination of close living conditions and a lack of strong legal protection can be toxic. From May 2013 to November 2014, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) interviewed 670 foreign domestic workers in Singapore, where the human rights group is based. Half of those questioned experienced verbal abuse, 67% had their passports held by their host families, and 73% were restricted in communicating with people outside the home.
In 2012, reports of such abuse caused the Indonesian government to insist on mandatory training for housekeepers and increased protection from foreign governments. Starting this year, the Indonesian government will require domestic workers abroad to live separately from their host families, work standardized hours, and receive paid time off, including public holidays.
We spoke with White about his photographs. The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was it like going to the training centers?
Tom White: The training centers in Indonesia are something that all women who intend to work as domestic workers abroad have to attend. Not all of them do. Without going into too much detail, there is evidence to suggest that unscrupulous agents bypass government regulations, meaning that some women are employed without having been through this process. For the vast majority, though, the training center is where they will spend up to four months prior to leaving the country for work.
One thing that struck me was how unlike a home these training centers were. Everything seemed so ordered and structured, and there was a great deal of solemnity and sincerity about the work they were practicing. It did not seem reflective of the chaos of a busy home with kids and working adults which is likely to become these women’s workplace. That said, there was much laughter and excitement, and a degree of positive anticipation. I got the sense that on the whole these women perceived the future as bright.
From your experience in Singapore, what is the role of domestic workers, and do you see that changing?
TW: Domestic workers are essential to Singapore’s society. It was only in 2013 that it became law that employers must give their domestic worker one day off a week. Many women don’t get this. Employers can ask their domestic workers to work seven days, giving payment in lieu of the day off. This is unfortunately open to abuse, and I have met domestic workers who were not given a choice of a day off. Some who are given this time off have their freedom curtailed. Curfews are common. Some are still asked to work, preparing breakfast or doing chores in the evening — such is a family’s reliance on their presence. These women cook, they clean, they take care of children, the elderly, they do the shopping, they serve dinner, they do the washing. Everything. There is no doubt that they are doing a job which some take for granted.
As domestic workers are required by law to live with their employers, some become close to their employers and are treated with great respect. I do often hear of good relationships described as ones where the domestic worker becomes “part of the family.” As the workplace is a private home, the flipside of this arrangement is that when abuse does happen, it can go undiscovered. Not all of this abuse manifests as extreme acts. Local NGO HOME runs a shelter for runaway migrant workers. When I visit there, I hear time and again the common disputes of restricted freedoms such as confiscated passports and restricted access to cell phones, exhausting working hours, lack of adequate food allowances, punitive action — verbal and physical — for perceived wrongs, violation of contracted rights, and withheld pay. The most extreme cases, instances of sexual abuse and physical violence, make for sensational headlines but are fortunately rare.
There are calls to alter some of the legislation for domestic workers. Allowing a “live-out” option, improving regulation of agencies, and requiring more training for potential employees and employers are all proposals I have encountered. One thing I think will be an issue is care for the elderly. As the global population ages, this will become an issue in Singapore and elsewhere. Will this mean a surge in demand for domestic workers with nursing skills, and a corresponding rise in wages for those with the requisite training?
Are people worried about the possible ban?
TW: Last year, Indonesia announced they would ban new “live-in” maids from going abroad. Domestic workers would instead have to live in dormitories in an effort to curb the instances of abuse that occur in employers' homes. This ban has yet to materialize. Without international cooperation and a change in legislation in both countries, such an arrangement would be unworkable. For Singapore, which draws on the Philippines and Indonesia along with Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and several other countries for its domestic worker population, any ban would just see a shift in the numbers from other source countries.
Economic pressures play a part, as well as entrenched social norms. Remittance money is an important part of the Southeast Asian region’s economy. It is difficult to ignore that. In Singapore and other countries that are common destinations for domestic workers, the expectation that hiring a domestic worker means hiring a live-in employee who is potentially always on call is quite prevalent. While the live-out option is one that some see as beneficial to both parties, there is no big drive to move toward this arrangement, either from government or citizenry. I would imagine the status quo will persist for some time yet.
Stories like that of Nina, who came to Singapore looking for a way to provide a better life for her family and left with both physical and emotional scars, will continue to happen unless more is done to ensure that the promise of a better life is one that is fulfilled, rather than exploited.
You've been following this subject for a while. What motivates you to continue?
TW: From a professional point of view, it’s such a wide-ranging topic that touches on so many issues. The stories of domestic workers are also stories about migration, economics, family, finance, struggle, friendship, politics. You name it, it’s there.
Too often tales of abuse and neglect dominate. Not to say this isn’t important, and when it happens it should be highlighted and addressed, but it can be counterproductive to just pursue the sensational at the exclusion of all else.
Nina’s story is a great example of this in my mind. Although her injuries are horrific, how she came to be in this state is quite convoluted in many ways. Meeting her in the hospital and working backward from there to discover how and why she had got to that point was like unraveling a tangled ball of knots. In many ways, this is what life is like for all of us, and getting beyond the simplistic is for me key to understanding all the issues that the individual’s stories relate to.
Nina Duwi Koriah was injured while falling out of a window at her agent's home. An earlier version of a photo caption stated that she was injured while staying at her employer's home.