Lyons, Lenore, 2007, Dignity Overdue: Women's Rights Activism in Support of Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore, Women's Studies Quarterly, 35(3-4), 106-122.
Globalization is a two-edged sword. While it has created unprecedented economic opportunities, it has also intensified social inequalities within and across national borders. The increasing rate of transnational labor migration has left unskilled migrant workers especially vulnerable to abuses and exploitation. One group that faces particular problems are migrant women working as domestic workers. The global demand for female domestic workers has grown exponentially and women from Southeast Asia have joined the ranks of transnational female migrants working as domestic maids in North America, the Middle East, Japan, Europe, and Southeast Asia. While there are no precise figures on the numbers of transnational female migrants from Southeast Asia working as domestic maids, it is estimated that they number in the millions.<1> This group of workers faces numerous problems, including low wages, high debt repayments, harsh working conditions (including the absence of rest days), constant surveillance by employers, and physical and sexual abuse (see Anderson 2000; Chin 1998; Constable 1997; Parreñas 2001). Sending and receiving states, as well as traditional labor organizations, have been slow to respond to these issues, and it has been left to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to campaign for the women’s right to better working conditions.
The most visible migrant worker NGOs are Filipino migrant worker groups based in Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines (see Ball and Piper 2002; Gurowitz 1999; Law 2003; Law and Nadeu 1999; Piper 2003; Piper and Uhlin 2002; Sim 2003). This visibility reflects the significant proportion of female domestic workers from the Philippines who work in the region, pre-existing social and political movements (particularly those associated with the Catholic Church), and the Philippines’ strong history of trade unionism. Migrant worker organizations are also becoming 2 more active in other major receiving countries in the region, including Malaysia (Chin 2003; Gurowitz 2000), Indonesia (Ford 2006) and Singapore (Lyons 2005b). Despite the growing scholarly interest in migrant worker activism in the Asia-Pacific, there has been little attempt to explore the links between organizations that support the rights of female migrant workers and feminist or women’s rights organizations. Such an analysis can contribute to a better understanding of the barriers and possibilities for cross-border gender activism. Migrant work is a particularly useful site from which to explore this issue because it brings the nation-state to the fore and compels us to consider the extent to which feminist concerns transcend national borders. Migrant workers are archetype transnationals, crossing borders to live and work outside the protection of their “home” nation-state. As women these workers face gendered forms of oppression in the workplace (typically the private space of the home), and as migrants they are caught within class-, race-, and nationality-based hierarchies that structure transnational migratory flow. These issues create a range of challenges for both local and international activists as they seek to address the needs of female migrant workers. Foremost among these challenges is the question of whether the plight of migrant workers can be understood as a feminist issue, and if so, how differences of nationality, class, and ethnicity can be successfully bridged in order for gender-based migrant worker activism to be successful.
In this essay I examine the extent to which migrant women have become the target of women’s rights activism by focusing on two organizations advocating for women’s rights in one of Southeast Asia’s major migrant labor–receiving countries. Singapore is an important case-study because it hosts a large migrant worker population, representing approximately one-fifth of its total population of 4.48 million (Singapore Department of Statistics 2007). Female domestic workers make up a significant proportion of this total. There are estimated to be over 150,000 foreign domestic workers, made up of a third each from the Philippines and Indonesia, and a significant minority from Sri Lanka (Almenoar and Tan 2004).<2> In a country where women’s labour force participation is 54.3 percent (Singapore Department of Statistics 2006), this equates to 3 approximately one foreign domestic worker to every seven households (Yeoh, Huang, and Devasahayam 2004). The first part of the essay provides an overview of the history of the migrant worker activism in Singapore with particular emphasis on the constraints of working within an authoritarian, patriarchal state. Turning to the issue of migrant worker rights, I present case studies of two Singaporean-based NGOs--the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), an avowedly feminist organization; and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a network of men and women with a pro-feminist outlook. Through these two case studies, in this essay I seek to develop an understanding of the problems that feminist activists face in building effective campaigns that address the rights of both citizens and “others.”