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Tuesday, June 27, 2000

For domestic help, it's the same old world order

Staff writer
HOME AND HEGEMONY: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia, edited by Kathleen M. Adams and Sara Dickey. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 2000, 307 pp., $49.50 (cloth).

Dirty? Maybe. Degrading and dangerous? Certainly not what you'd expect to be part of a servant's job description in these supposedly enlightened times, but that's the reality thousands of domestic helpers still face in developing countries.

Hierarchy and hegemony, implicit features of every employer-employee relationship, often figure all too prominently in relations between domestic helpers and those who employ them because of the menial nature of the labor involved and the fact that the workplace is a private home.

This is particularly the case in certain Asian societies, where class-based divisions remain strong, the socioeconomic gulf separating servants and their employers is much wider than in more developed countries and workers receive little or no protection under the law.

While each of the 10 anthropological essays in "Home and Hegemony" examines a different group of South or Southeast Asians, a common thread runs through them: Dire poverty forces people to seek employment as domestic helpers in affluent households. More often than not, the relationships are exploitative: Workers are ill-treated, the hours are long and the pay is poor.

Sadly, however, such jobs are still valued because they provide workers and their families with better lives than they would otherwise have.

Indiana University anthropologist Rachel Tolen focuses on a residential community in Madras for officers of Indian Railways.

The fact that these residences are referred to as "railroad colonies," servants' quarters are called "outhouses" and the servants themselves are referred to as "bungalow peons" is a dead giveaway to the "upstairs-downstairs" relationship between servants and employers.

Indian Railways officers are upper-class professionals and the servants are from impoverished rural areas. The class lines separating them are razor sharp.

Servants, exposed for the first time to affluent households, struggle to climb the social ladder by seeking to emulate, within their very limited means, their employers' lifestyles. Many employers, meanwhile, do what they can to stomp their workers' fingers off the rungs.

Some employers forbid their servants to use English, telling them, "Servants must speak in Tamil." Many also force their servants to wear plain clothes to prevent them from getting too "uppity."

The servants in the railway colony have it good compared to some of their counterparts in Nepal, however.

There, writes Nepalese anthropologist Saubhagya Shah, "Servants are culturally and politically perceived as inferiors because both the work and station of domestics are historically associated with certain aspects of slavery and indentured labor."

Young children, especially girls, are preferred by employers because "there is no fear of insubordination . . . and they need to be paid very little as well," says Shah.

Even given the poor working conditions, the grinding poverty in the rural hinterland ensures a steady supply of children seeking jobs in urban households.

Once accepted, they are "conditioned to adopt docile and diffident body postures: never to look into the eyes directly, not to stand arrogantly upright or to talk back."

Although these children can attend state schools, they "can hardly find the energy, time or encouragement to study at 'home,' and schooling ends more often than not in failure."

In the Toraja highlands of South Sulawesi, the feudal social stratifications of precolonial times -- aristocracy, commoners and slaves -- remain strongly entrenched.

Explaining his relationship with his servants to visiting Loyola University anthropologist Kathleen Adams, the head of an aristocratic household says, "We're not supposed to use the word 'slave' anymore, but this doesn't change their birth. . . . They aren't free because they were bought by our ancestors."

Despite the presence of such feudalistic attitudes -- or perhaps because they are so entrenched on both sides -- the relationships between domestic helpers and their employers appear relatively free of rancor.

One reason is the existence of reciprocal familial concerns -- filial duty and parental obligations -- linking the two sides.

A second is humor, which Adams says, "was used by servants in ways that would momentarily erase rank and other boundaries between them and their employers." Employers, meanwhile use humor to re-establish boundaries.

While servants' earthy humor tends to be about the body or sexuality, the aristocratic bosses' jokes are usually kinship-based, for example involving references to their servants as "children," a euphemism for slaves.

The free movement of labor is a much-touted benefit of globalization, but some Indonesian women serving as maids in Saudi Arabia work under conditions that resemble the centuries-old practice of indentured labor, reports Australian National University anthropologist Kathryn Robinson.

Such women end up "isolated in Saudi households," with "their contracts and conditions of work mediated by contractors to whom they are indebted." And because "they are regarded as 'other' and outside the protection afforded women of Saudi households," all too many suffer abuse at the hands of their employers, including rape, Robinson says.

Such situations are by no means limited to Saudi Arabia, or the Middle East for that matter, as was made clear by the widely publicized 1995 hanging of Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion in Singapore for murdering the elderly employer who had raped her.

Contributing to the existence of such problems is the maids' status as migrant workers, "which puts them outside the protection of the state and leaves them subject to unfair working conditions," says Robinson.

There are signs, however, that this may be starting to change. Just last month, Saudi Arabia executed a Saudi man who had raped an Indonesian maid and left her to die from her injuries after she jumped from a third-floor window to escape.

Maintaining a scholarly distance, the anthropologists who undertook these case studies do not attempt to offer solutions for the many labor troubles they highlight.

They do point out, however, that the problems faced by domestic workers have thus far not received the attention they deserve from either governments or international human-rights groups.

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