Ain’t nobody know Asia better than Wallace, Durand and Gibson.

In this episode of The Line, they discuss the treatment of domestic help in Asia, putting three tai tais on the hot seat (tai tais who make podcasts instead of taking high tea at the Raffles, that is.)

Get your subaltern take on the issues of the day, while you do your ironing or whatever.

Here’s an excerpt:


Most middle and upper class Thais keep domestic help. That is the norm. The Thai word for domestic help is “Khon Chai,” which translates to “a person to be used,” while the head of the household is called “Naaii” or “Chao Naaii,” meaning “master.” (That pretty much sums up the cultural attitude regarding the nature of this relationship.) All the families we knew had at least one maid. Wealthier families might have a driver/gardener and one or two (or even more) servants to cook, clean, do laundry (by hand), take care of the children, and serve the family in general. I know of a very well-to-do family who has so many servants they have a whole apartment building next door to their very large home to house them!

By the early eighties, when I was old enough to be aware of these things, domestic help were being paid a monthly salary. Though there is a Labour Protection Act of 1998 (amended in 2008), the nature of the employment of domestic help is so informal that it would be near impossible to enforce such a law. Salaries are usually paid out in cash monthly and there is no signing of any agreement or contract for the terms of the employment.


Yes, having rights enshrined in the law is often entirely academic, because access to justice is for the wealthy and well-connected, and not just in less-developed countries.


Right. And maybe because servants were paid was why I never thought of them as being mistreated or exploited when I was younger. It was just the way things were there, and I didn’t know any different. In addition, I never saw blatant verbal or physical abuses. The most I saw were angry dressing-downs when mistakes were made, like broken dishes or clothes ruined by incorrect washing. At those times it would be obvious in the tone and words used that servants are considered inferior. Even as a child I sensed that. They are naturally prone to incompetence because they are less intelligent, was the impression I got from observing the way masters treated their servants. Commands are given in a brusque voice not meant to be considerate or respectful to the feelings of the people you’re giving orders to. Even waiters in restaurants are often treated similarly. As I grew into my teenage years and had been in the UK for a while, going back home I became acutely aware and bothered by this dynamic, and I made it a point to speak and act in ways that were respectful.

Sometimes one would hear stories of terrible abuses of servants by their masters, even rumors of rape. Popular TV soap operas would often depict the bad guys abusing their servants. We sort of knew those things could be happening in some households somewhere, but it was not openly discussed and certainly not with us kids.


So there is a line, even if it’s unspoken. Not that there are repercussions for people who cross it, though, are there? By the way, we’re aware that the word servant is offensive to many, but that’s probably the best way to describe this relationship in the cultural context.


It was the luck of the draw for someone to land in a “good” house vs a “bad” house. They were mostly at the mercy of the whims and graces of their masters. Most of those working as servants tend to come from the less developed provinces outside of Bangkok with little formal education and very poor. They come to the big city to find work so they can send money home to their families. Often times they leave behind children with the grandparents.


And I think this is why there is an argument to be made for more regulation of domestic service, so the vulnerable are not subject to the vagaries of their situation. And I imagine this is also why, at least in theory, working in a factory is preferable to some. But then, I go back to the reality that there is very little enforcement of laws.


We can talk about the professionalization of domestic service, but when someone lives in your house and sees you in your unwashed glory day in and out, there’s very little professionalism you can hope to preserve!

In Singapore, with ill-defined employment terms, and extremely onerous work permit laws (domestic workers cannot get married or pregnant, or they will be deported), it’s easy to see, and treat, domestic workers as a “lesser class” of people.

En route to employment, the would-be employee would have had to fork out thousands in agency fees – at one point, it was equivalent to ten months’ salary – to employment agents. It is a similar situation with construction and other “low-skilled” migrant workers. The huge sums charged by these agencies make the working-for-no-pay part of the deal a very painful reality. The debt is commonly borne first by the employer, and that leads to all kinds of resentment, and some bloody-minded thinking about “getting one’s money’s worth.” Ugh.

I’ve personally employed six live-in domestic helpers over my fifteen years in Singapore, and I’ve hung out with an awful lot more – so I have a decent sample size, and I wanted to sketch out the expectations that seem to make the exploitation multi-directional.

I’ve mostly encountered farmers’ daughters from the Northern Philippines provinces, and they all have desparate backstories of poverty, not wanting to marry or being married too young (one was a grandmother at forty) and absolutely no opportunities at home.

They had many expectations, and there were many expectations on them.

Their own expectations were – building a house, fixing the roof blown off by the last typhoon, untangling land disputes, providing for their siblings/children’s education, taking care of parent’s medical needs, starting a grocery shop or motorbike taxi service. And more immediately – owning a smartphone, topping it up, make-up and nice clothes, and having a generous boyfriend – because these are young women after all, and for many, this was the first serious money they had had in their lives.

The bigger problem was community. Expectations of family/friends. To have a nicer house and bigger TV than the neighbours’. To show that you have “made it” overseas when visiting home, by being generous – neighbours and distant relatives are known to turn up at homecoming parties and expect gifts and money. With friends on days off, comparisons are made between income levels, number of holidays, and whose employer is the “richest.” And to be seen as a good friend, you have to loan money to a less well-off friend, with no expectation of having it returned. Add a slightly toxic Facebook environment and the parallel universe is complete.


So in one way, they have all the expectations that a anyone in a modern profession would, but it’s taking place in the context of a rather feudal relationship. And the moral obligations of the Master or Mistress can go beyond what a modern employer is legally bound to provide.


These expectations affected how I could help my helpers. I tried to start a pension fund with one, and set aside college fees for another’s child, but both were thwarted by pressing medical emergencies of some relative. We had to pay the hospital’s maternity fees for another (her child was four by the time), otherwise said hospital would not treat her husband’s stab wounds. Another constantly needed advances on her salary to pay off gambling debts by her husband.

The Singapore government has provided a modicum of protection for these workers through compulsory medical insurance – though this did not cover the cost of helping one of my helpers through her thyroid cancer radiography.


I think for me, the thing that kind of rankled in this whole affair is the holier-than-thou attitude of some commentators.

If you are a consumer in the world today, wherever you live, the fact is that you participate in a system of exploitation.

So the question really should be: Is slavery more acceptable when it happens far away where you can’t see it but still benefit from it OR when it’s happening under your nose, in your household?


Sound by Maggie Bigelow.