Posts Tagged ‘Maids’

Indentured Servitude, Modern Asian Style.

datePosted on 23:26, February 21st, 2009 by Pablo

A few weeks back I wrote a post about European complicity in an Asian experiment in developmental authoritarianism. Aside from one blogger who felt that the post was racist because I noted the Confucian justification for this particular brand of authoritarianism, most readers understood that my points were simple: that when living in an authoritarian country one does not have to subscribe to the local cultural logics and ideological justifications for oppression; and it is dangerous for small liberal democracies like NZ to have returning ex-pats and new immigrants who subscribe to such logics assume positions of political and economic control.

Now I will give a specific example of why I believe this to be true. It involves the plight of maids in the Asian state in which I reside.

In this country maids are not covered by local labour law. They are required to learn English before their arrival. Employers are required to post a $5000 bond for securing their services, which is forfeitable if the maid engages in “unacceptable” behaviour. Such behaviour include getting pregnant, drinking in public and consorting with foreigners. By law, maids have zero days off per year–read that again: ZERO days off. The length of the working day and conditions are set by the employer. By law, maids have to be foreign, in this case usually Philipine, Indonesian, Indian, Bangladeshi, Thai, or mainland Chinese. They must always be female, and they must, unless otherwise specified, be under the age of 30. Maid recruitment agencies specialise in different nationalities depending on the employers preferences. Some employers want docile characters, some want ethnic kin, some want high school grads, some want children-friendly, some want cleanliness freaks, some want sultry, some want young (18 is the legal age for contracting a maid). It all depends on the employer’s penchants and proclivities. For their service, maids are paid, in a very generous household, a salary of $200/week.

Maid quarters are most often windowless cubicles located off an open air laundry with a toilet, washbasin and cold water shower. In many cases the maid cubicle has external locks to prevent their unauthorised exit from the employer’s premises.

Given the bond requirements, there is no incentive for employers to allow the maids out of sight. Thus the no-holiday rule plays neatly into the employer’s (and the state’s) rationale. To be sure, an employer can forfeit  the bond if the maid, say, falls to her death while cleaning the windows of a high-rise apartment (that has happened). But the thrust of the laws are to control the maids, not protect them. The servitude of the maids is such that foreign MNCs calculate in their relocation packages not only the costs of losing the bond should the maids of their executives misbehave, but also the costs of the maid being upgraded to the status of domestic partner (which is common to the point of becoming a joke amongst resident expat Europeans). 

The incidence of maid abuse is a well guarded but open secret. Since they are not covered by labour law, any maid subject to sexual, physical, financial or emotional abuse must report the complaint to the Police. The Police are wary of “he said, she said” type of complaints and are ordered to be suspicious of foreign nationals in any event, so it takes an extraordinary (young) woman to make a formal complaint knowing that the best result will be her deportation.

NZ has strong diplomatic, economic and security ties with this country. In fact, it has  a Free Trade Agreement with this country as well as a defense partnership. NZ-born executives populate the upper reaches of its managerial elite, and they enjoy the services of these maids. NZ fetes this country’s leaders whenever they visit. In fact, NZ uses this particular country as a model for economic development in a trade-dependent state. Yet at no point, either under Labour or National, has the NZ government questioned the propriety of close relations with a country that uses indentured servants as part of its economic development. The country in question is not the PRC–that is a whole other kettle of stinking fish.

There is much more to this picture but I will stop with this question. Do you, as a New Zealander, countenance close state-to-state relations with a country that uses indentured servitude as a component of its development strategy?