Timothy Burke reveals an interesting facet of the great blogospheric nanny debate in his latest post. (See also Harry's post on Crooked Timber, which contains lots of relevant links). He talks about how he just feels disturbed by the idea of having someone other than a family member in such intimate contact with his life:
What it boiled down to was that I was intensely uncomfortable about having strangers inside my domestic space. Not racially phobic, but generically, universally so. I didn’t want any people seeing my dirty clothes, my books, my things, my way of life, if they weren’t very close friends or family.
I was interested in this discussion, because John and I employ a maid here in Singapore (she is also a nanny). I realize that D^2 thinks we're jerks now, but I chalk that up to his having listened to the Clash so much as a young man:
There were masters and servants and servants and dogs
They taught you how to touch your cap
Through strikes and famine and war and peace
England never closed this gap
- "Something About England"
No, actually, I understand that some people just feel really strongly that you ought to clean your own toilet (like Chun, for example). Or, possibly have your wife clean it for you (but Chun doesn't think this. He's on toilet duty for all time.)
I have been trying to work up a post on this topic for some time, but got distracted by wanting to explain at great length the Singapore-specific aspects of the matter. I think I'll mostly let that go for now, just noting a few things. Having a maid is vastly more common in Singapore than in the US; about 1 in 7 households do. The women are all legal, temporary immigrants from other Asian countries (mostly the Philippines and Indonesia). So, they do have actual contracts and so forth. However, the legal situation for these Foreign Domestic Workers here in Singapore is unquestionably bad (for example, the maximum work hours are 16 per day. Enough said.) The actual working conditions vary from obviously expolitative to quite good, and though the pay is less than Hong Kong, there is a general perception among maids that Singaporean employers don't work you as hard.
Now, I think we would say that most of these women are being exploited. The standards of what Singaporeans regard as reasonable treatment differ from those of expatriate employers, so that jobs with the latter are highly sought after. It is relevant on this score to consider that just a short time ago, in the 1950's and 1960's, an impoverished Singapore exported FDW's to the Philippines. The "black and white amah", so called because of her uniform, with a long, coiled braid the symbol of her eternal spinsterhood, was a sought-after commodity for rich Filipino families. Some of the wizened grannies now lording it over some young Filipina in their HDB flat spent their own youth in the same occupation. Singapore looks like a modern, western city, but its economic development is very recent, and its culture is truly different under all the gleaming glass and steel.
Many of these FDW's have children at home, and I found this idea so disturbing that I initially wanted to rule out hiring a woman who was also a mother. After a bit of reflection, I decided this was discriminatory. Our maid, Tena Zamudio, does have two children in the Philippines, aged 13 and 14. If there is one thing that getting involved in this process has brought home to me, it is the deep and random nature of economic inequality in this world. In a just world, I would more likely be working for Tena than vice versa; she's got it on the ball a lot more than I do. In a counterfactual world in which the Philippines had good government and was prospering, she would be at home, running some business. (Thailand has just reached the stage of development where it becomes possible to earn in Thailand the same wage one would have gotten as an FDW in Singapore; a maid just left our complex here to do just that. Tena has been to Thailand with us and is very envious of their tourism-led prosperity). Or, if she had been born in America, she would be rich now. I say this not out of some starry-eyed faith in the American Dream, but because Tena is so intelligent and ambitious, and, frankly, hard-nosed no-nonsense about business.
I was talking with Tena about this debate in the blogosphere over the ethics of hiring a domestic worker. She agreed that being a domestic worker put you in a vulnerable position, in that if you got a bad employer you were in a bad way. This is why she thought no one should ever go work in Saudi Arabia, no matter how good the pay was. On the other hand, she thought it was silly that anyone would think it was so bad a job that no one should do it. Her comment was, "if I don't do it, you do it. Who thinks that is so bad?" As Burke points out, "In a way, it’s a silly point [that women are betraying other women by hiring them as domestics and nannies], because it’s awfully hard to contain to domesticity." Tena mentioned this too, that we hire people to cook food for us in restaurants, and that the toilets in malls and things don't magically clean themselves.
Tena and I went on to discuss generally similar jobs she wouldn't take over this one, even at a modest price premium (obviously, if we stipulatively raised the wages to the moon, she'd do any of them.) I thought it was interesting, especially in that her preferences are the inverse of Burke's, in a way:
1. Working in a hospital as a nurse's aide. She really doesn't want to wash people's sores and change bedpans and wound dressings. (She quit a job here in Singapore where the employer's father was becoming ill, as she could see a lot of this in her future. She lied that she had a family emergency in the Philippines and broke her contract, then came back to work for someone else.)
2. Cleaning up in a hawker centre. Obvious, this one; no one wants to clean public toilets and greasy old food (somone does, though. Old Chinese and Indian aunties, mostly.)
3. Working as a cleaner at the University. Same problem with public toilets, plus "students are messy, and professors are worse." Sorry, John.
4. Working the same hours, but in a store, cleaning up and restocking shelves. Public toilets again, plus you're busy the whole time. Her current job is no picnic, but she gets to have a nap in the afternoon, chat on the phone with friends, go out shopping with her friends and sister (taking my daughter along) and so on. She's not under continuous supervision.
5. Same job, but less living space/worse working conditions. This one is not counterfactual; she could make more working in Hong Kong, and a number of her friends do (and encourage her to). However, because HK apartments are smaller, maids often don't have their own rooms, sleeping instead on the sofa in the living room or on the kitchen floor on a mattress. She's got her own (small) room here, with cable TV etc., and her own bathroom. Plus, HK employers are reputed to want their money's worth. This is worth a pay cut.
6. Interestingly, of two jobs at equal salary, she's prefer to be a maid for a family with young children than without any, because it's fun to be with little kids.
Just her being here in Singapore means that she's not willing to take a massive pay cut to work near home, FDW's in Singapore make more than mid-level civil servants in the Philippines. Tena's family is not desparately poor; they own property and she has two years of college in a hotel hospitality course. She's not doing this so her children will have enough to eat. She's doing it so that they can go to college and get good jobs. I admire her for it. We like to think we would do anything for our children, but what if it meant being separated from them? Her feeling is that the blameworthy people involved are the jerks running the Philippines. If her home country economy didn't suck, she wouldn't be doing this.
Finally, John wants me to mention that I'm chronically ill, so I really do need the help. He thinks this will deflect the opprobrium otherwise visited on me because I am a stay-at-home mom and I have a full time maid (but hey everyone, don't be sexist! Fling equal amounts of opprobrium at John!). So, I mention it, but I have to say that I don't believe it would be wrong for me to hire Tena even if I were in perfect health, and I don't think my friends who have done so are bad or lazy.
Having Tena here helps us give our child the best life we can. She lives in a world that is always clean and orderly, where no one fights, and people don't get frazzled and lose their temper. Removing housework and childcare as sources of dispute mean that John and I don't have anything to get angry at each other about. I don't have to drag Zoë with me to the store and have tragic tantrums (we get groceries delivered, and if we need things from the hardware store I can go by myself). Zoë loves Tena very much. I cook good homemade food for everyone, every night. I get to spend happy, relaxed time with my daughter. In fact, being able to afford Tena's salary (and the taxes) is the main draw to living in Singapore. So, is our blissful life infected from within by the evil of exploitation? Chun? Other people, about whom I don't know what you'll say?