Abuse of any human being should not be tolerated. It is a matter of greater concern when the victim is someone who is in a weaker position and, perhaps, too meek to get help. That description fitted the foreign domestic worker who was starved by a Singaporean couple to the point that she weighed a mere 29kg when she was finally hospitalised. Other maids over the years were punched, slapped, kicked and stamped upon. Hair was pulled, breasts pinched and eyes poked.
These are extreme cases, of course, as the majority of Singapore employers treat their charges with care and consideration. Yet, by some estimates, an average of one abuse case has arisen here every three weeks over the past few years. No doubt, many more go unreported. The numbers grate all the more because foreign maids have been part of Singapore life for almost four decades, not including those who served as "black and white" amahs during the pre-independence years.
The continuum of abuse ought to have shown distinct differences in behaviour, from the past to the present - considering the better education and quality of life available now, as well as maturing social norms. However, the tales of maid abuse still smack of primitive brutality that one might associate with acts against hardened foes and not a hapless live-in helper. Arms were burnt with heated metal spoons, hot water poured on backs, bleach put on hands and arms, and teeth were pulled out with pliers and knocked out with pounders. Deviant employers used a range of weapons to express their ire: bamboo poles, belt buckles, bicycle locks, hammers, frying pan covers, scissors, metal hangers and plastic stools.
The continuing violence suggests the pathology of maid abuse is still not well understood and, consequently, not adequately addressed. Attitudes everywhere might spring from the way domestic work is "devalued, degraded and made invisible", as sociologists have pointed out. Considerable labour and the right temperament is required to care for the young and old, and to maintain households so working adults can focus on economic activities. But lingering stereotypes still link caring work with women and naturalise domestic work as something done by other nationalities. The maid's wages are deemed generous (compared with Third World incomes) and some employers try to get their money's worth by expecting their helpers to be "car washers, gardeners, plumbers (and) nurses, when they should not", as a Singapore district judge noted.
Caring for the elderly sick, for example, is specialised work and employers cannot expect the untrained to do it cheaply. Many hanker after affordable domestic help but, if their workers are treated badly, it is proper for the authorities to bar egregious abusers from ever hiring other maids.