It’s quite the buzzword of the moment isn’t it? Privilege. Not without good reason, of course. But the ongoing events in America have raised some really important questions about our lives as expats. Our privileged, white lives filled with opportunity.
Middle English: via Old French from Latin privilegium ‘bill or law affecting an individual’, from privus ‘private’ + lex, leg- ‘law’.
A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group
It’s impossible to escape, or even lessen, the glaringly obvious example of privilege in Singapore. And it’s a contentious subject which I know some people feel VERY strongly about. But, helpers.
I know I’ve talked about helpers before, not long after I first arrived here, and a year later I stand by those words. Actually, I feel them more acutely.
For the most part it’s hard to imagine these women being mistreated. Those that I know via their employers are treated well. I hate to have to even use this as a bench mark, but they’re treated as equals in the family. The children are taught to respect these women in the same way they are taught to respect their parents, and the contracts between employer and helper are honoured. By which I mean they are given their days off, sent home on paid-for trips to see their family, and have all their medical expenses covered. But this doesn’t apply to all helpers. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of Facebook groups, where the questions go from the downright ridiculous “should I give my helper the wifi password?” to the utterly horrifying…
“My neighbour has banned their new helper from speaking to anyone outside their house, and the helper will not be given any days off for the next 2 years. She is not allowed a phone and can only call back to her country once a month for 10 min with the employer listening in. There is also a loan of several thousand dollars from the agency so she gets $80 a week to send home.
Has anyone been in such a circumstance and what is a good thing to do?“
It’s really hard to believe this is happening. Here. Right now.
It’s really hard to believe these questions are being asked by educated, affluent, women. Women who would, probably, call themselves morally upstanding.
And look, I should be explicitly clear. This is not a problem with Singapore. It is a problem within society, and it happens everywhere. This is just Singapore’s example of the privilege problem, and it’s one that seems to be particularly prevalent in the expat community (expat’s being of any origin). It is somewhat comforting to read through the responses to questions such as the two above. The majority of women (or those who respond), are as outraged as I. And it is not unusual for basic human rights to be discussed whilst searching for an answer. Yes. Human rights.
Not just employee’s rights, but basic human rights. The sort that you usually hear about in rags such as The Daily Mail whilst discussing what convicted criminals should and shouldn’t have access to. Those are, fundamentally, the level of rights helpers are afforded. And these are just those I know about. Organizations such as HOME probably have far more harrowing stories of helpers they have assisted. It almost doesn’t bare thinking about, except that’s it’s SO important.
There are also amazing stories of course. Stories of helpers who really have become part of the family, helpers who have worked and lived happily here for years. Helpers who have been put through a University Degree, or who have achieved other vocational qualifications. Helpers who have acquired enough business skills and been given a hefty enough send off by their appreciative employers that when they return home they can set up their own businesses. There are helpers who have trained to become cooks, and been trained in first aid and childcare. Helpers who have had an employer see their value as a human being, and who have been invested in as people. Not as objects, or something owned, but for who they are. The women who have given up their family, friends and familiarity of home in search of a better life overseas.
It’s a tale of eerily familiar beginnings, but depending on who you were born, one that can have vastly different outcomes. The privilege of being well educated, white, western, and relatively rich has never felt more obvious in my life. I believe it was Eisenhower who said “A people that values it’s privileges above it’s principles soon loses both“….it seems so very apt.
WATCH – Remittance
READ – The Invisible Help