April 29, 2020

Blog | April 2020, Identities COVID-19 Blog Series

Enduring indifference and the vital labour of migrant domestic workers

by Megha Amrith

This blog was originally published on 27 April 2020 in the Identities COVID-19 Blog Series.

Migrant domestic workers in Singapore have always faced multiple restrictions on their mobilities and rights:  their stays are governed by the most restrictive of work permits which require them to live in employers’ homes. They have one day off per week (or in some cases, fortnight or month), and many suffer ongoing forms of exploitation and abuse behind the closed doors of their employers’ homes as labour legislation does not apply to domestic workers.  Those who have been working abroad for a long time have found their own ways to negotiate the restrictions on their mobilities to find spaces of freedom, faith, friendship and belonging. These routines, however, have been overturned by the pandemic and trust that has been built over long periods of time has revealed itself to be deeply fragile as new anxieties, coupled with intensifications of existing anxieties, come to the fore.  

On an early February morning, I had arranged to meet with Hema, a migrant domestic worker participating in my fieldwork, at Tekka Market. The coronavirus had arrived in Singapore a few weeks earlier as it moved across the world, but life was still relatively normal in Singapore then as people were still out and about and nobody was talking about a lockdown yet. However, intensive contact tracing had begun and large-scale gatherings had been cancelled. Hema arrived holding a bottle of water mixed with turmeric and ginger, explaining that she drinks a bottle a day to keep her immune system strong and advised me to do the same. Hema explained that she had recently gone to see a doctor because her blood pressure had gone up suddenly and as it turned out, she happened to visit the doctor on the same morning as someone who tested positive for COVID-19. After her visit, the health authorities called her daily for 14 days to check on her symptoms. She sounded impressed, if somewhat bemused, at their persistent efforts to check on her. Equally, she said that every time the phone rang, her heart would jump a little, afraid of what they might say: ‘you know how it is here…’. Hema, who has spent 30 years abroad as a domestic worker, had just turned 60 and was due to renew her work permit which is contingent on a ‘good health’ certification. Failing that, she would have to return to Sri Lanka. She became increasingly worried about not only the risks to her own health, but about the novel surveillance of her health, activities and whereabouts.

I later met with Maria and Janice, two Filipina domestic workers, at their usual Sunday meeting spot in a food court on Orchard Rd. Maria and Janice usually spend their Sundays volunteering at different organisations in the city, but as coronavirus began to spread in Singapore, all of these activities had been suspended. The week prior they volunteered at a community centre to help the government distribute face masks, but said they had grown increasingly concerned about being exposed to so many people. Unlike them, however, some of their friends were no longer allowed out on their day off though it was quite some time before physical distancing measures were implemented. Janice explained, ‘They tell us we cannot go out on Sunday but our employers still send us to the crowded market on other days. Then they also travel here and there, meet big groups of people and come home. They still have their mahjong parties! We feel afraid they will pass the virus to us’. It was becoming clear to them that physical and socially distancing measures were being applied unevenly across society more often than not following existing class divides. 

Most recently, I caught up with Devi, another fieldwork participant, on WhatsApp as she regularly sends memes, tik tok videos and audio greetings. Devi and her husband, both migrant workers in Singapore, came together from India but cannot live together due to the highly restrictive conditions for low-wage migrants. As a result, Devi lives with her employer, while her husband lives in a male migrant worker’s dormitory — the same dormitories that have been devastatingly hit by outbreaks of the coronavirus after tens of thousands of migrant workers were quarantined  en masse in crowded living conditions. Before the coronavirus pandemic started, they would usually meet once a fortnight, but not anymore. In a voice message Devi shared that she lies awake all night thinking about her husband and about her family in India, especially her pregnant daughter as she anxiously awaits the arrival of her first grandchild. Due to new restrictions, she cannot go out to send money to her family who depend on her regular remittances and she is worried about how they will cope.


These three snippets from my field site speak to the many compounded concerns that migrant domestic workers face in a time of coronavirus: increased health (and more generalised) forms of surveillance by states and employers; tensions between care and control in their everyday lives; loss of social connections and spaces of home that sustain their often isolating lives abroad; and renewed restrictions over their mobilities that have emerged from the intersections between health and migration regimes.

During this time of pandemic, domestic workers speak of being busier than ever before as their employers stay home while they continue to put their own health on the line and risk infection in their employers’ households. Even in lockdown, domestic workers continue the everyday labour of sustaining households and families by cooking three meals a day, attending to children who are not going to school, and caring for elderly and chronically ill members of the household. They feel the pressures of the added responsibility that comes with caring for those particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. In addition to these duties, they are also the ones responsible for constantly cleaning, sterilising and disinfecting the household, and some are, implicitly or explicitly, expected to continue working on what would have been their day off since they can no longer go out. Together, the issues that have arisen due to coronavirus work to wither away the already thin boundaries between work and rest for domestic migrant workers. Personal space and working space are always blurred in these arrangements, even more so when a domestic worker’s room might be just adjacent to the family kitchen. 

Since lockdown measures across the country have been implemented, migrant domestic workers have taken to online discussion forums to air their grievances about the new situation.  Most express a desire to be ‘good citizens’, wanting to play their role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, while others rebuke those who complain, saying they must be grateful for good health and food to eat (also posting photographs of what they cook for their employers each day). However, not all have a good relationship with their employers. The distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ employers continues to haunt the governance of non-citizen domestic workers as luck, not structural protections, determines individual working conditions. For those with ‘bad’ employers, staying at home 24/7 can be suffocating and can have significant mental health impacts. We also have to consider what ‘staying at home’ means for a domestic worker who essentially lives at her workplace. Migrant domestic workers’ sense of home in the city extends beyond the physical household where they work to spaces of worship, public spaces and community groups. As social support networks are cut off, many sustain their connections with friends and families back home online, but not all can count on that lifeline if employers deny the use of the household WiFi network or restrict the use of phones.

Prayers circulate daily in WhatsApp groups, as do updates from the government and fear-mongering video clips. There are constant worries about their own families far away, whom they cannot visit and who are struggling in their own ways with the pandemic. What if my children or ageing parents back home need to go to hospital, who will cover their hospitalisation expenses? How will the family recover from lost livelihoods? What if my employers lose money, will I lose my job? Will my cargo box full of provisions reach my family? The emotional weight of the pandemic is pervasive. Not only that, but there have been discussions on using apps in Singapore to aid in contact tracing, and domestic workers fear that employers will get used to tracking their movements in addition to CCTV that is common in households.

These narratives are echoed around the world as essential workers are celebrated while their labour continues to be poorly valued and precarious. In the Middle East, lockdowns, border closures and higher workloads threaten to exacerbate the abuses that a number of domestic workers already face. In the  United States , domestic and care workers, primarily women of colour, are either losing their jobs and incomes or putting their lives and those of their families at risk in the absence of personal protective equipment. In Hong Kong, migrant domestic workers have been excluded from corona relief measures on the basis that they are not ‘residents’, even as many have spent decades working and building their lives in the city.

It has become painfully clear that those who have long suffered the consequences of structural inequalities and racialised capitalism are the ones who have been most deeply impacted by COVID-19. This includes non-citizens, like migrant domestic workers, whose lives and concerns have been overlooked as a result of enduring forms of multi-level indifference by states, employers and society as a whole. Yet, it has never been more apparent how fundamentally  interdependent  we are, and how critical collective forms of care and intergenerational solidarity are across our societies. Domestic workers have always been vital to providing this care and now they are on the frontlines in responding to the pandemic. What will it take to ensure justice and enduring recognition of their vital labour?

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