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February 15, 2022

Devaluation of care work: fieldwork notes from Singapore and Taiwan

From an informant who participated in the 2022 Migrant Workers’ Rally in Taipei city, Taiwan. The theme for this year is “Freedom to change employers” (see this Focus Taiwan article).

By Lynn Ng Yu Ling


Singapore and Taiwan are exemplary cases of Asian Tiger states which have achieved remarkable industrial successes in record time. In that regard, little attention has been paid to understand how care work has changed throughout and how it has been sustained alongside this rapid growth. My research compares the care systems in Singapore and Taiwan to analyze how the economic and social mechanisms of dividing up care responsibility unfairly impacts certain groups of people (‘migrant maids’ and female household members) while being supported by Confucian ideological thought. I find that care work continues to be devalued by society at large as “unproductive” work although it enjoys a positive moral connotation from Chinese filial piety perspective.

In Singapore and Taiwan, the ‘maid’-in-the-family model is a well-established care arrangement. One in seven households hire migrant workers as live-in caregivers. The largest source countries for both states are Indonesia and the Philippines, followed by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and India. Migrant domestic workers are part of what has been called global care chains in an international division of labor that Asian developmental states partake in. Called ‘maids’ in local parlance, the job scope goes way beyond caregiving duties to include anything and everything under the domestic umbrella as long as that activity is performed in the domestic setting. My interviews with migrant domestic workers show that overwork is a norm, with most working more than 12 hours per day without regular rest times. Across the globe, migrant domestic workers are the only workforce not included in national labor standards law, and are hence also the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Live-in workers often find themselves without off days and the usual range of employment benefits or protection, because the state maintains that the home-space is a privatized arena that cannot be regulated with public resources. The implications of informalizing care can also be deleterious for its quality because caregiver expertise and training are not attended to. The migrant domestic workers I spoke to were immensely frustrated with this situation and felt that this inattention to their professional requests on the job is equivalent to being inattentive to the elderlys’ quality of life. For example, when caregivers asked about attending outside courses and training programs, or for additional information about aging psychology, dementia and other things related to their ward’s condition, many employers simply brushed them off and saw no need for expending additional resources. Their personal requests as workers with needs, such as regular rest days, reasonable job scope, salary increases and privacy in the home were also often met with hostility. In their own way, they also pointed to the irony of ignoring the primary caregiver’s wellbeing for what it says about their employer’s attitude to their own parents: “I am the one who is taking care of her mother. If I am not doing good, how can I care properly for her? She don’t care me, she even more don’t care her!”

As Confucian societies, Singapore and Taiwan households see aging in place as the default care arrangement, that is allowing their elderly to age at home in a familiar environment with their family members where they feel the most comfortable; doing this is an expression of Chinese filial piety. The domestic employers I spoke to seemed to be aware of how reliant their everyday lives are on migrant domestic workers who perform physical and emotional work on their behalf that amounts to an outsourced filial piety. Yet their narratives implied assumptions of people from ‘less developed Asia’ and their (inferior) quality of manpower that somehow made their subhuman working conditions acceptable. Civilizational biases and developmentalist prejudices were apparent in their discussions of workers hailing from Indonesia, Myanmar, India, Thailand, the Philippines and other source countries that they associated with poverty. A couple of labor brokers in recruitment agencies proudly told of how they promoted the workers using essentialist stereotypes based on nationality. For example, Indonesians are known to be ‘more docile’ and better at elderly care while Filipinos are known for being too rights conscious and demanding of human rights provisions, but are better for childcare because they are able to teach English. Fortunately, my NGO informants seem to be keen on changing gendered and racialized social attitudes on this front, starting with their many outreach events for school children. They also noted with optimism that many in the younger generation seem to be more engaged with discourses of class exploitation, global race awareness, and planet sustainability concerns related to climate change issues that are also connected with migrant worker rights.

Care work today is many times devalued on these overlapping fronts of discrimination. It is important to underscore that indigenous Asian civilizations, like those of the West, have patriarchal differentiations of men and women that continue to exert profound legacies in contemporary divisions of labor. At the same time, for many women of color, racist patronization often matters more than any so-called ‘global sisterhood’ that privileges the experiences of white female professionals in the Anglophone world.

My interviews show that many people are rightly concerned about the government’s hands-off approach to care provision and the resultant deplorable state of elderly care. However, there are still some unconscious biases in their narratives that reveal classed, gendered and racialized assumptions about who is responsible for caring labor. The current preoccupation on the ‘subpar’ quality of ‘migrant maids’ and their poor caregiving expertise that compromises the quality of care at home is a valid concern, but one that dismisses the root problem of inhumane conditions in domestic work to begin with. The question of why families (read: women) have to rely on ‘maids’ to manage their own households is not even raised to begin with. In order to restore any semblance of equity in the care system, we will need not just better labor politics for migrant domestic workers but more importantly, changes in social attitudes about the purpose of care work in society – it is life’s work! – that circulates it beyond feminized responsibilities.

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