Shut the blog down; it’s illegal – so went opponents of SingaporeMaid.blogspot.com. The controversy erupted when the Straits Times reported on the blog, run by a full-time mother who goes by the online moniker ‘Tamarind’.
The blog was meant for netizens to share negative experiences they have had with their domestic helpers. Argued Tamarind: attempts by local NGOs to victimize domestic workers are misguided as laws protecting employers are currently lacking.
But it’s an invasion of privacy, said opponents, contending that the blog itself was in the wrong and citing legal sources. Domestic workers have a right to privacy too.
Yet, even if the blog and its contents were legal, does it necessarily mean that it should be condoned?
Focussing on Tamarind’s legal right to freely express her opinions online is one thing. Whether Tamarind should or should not have created such a blog is another. It is a question of ethics and morality. While laws are meant to govern the daily interactions we have with our fellow man, adherence to law should not be used as a proxy to determine whether an act is desirable or not. Just because something is not prohibited by law does not automatically make it ‘right’ in the moral sense of the word. Case in point: I am not legally obliged to thank someone who has just helped me but it certainly does not make it desirable of me not to do so.
Assuming that our laws do indeed protect Tamarind’s freedom of speech and expression, it is undeniable that the contents of the blog reinforces many of the social biases and prejudices our society already has against domestic workers. The polarization of both employers and their domestic workers into two opposing camps of either victim or culprit, as her blog has done whether deliberately or not, will only further erode the already tenuous relationship between Singapore society and its significant migrant worker population.
Perpetuating unfounded fears undermines basic rights of migrant workers, and complicates legislative efforts to protect them and improve their welfare.
They’ll only get pregnant if we give maids a day off — goes a common argument. Yet such cases make up only a fraction of repatriation cases each year. Unfortunately, the irresponsible acts of a few have been used to create much stereotyping, one consequence of which is a widespread tendency by employers to deny their helpers any day off.
While still legal, this restriction on their domestic workers’ movements infringes their basic rights, such as the freedom to participate in a social life or have time-off from work for rest.
Another common argument against a day off goes like this: Even if we offer them a day off, the maids don’t want it; they prefer to work to earn more. But this should be for the worker to decide for herself, not for the employer to deny her the option.
We should treat our migrant worker friends as equals and mature adults. Laws should protect both employers as well as migrant workers. If domestic workers do get pregnant during the course of their work, they should rightly be repatriated as such an occurrence can be interpreted as an act of breaching a contract one knowingly agreed to. However, the appropriate laws should also be in place to protect the basic rights of migrant workers who are currently being exploited by their employers simply due to the lack of legal obligation. But do we have to wait till such laws are enacted before we can start treating our migrant workers with dignity and respect? It will be a sad day for all of us if we have to be legally obliged before we can demonstrate graciousness or empathy towards others.