Privilege And The Expat Bubble

Privilege And The Expat Bubble


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

Taken from Oxford Dictionary


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.


Further Information

WATCH – Remittance 

READ – The Invisible Help

ACT – Donate Volunteer Campaign





  1. August 20, 2017 / 12:49 am

    Amazing. I have never heard of helpers but it makes sense. In cuba, my family had a nurse maid/helper who cared for the house and the children. My grandfather adopted her as one of the family and always took care of her expenses, health, and even extended family. Why? Because she provided my mother and her siblings (a total of 10 children) with care that could only be rivaled by my grandmother herself. This Nursemaid, cared for the children as if they were her own, and my grandparents knew that and cared for her as if she was family…because she was.
    Hopefully we can help those Helpers who are not treated fairly and look to the families that do offer the best care for their “helpers”

  2. August 20, 2017 / 12:55 am

    THANK YOU for this post! As a woman of Asian heritage, I am considered someone who is “privileged” for being born and raised in Canada- leading a different kind of life than if I had been born in my parents native country. Especially with everything happening in current events, it seems like society has gone backwards because there are people out there who lack compassion/empathy and who fail to treat each individual as an equal human being. I hope your post can help be a part of positive change!

    • The Expat Mama
      August 20, 2017 / 9:12 am

      I hope so! And thank you for your lovely comment. I find it so weird being one of the “privileged” in society because I’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Hopefully by speaking out for others I can in some way earn a very small part of that privileged status…

  3. August 20, 2017 / 2:15 am

    Being treated with dignity is a basic human right no matter what country you live in or what work you need to do to support your family. Nice post and

    • The Expat Mama
      August 20, 2017 / 9:01 am

      well I agree with that statement, I just wish everyone would think the same way…

  4. Shell
    August 21, 2017 / 1:12 pm

    We all have the right to be treated with basic health man dignity… it does not matter where we are from… we all deserve this…

  5. August 22, 2017 / 1:36 am

    Thank you so much for discussing this incredibly uncomfortable but super necessary topic. I remember being in Dubai and hearing the horrifying stories of helpers there. It was incredibly painful. Everyone deserves respect and dignity.

    • The Expat Mama
      August 22, 2017 / 2:02 am

      You’re right though, it is uncomfortable to talk about. And I find because I don’t have a helper at home people think I’m judging everyone who does. I’m not. I’m calling out the people who don’t treat their helper well, but alongside that, I’m also calling out anyone who doesn’t actively ensure all helpers are treated with dignity and respect. Because by looking the other way we are complicit in this culture of mistreatment. And that seems to be a little uncomfortable to talk openly about…

  6. Natnzin
    August 22, 2017 / 9:23 am

    This brings me back to my days in Saudi where I had a neighbor who had a maid, she used to treat her badly and used to physically harm her and shout at her. The maid left after a few months back to her country of origin.

    • The Expat Mama
      August 22, 2017 / 9:29 am

      Oh really? It seems to be a widespread problem, and it’s so, so sad. I want to say that it was lucky the maid was allowed to return home, but I doubt life was great there either or she wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place. It’s a terrible situation for the maids and helpers to be in….

  7. August 22, 2017 / 3:51 pm

    Everyone has the fundamental right to be treated with respect and dignity. So sad.

    xoxo Christie

  8. August 22, 2017 / 3:59 pm

    It takes courage to talk about such a subject that people like to ignore! I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing!

  9. August 22, 2017 / 7:42 pm

    I have never heard of this. Thanks for the awareness, but it does make me sad. If everyone could be kind to one another, things would be so much better!

    • The Expat Mama
      August 23, 2017 / 12:42 am

      I know, it’s not difficult to do but seems to be wishful thinking right now. SO sad…

  10. August 22, 2017 / 8:17 pm

    I have been hearing so much of this lately. It is truly terrifying and hard to hear. Modern day slavery is so prevalent, it hurts my heart. I read a story recently of someone that came from the Philippines with her employers at a very young age and only saw her home when she was in her 70s. She was kept and worked to the core all of her years. It’s so so sad.

    • The Expat Mama
      August 23, 2017 / 12:41 am

      I think I read that same article actually, and although I *hope* it’s a one off even one of these stories is still one too many in this day and age

  11. August 23, 2017 / 7:14 am

    These situations are tricky to handle. When we brought in a live-in maid from Ethiopia, we treated her like family. She was taking care of my kids and I was taking care of her needs. She had her own cell phone, made calls back home every 2 weeks, I would get her native ingredients so she can cook things she liked from her country. She had her own private room, went out with me to the malls, to restaurants, etc. We took care of all her expenses and her workload was light – most days she sat and played with my kids. She was a really sweet girl, seemed happy, confided in me, and there were no issues. After a year and a half, she ran off with all her money that she had saved up and never came back. Her passport was still with me. We had to report her to the authorities as missing/run away.

    I don’t know what happened because compared to how other families treated their helpers, like what you described above, she had it really good with us and, after she ran off, I was second guessing my treatment of her. A lot of local families literally know nothing about human/employee rights, abuse them and force them to work 24/7 with no days off. My husband, sweet as he is, is now in the same camp as them after spending thousands of dollars to bring her in from an agency, do her paperwork, etc. While I could never be that kind of employer and treat another human being that way, I’m not really sure where’s the middle ground here.

    Sarah (An American in Beirut)