By Regina Ng and Emily Sugerman

TWC2’s July 2017 research forum focused on the impact of migration on children in Indonesian households as well as health meanings for foreign domestic workers.

Migrating out of poverty?

Khoo Choon Yen’s presentation focused on understanding reasons behind children of migrant parents choosing not to continue with (higher) education, and/or choosing to migrate overseas for work. She offered four viewpoints.

The failure of Indonesia’s education system and economy

Indonesia’s youth are more educated than ever before. The state has recently invested heavily in ‘basic education’, and migrant parents offer financial support through their remittances. However, education has not been a reliable route to socioeconomic mobility, as can be seen from high youth unemployment and underemployment rates.

As a result, young people do not wish to continue with higher education as it does not seem to pay off. Instead, they are more interested to work in overseas markets, which pay relatively well.

Planned vs. actual remittance usage

Research has shown that despite planning to direct remittances towards savings and businesses, many domestic workers fall short of doing so. They end up using their remittances for unexpected needs, including spending more on basic necessities, education, and medial emergencies.

Many domestic workers spoke of delaying their return to keep up with household expenses and long-term needs, including saving for their children’s higher education.

Children, therefore, may feel compelled to leave school earlier than planned and start working in order to reduce their parents’ economic burdens and make it possible for parents in low-waged jobs overseas to come home. This is especially the case if they have younger siblings.

Mother’s migration: Stronger impact on young children

In households where the migrant parent is the mother, younger children are more likely not to attend school. This can be attributed to prevailing cultural and traditional expectations of women to undertake primary childcare responsibilities in the family.

However, one study found that information communication technologies (ICTs), such as mobile applications Whatsapp and Viber, were important tools used by domestic workers to play an active mothering role despite being physically apart from their children. This can help to mitigate the impact of mother’s migration, but more research is needed in this area.

Redefining ‘progress’

Ultimately, Choon Yen reasons for the need to redefine ‘progress’ beyond the typical development narrative of children undertaking more or higher education. She argues that this requires taking seriously children’s perspectives in migration studies.

For example, a young man she spoke to preferred to contribute to the family’s business (e.g. using web platforms to increase sales points) rather than continuing with higher education (which his returned migrant parents could well afford).

Many other children of migrant parents saw themselves as having some occupational mobility in the migration circuits. With increased financial resources and educational qualifications gained from their migrant parents’ support, many of them were looking at accessing overseas migration opportunities which offered higher pay and lower occupational risks in countries such as Japan and Korea.

A culture-centered approach to domestic workers’ health meanings

Satveer Kaur Gill presented a study examining the meanings of health through the voices of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) living and working in Singapore.

With poor access to health services, the vulnerability of low-skilled FDWs may be exacerbated by poor living conditions, social isolation, xenophobia, and poor mental health. Their transience also means that little attention is often paid to their health and well-being.

Struggles with food and financial insecurity

Gill found that food and financial insecurity were key issues for FDWs.  Some FDWs were not given enough to eat.  One worker interviewee had this to say:

“There’s not enough food, so that’s why I realize that […] it’s okay to stay in my country, cause ah, in my country even not enough money but can eat enough number of times and […] people there can understand what you feel…. Here, in the morning, not enough food. No bread. You just drink Milo, like that.”

Additional cultural differences in terms of what nutrition means to FDWs and employers can also undermine the FDW’s health. Another interviewee discussed the difficulties she encountered working with her first employer:

“… Because they are full vegetarian. They eat rice once in a week only. They only eat chapati, parantha … And as a Filipino, because in the Philippines, we eat three times a day, rice. […]  Because I work too much, I sweat too much. Then I think that not enough for me.  In my first employer, food is a big problem. But I just keep silent, because the first month, when they give me my allowance, then I buy bread for me, so when I am hungry, I eat a bit, I eat bread so I didn’t feel too much hungry.”

This problem is worsened by the fact that many FDWs are afraid to speak out for fear of offending their employer and incurring extra costs in the event of a work transfer. This is in addition to struggling with debts incurred through the necessity of paying high recruitment fees to work in Singapore.


Despite the structural limitations of their live-in work environment, FDWs assert agency through physical, mental and spiritual self-care. These include exercise, drinking water, self-medication, sufficient rest and nutrition, external self-improvement classes and hobbies, as well as prayer.

One policy recommendation is that FDW rights must be clearly communicated, preferably in their native language, out loud, and with opportunities to make clarifications. This is so that FDWs are fully aware of their rights and can safeguard their own well-being at work. The importance of promoting the expansion of FDW social networks was also raised, as this facilitates the effective transmission of information.

In conclusion, Satveer emphasised that structural change begins with first building consciousness among the structurally oppressed, leading to engaging all stakeholders in dialogue.

For more information about TWC2’s Research Forums and Research Sub-Committee, please join our mailing list for regular updates.

Khoo Choon Yen is a Research Assistant in the Asian Migration Cluster at the Asia Research Institute, and a Masters Candidate in the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. Her Masters thesis explores Indonesian young rural women’s aspirations and negotiation of adulthood within Indonesia’s educational context and feminised migration phenomenon. She has also co-produced a short film, Mimpi Anak Desa (Small Town, Big Dreams), which interrogates the impact of parental migration on young people’s aspirations in Ponorogo, Indonesia.

Satveer Kaur is a doctoral student at the Department of Communications & New Media (CNM), National University of Singapore, and a CARE Research Assistant. Satveer’s current research interests are in health and political communication, specifically looking at health experiences and inequalities among impoverished communities, where health disparities are rampant. Her doctoral thesis looks at cardiovascular disease and the Malay community in Singapore. Her other research projects include health experiences amongst subaltern migrant communities, framing of migrant worker communities and health information seeking behaviour in Singapore.