Indentured Servitude, Modern Asian Style.

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?

13 thoughts on “Indentured Servitude, Modern Asian Style.

  1. 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?

    To me the answer has to be yes, because international relations are a pragmatic question of national interest. The answer to that question doesn’t factor in ethical considerations and it shouldn’t.

    The minute you bring in ethical considerations, you introduce subjective judgement. For example, you could argue we shouldn’t have close relations with the US or Israel if you bring in ethical considerations. Even Australia comes into the picture if you think they treat their indigenous people in unethical ways or you don’t like the things they do in the neighborhood now they’ve developed into a middle-power.

    International relations also have to be consistent for practical reasons. You cannot have relationships changing every time there’s a change of govt. If you factor ethical considerations into the mix, that would indeed begin to happen.

    There’s also the argument that you have at least an opportunity to persuade them to change if you have a relationship with them. Although in reality that hardly ever happens, sometimes it does as in the case of Peters acting as neutral go-between with NK and the US. If you have no relationship at all, you have no chance at all.

    Switzerland has its international principles written into its constitution – perhaps we could do the same? Here’s some extracts from the Wiki entry:

    “The 1999 Swiss Constitution declares the preservation of Switzerland’s independence and welfare as the supreme objective of Swiss foreign policy. Below this overarching goal, the Constitution sets five specific foreign policy objectives:
    * further the peaceful coexistence of nations;
    * promote respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of the law;
    * promote Swiss economic interests abroad;
    * alleviate need and poverty in the world;
    * promote preservation of natural resources.

    These objectives reflect the Swiss moral obligation to undertake social, economic, and humanitarian activities that contribute to world peace and prosperity. This is manifested by Swiss bilateral and multilateral diplomatic activity, assistance to developing countries, and support for the extension of international law, particularly humanitarian law.

    Traditionally, Switzerland has avoided alliances that might entail military, political, or direct economic action. Only in recent years have the Swiss broadened the scope of activities in which they feel able to participate without compromising their neutrality.

    Switzerland maintains diplomatic relations with almost all countries and historically has served as a neutral intermediary and host to major international treaty conferences. The country has no major dispute in its bilateral relations. – relations with all, friends with none, and a formidable defence force.”

  2. So um, what country is it? I still haven’t figured it out yet. Singapore?

    Yeah it’s Sing.

  3. If Ostpolitik taught us anything, it’s that you keep relations going whenever you can, strained or not.

    It’s better not to try and “lean” on people and instead to sincerely convince them your way is best. (Unless of course you can’t countenance the regime at all)

  4. ‘Nice’ post Pablo.

    To your question first. No.

    But then, forms of indentured labour are found the world over. Sweatshops exist in London, Brussels, Auckland….Then there is the more covert denial of rights to foreign workers here and elsewhere.

    While these workers might not be working in a country where the state condones or encourages the conditions you speak of, the end result for the workers involved is highly comparable.

    Let me give this example. At the moment I am engaged in helping a foreign worker to learn English. There are stringent English language qualifications in place he must pass to get permanent residency.

    So there we have a point of difference with your example. He could be sponsored by his employer to work without necessarily understanding the local language, but his work permit is for a limited duration. To remain in the country until his work permit expires requires (as I understand it) that his employer does not withdraw sponsorship or dismiss him from his job.

    And there’s the rub. This guy, although theoretically covered by NZ employment law is, in reality at the beck and call of his employer. His wages are low (just above min) and he lives in accommodation supplied by his employer. I can imagine that after rent is paid then he will not really be much better off financially than the maids you talk about who have a roof over their heads + maybe $200.

    He’s a qualified chef and works in the restaurant trade ( as many immigrant workers do) and has one day off a week (alternate Mon/Sun). So although he can drink in public, the particular day off a week doesn’t exactly lend itself to socialising. This shows in his lack of progress with the language. I should point out that his co-workers are all in the same boat. They are all essentially pat of a ‘closed’ community, the walls being language skills and the fact that they work six nights a week.

    Like your example, there is no incentive for his employer to secure his permanent residency. The networks extending back into his country of origin are extensive and it is a simple matter for his employer to have a replacement employee arranged through the network when any particular employee’s work permit expires. He has an endless supply of cheap, skilled labour.

    Moving back to maids. Many maids in many countries are treated abysmally regardless of the local regime. I have a young friend who recently went to Germany and was treated badly by her employer….who held the sponsorship and therefore ongoing permission to stay in Germany as a threat over her head.

    Pregnancy. In NZ a foreign student who becomes pregnant is removed from the country. There was a case in Otago about two years back where a foreign student killed her new born ( after a necessarily secret pregnancy) in an attempt to avoid deportation.

    To summarise what I’m saying. Whether or not a foreign worker is covered by local employment law becomes a moot point when they cannot use those laws to protect themselves due to other factors such as those mentioned above.

    In some perverse way, the draconian country of which you are speaking could be considered more honest insofar as the situation is ‘open’ unlike in NZ where there is an unfounded assumption that such things ‘couldn’t happen here’ because laws are in place to prevent such situations. The reality is somewhat different and more common than what I previously took to be the case.

    As for returning ex-pats importing attitudes we might find less than desirable and assuming positions of influence and power well, short of some oppressive vetting regime not dissimilar to that applied to the maids in your example, I can see no way around that one. And if I may talk like a SD for a moment, the checks and balances within the system should ensure that their influence is contained and where they are a politician, their career ended by the vote.

    That MNC’s take advantage of crappy local conditions should come as no surprise. In fact, the opposite would be cause for surprise. I’ll put it this way. Coca-cola have been accused of killing unionists in Columbia. The only reason they don’t do the same here or in the US is because they wouldn’t get away with it. If they could, they would.

  5. I think you will find that a lot of NZ males would be in favour of this kind of servitude.

    Judging by the numbers of NZ men that used to(and amy still) flock to Thailand to use female sex slaves for their entertainment they approve of female slavery. I hear many saying they only use Thai prostitutes who are of age. They must imagine that this is some sort of consent. The fact is however that these women would starve to death, be beaten or killed by their pimps if they withdrew their services. This is hardly consent indeed it is coercian to the point of being rape no matter what the age of the woman. She will say yes because there is no choice other than dire hunger or death from starvation.
    It amazes me that instead of offering these women a donation or help to free themselves from slavery our great Kiwi blokes are only too happy to sexually abuse these already destitute women.
    Several years ago I was listening to talkabck radio with The Mayor of Wanganui when he openly said he had no proplem with prostition and that there would be a better selection of prostitues in NZ if women were impoverished like they are overseas.

    I have no propblem with prostition unless it is forced by impoverishment or deliberate inducement of a drug habbit etc etc.

    Where it is the free will of the male or female prostiute without coercian or abuse then I think thats OK.

    I also believe going to a prostitute should be criminal if you are married.

    The financial fallout for women with children who catch their husbands cheating is enormous should they leave the marriage and thats why many women put up with the odd affair. The mother is the person who usually pays if the marriage breaks up and poverty is a coercian for mothers to put up with all types
    of abuse of the contract they have entered into.

  6. Dear All: I updated the post to add a few things I forgot to mention yesterday and to omit any personal references (which detract from the thrust of the post). I tend to be a realist when it comes to international relations, so understand that a pragmatic approach is often required whether or not a foreign partner upholds basic human rights standards. But NZ is a country that, as I mentioned in another post, boasts of its “principled” foreign policy stance, especially in the field of human rights. Thus I thought it pertinent to end this post with a question to the readers as citizens to see how you feel.

  7. A journalist friend from Singapore came down and stayed with us here and was astonished that we had no maid and did our own cooking and cleaning.

    “I pay mine $100 a week and she lives in the broom cupboard,” said this highly educated, ethnic Chinese business journalist.

    We told her that hardly any New Zealanders had maids and she said we should import them from the Philippines like most people in Singapore did.

  8. poneke

    I take it your Journalist freind was a woman. Thats whats wrong with the entire human race male and female. The abuse and use of the poor and powerless is going to bring us all to our knees pretty soon. In NZ its cheap goods from what you can only call slave labour. These cheap goods help us keep inflation under control but they are also keeping wages low. We are more and more competing with slaves and thus our wages and conditions will continue to fall in real terms.

    As a consquence of low wages we now have a lower tax take and therefore higher tax rates. Our social services such as health are declining in quality due to a smaller tax take.
    We subsidise workers who do not earn enough money to live on with “working for families” costing us billions.
    This is in effect a subsidy on cheap imports because they are responsible for our low wage/low tax take economy.
    Most mothers now have little choice but to go out to work becuase of the low wage economy.

    The only people being empowered by this are importers here, and manufactureres in countries with amazing corruption. In the end we will find ourselves under the power of the wealthy and corrupt. We will thus become the new slaves. And really do we deserve any better. We have all been happy to buy slave labour goods not considering that these peoples fate might become our own fate.

  9. Anyone been drinking a nice New Zealand wine lately?

    The South African accent grated against my ears as he talked on national radio about the foriegn labourers having fingers too big for the job. He didn’t like PIs and wanted Asian, like the kind who were actual slaves and sent home penniless once discovered here.

    Before we tut tut about Singapore (& we should) we should get our own house in order.

    I bet next year there’ll be hardship in the Islands as the economic downturn means kiwis will actually work in the fields.

  10. Switzerland, on the other hand, is one of those countries that denies established residents and their Swiss-born children citizenship.

    Nowhere is perfect, least of all New Zealand.

  11. Before we tut tut about Singapore (& we should) we should get our own house in order.

    Thank fuck that someone ‘gets it’!

    Thank you for restoring a bit of faith Micahael…..


    Switzerland has a heinous reputation with respect to gypsys. Like the Australians with Aborigines, they stole kids and put them in state care….up through the 70s. So what you say doesn’t surprise.

    BTW. Apparently Switzerland is tomorrows Iceland. Hands up for party fun anyone?

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