Zuraidah Ibrahim, Deputy Editor

What's your maid eating?

Three daily meals are a basic human right that some maids are being denied

In simpler times, one of the most common greetings you would hear in Singapore was: "Have you eaten?"

"Jiak pah buay?"

"Dah makan?"

In whatever language, it expressed care and concern for the most basic needs of friends and strangers.

But times have changed. In an age of plenty, the question seems redundant. Whether we count consumption by calories, cholesterol or carbon footprint, less is more.

Yet, there is at least one group of people in First World Singapore for whom the old Third World question may still apply.

In a recent case of abuse, a maid lost 20kg in six months. In desperation, she jumped out of her employer's third-storey flat and injured herself during the fall.

She had eaten beehoon made for her but, five hours later, became hungry again and asked for more food. She was told there was nothing more for her. She then ate four slices of bread, and offered to pay for it. Her female employer's response was to punch her in the eye, slap her several times and kick her in the stomach.

This is of course an extreme, unrepresentative case. But apparently, I learnt from this episode, we cannot take for granted that foreign maids are being adequately fed.

It is even enough of a concern to merit a section in the official handbook for foreign domestic workers (FDWs). As obvious as it may sound, the handbook says that the employer must provide the maid with "enough food", which includes three meals a day.

The FDWs are also advised that if they are hungry after being given food, they are to "tell (their) employer nicely" that they'd like more to eat. The recommended phrasing: "Ma'am, I am still feeling hungry. Please give me more food so that I will have energy to do my work. Thank you."

It is rather sad that, to persuade "ma'am" to sympathise with her hungry maid, food has to be translated as "energy to do my work" rather than a basic human right.

Of course, there are many employers who treat their maids like part of the family. You sometimes see them at restaurants, sitting together and sharing all the dishes.

There are others who find this awkward, and have the maid eat separately. Such arrangements will differ from household to household but, at a minimum, the helper needs to be treated with dignity and given nutritious food.

Activist Braema Mathi, who has been dealing with such migrant worker issues for over a decade, tells me she often hears complaints about inadequate food for maids. "It is something we don't talk about, but it is a form of abuse when we don't give them proper food. It is a basic right."

She recalls how she once had to intercede when she heard about a well-known personality who was miserly with her maid's food. An observant neighbour had told her about the case. "I knew the person, so I decided I will make the call. I think there was a change because the neighbour has observed the change."

One common bad habit she knows of is for families to get the maid to cook their meals, serve them, and eat whatever is left over on the meal table after they have dined. "If your employer did that to you, would you like it?" asks Ms Mathi.

Sometimes, this is done out of ignorance or not being considerate enough to the maid.

Others say it is because of their tight budgets but, really, how much more can the maid add to one's grocery bill?

A senior executive says she has professional friends who count the slices of bread they dole out to their maid. A chief executive of a local company says he has seen landed-property neighbours give their maids not only leftover food but half-eaten rice packets. "They are not poor folk," he laments.

If we feel poorly treated by our employers, we can walk. But most maids are not in the same privileged position. They have large debts and they are in an asymmetrical relationship where the employer has the upper hand.

I once brought home a maid from the airport, instructing her to make do with what was in my almost-bare larder as we hadn't had time to go to the market. That night, after a long day at the office, I asked my husband what he'd had for dinner. Rice, chicken and stir-fried vegetables, he replied.

I was mystified. I knew there had been chicken in the freezer, but where did the vegetables come from, I asked our new helper.

Her suitcase. Her husband had given her a bale of kangkong from his Central Java farm for her long journey to Jakarta, just in case.

She hadn't needed it for her trip, but now whipped out these emergency rations when faced with a culinary crisis in her new employers' home. Too ashamed to serve her employer an incomplete meal, though this would not have been her fault at all, she quietly shared her home-grown veggies with us.

Through her considerate act, she also served us a humbling lesson in the care we owe to those who live under our roofs.

It doesn't take much to ask our maids every day: Have you eaten?

zuraidah@sph.com.sg

Twitter: @zuibrahim