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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Tai


Updated: Aug 24, 2021

From one family to another.

Southeast Asian Domestic Workers

I come from a family with the privilege of needing only one breadwinner. Since my early childhood, I’ve lived in the comfort of unconditional parental nurture, and till today, that’s the only life I’ve ever known.

As a Singaporean, I understand that this is not the case for many families. Especially with Singapore being a relatively young country, economic development and competition continues to push more and more people into the workforce, leaving the job of child rearing and domestic chores to sacrifice.

I still remember my first time being exposed to the issues surrounding the discrimination towards foreign domestic workers with the 2013 award-winning family drama, “Ilo Ilo”, a Singaporean feature film narrating the journey of a Southeast Asian domestic worker in Singapore. The film not only illustrates the extent to which today’s society has very much drowned in a maelstrom of toxic power dynamics between socially privileged employers and foreign domestic workers, it also paints a picture of how modern family structures and parental roles are transforming throughout recent decades.

Singapore currently houses more than 200 thousand foreign domestic workers which translates to about one in every six families. And upon those of higher income, more than 30% of Singaporean families have hired a foreign domestic worker.

Likewise in Taiwan, the growing upper class has increasingly shifted families into hiring full-time foreign domestic workers to take on the jobs of household matters, putting the country’s foreign domestic worker total at around 700 thousand.

The Struggles of Foreign Domestic Workers

The significant majority of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, Taiwan, and neighboring countries come from developing Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar, where the political and economic climate has made it difficult for growing generations to reach or sustain a higher standard of living. Especially among the female demographic of youths in these countries, people are pressured to leave their families and even children behind to take on contracts of newfound sociocultural challenges and risks, only to pay the price for a better life back at home.

The working conditions and rights of foreign domestic workers are harsh to say the least. Almost 70% of all foreign domestic workers in Taiwan, totaling at around 48 thousand, have no annual leaves, and with working hours averaging at around 10 hours every single day, the story behind the lives these hidden figures have begun catching the attention of more and more people, oftentimes even making headlines from places of tragedy and loss.

Apart from the contract-based limits and disadvantages, the social prejudice and discrimination is something that affects these people on a daily basis. In scenarios as such in which involves an employer of a higher social status along with a domestic worker tied to tight contract restrictions, the immediate assumption of control from a place of toxic power dynamics have become the roots of many issues. The consequences of this illusionary power-difference goes beyond superficial mockery and verbal abuse. Mistreatment and bullying which in the long run exacerbates into abuse, has become one of the major risks foreign domestic workers face in the industry. Instances of physical violence, sexual harassment, and sometimes even torture and murder against foreign domestic workers unfortunately isn’t an uncommon theme in the news either. To make matters worse, their lack of constitutional protection, welfare facilities, and social security only furthermore hinders their chances of seeking justice, simultaneously minimizing the sense of communal support and compassion from locals.

The growth of foreign domestic workers isn’t a simple issue to solve. In fact, the mere existence of foreign domestic workers stems from a complex cycle of poverty and government corruption. The vast majority of people taking on the job of a foreign domestic worker simply have no choice but to do so, and as for many, it is their only hope of breaking their family out of poverty, mostly by giving their children a better education.

By hearing the stories and understanding the truth behind the lives of foreign domestic workers, so as to learn to treat everyone as equals, we are given a chance to progress society in a safer and kinder direction.


Kodandarama, Chandramouli. “Women Domestic Workers in India: An Analysis”, International Journal of Innnovative Technology and Exploring Engineering, November 2018, Accessed July 31 2021.

Mesh, Natasha. “The Big Read: To stop abuse of foreign domestic workers, stop the power imbalance”, Channel News Asia, May 10 2021, Accessed July 31 2021.

Mori, Kenny. “The three most troublesome things for them who have left their hometowns are: To you who have been exposed to the issue of migrant workers from scratch (Part 2)”, The News Lens, July 18 2018, Accessed July 31 2021.

Owens, Lara. “‘Helping in a Foreign Land’: Uncovering the real life of Indonesian domestic helpers in Taiwan”, BBC, June 16 2020, Accessed July 31 2021.

“[Special report] Drifting strangers: foreign migrant workers in Taiwan”, Marie Claire, Accessed July 31 2021.


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