Reclaiming lands: the case of maids in Singapore
Reading about spaces that are reclaimed by women, or spaces that are provided to women to meet and socialize safely, I remembered maids in Sinpapore who would meet on Sundays after church in a park on Orchard Road. As I was researching for this challenge, I realized that they had lost this space. And from the space problem many other (related) issues (exploitation, isolation, violence, etc.) unfolded.
Reading Sarah's post about the
re-appropriation of public spaces by women reminded me of my experience in Singapore. On Sundays, there was one spot on Orchard Road, a busy commercial area, not far from the Lucky Plaza (a big mall), where you would see many women sitting together, eating and chatting in a friendly manner. I learnt that these women were Filipino maids who after going to church when off on Sunday, will all meet there to chat and socialize. I also heard from maids I talked to at the time, how going to church, meeting with other women from your country, and sometimes even village or city was crucial to give them a sense of community and identity. I also heard that it was particularly important for the newcomers who could be overwhelmed by the experience of moving away from home and ending up in a big city.
On Sundays, Filipino maids gather at pedestrian walkways and grass patches in Orchard Road to picnic. Photos by SAM KANG LI
Lucky Plaza along Orchard Road in Singapore
Domestic workers gather at Lucky Plaza along Orchard Road on Sundays
As I was researching about this place on Orchard Road, I found an
article explaining how these maids have been pushed away from their meeting point.
The article explains:
"The former park above Orchard MRT station was where most Filipino maids used to picnic, she recalls. A large open grassy ground sheltered by huge trees, the park was a welcome change from the four walls of their employer’s home – a freedom expressed in the community’s name for the place, ‘Golong Golong’ or Tagalog for ‘Rolling Rolling’, explains Orlina.
But in 2007, construction began on the 1.8ha site to build Singapore’s latest shopping extravaganza. As part of the government’s plan to rejuvenate this city’s shopping district, ION Orchard, an eight-storey shopping mall was recently opened on the former park.
Some then moved on to an unkempt ground behind ION Orchard, but many more moved across Orchard Road to this walkway along Lucky Plaza. “Now you can see very crowded cause nowhere to go,” says Orlina, She claims some of her friends come as early as 7am to reserve a good spot to picnic on a 50-metre long walkway that is wide enough to fit no more than five people."
Every Sundays signs that read: “STRICTLY NO SITTING/PICNICKING” and “NO WAITING AT THIS POINT” appear nearby the location where maids meet.
Yet, where can they go when they have nowhere to go (during their day off).
Rovelyn, one interviewed maid explained:
"“For us, because only Sunday is our off day, we have to find a place to sit, just to rest and to meet up with friends"
Elsa, another maid who has worked in Singapore for over a decade said the same thing:
"We got nowhere to go. And wherever we go they are chasing us away, so where can we stay?”
The article notes that the problem comes also from the number of maids employed in Singapore: "In 2007, some 80,000 Filipino maids were working in Singapore, making them the largest nationality amongst the foreign domestic workers population here. While Filipinos are less popular today, the total number of maids working in Singapore is still on the rise, hitting a high of 190, 000 last year."
As I was doing this research, I started looking in other articles and found
horrible stories (some that I heard while leaving in Singapore) about violence made to maids by their employers. Maids are also very badly paid (I remember this family who has just got a new maid, arriving from Malaysia and who was going to received 5 Singapore dollars / month for the first 6 months - maybe first year - to "pay back" for the cost of her visa and the agency fees!) (for more information:
http://www.breakingnewsenglish.com/0512/051207-maids-e.html_. Yet, there also now programs like
Aidha (funded by one of my colleagues at INSEAD) who aimed to provide financial training and other educational programs to help maids manage their savings, learn new skills and potentially find a another job or start their own business (in Singapore or back home).
All these are important points to keep in mind and that show how complex and systemic is the problem (access to a space to socialize and support a feeling of community vs. isolation; exploitation; no skills).
And having a place to meet is crucial for these women to share stories, help each other and feel part of a community. For a review of the maids' situation in Singapore:
Going back to my starting point about the space, I wonder
how can we provide women in these urban communities with spaces to socialize, share stories, develop a sense of community?
How can we bootstrap from these spaces to other programs and services to support safety and empowerment?