What waiting bodies can tell us about Singapore’s maids

By Kellynn Wee, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Maid agencies frequently hit the headlines in Singapore for the most appalling of acts. They have been accused of trafficking of underage women and girls into Singapore to work; ‘selling’ domestic workers alongside clothes, houseware and books on an online platform meant for the exchange of second-hand goods; and, in one case, of suggesting that a Burmese domestic worker put a baby’s hand in a pot of boiling meat so that she could break her employment contract and return to Myanmar.

Yet from this apparent maelstrom of violence, mistreatment and humiliation rises the hum of ordinary business: hiring, managing and firing maids with the help of maid agencies is. for many Singaporeans, just part of daily life. While news reports suggest that migrants are forcibly incorporated into the maws of an unforgiving city, it is these daily rhythms that enfold the majority of domestic workers into Singapore—a gentler, less remarkable, but sometimes more pernicious, kind of choreography.

To understand this, our paper, recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, looks at the everyday life of the maid agency business. We focus specifically on the rhythms of bodies, which usually fade unnoticed into the background. Telling the stories of these bodies shows how power is used to condition migrant strangers into becoming ‘productive’ members of Singapore society, and reveals the effects this has on migrant women across Asia.

In the maid agency…

The glass panes of the agency frame the strolling bodies of shoppers wandering the mall. At the back of the agency, migrant women wait. They are swathed in oversized t-shirts, their hair has been cropped short, and they sit in a single file on a long bench: the imagery it evokes is that of shelved products. This presentation desexualises migrant women, muting any concerns about how their femininity might impact the moral order of the home or of society. Agents want to show that women pose no threat to marriages or families; that they are here, first and foremost, only as temporary workers.

Some agents require women to sit upright without leaning back, hush women who speak to each other, and instruct women to get up, bow, and chorus “good afternoon, ma’am” whenever an employer enters the agency. Other agents are more relaxed, permitting women to chat with each other in low voices. In all cases, waiting is not dead time for women to while away, like how we might routinely wait for a bus, train, or doctor’s appointment; migrant domestic workers must hold themselves tensely, anticipating an agent’s voice calling them to the counter for an interview or to fill in some paperwork.

Whenever employers stand up from their seats and leave the agency, a migrant woman gets up to line up scattered stools with inch-perfect accuracy, a motion she repeats again and again as the day wears on. Sometimes women emerge from the back of the agency to pass printed documents to the seated agents, saving the agents the multiple trips of trekking to the printer and back. The maid agents’ and employers’ comfort are dependent on migrant domestic workers’ efforts.  

Domestic workers also make frequent trips to the toilet to check their phones, chat openly, and unwind in its relative privacy. To preserve the maid agency’s appearance as an ordered and peaceful space filled with eagerly attentive domestic workers, migrant women have to remove themselves entirely when they want to engage in these unremarkable actions so common to those of us who have to wait.

A moment of improvisation

While agents may choreograph the actions of domestic workers, women have to perform the steps asked of them. This introduces the possibility of variation. Migrant women might follow the expected actions but change the way they interpret the choreography, hence transforming the meaning of their own bodily rhythms.

One of the women we met at the agency tied a knot in the excess material around the waist of her oversized shirt, transforming it into a crop top that emphasized her figure. She strolled to the toilet with long strides, in direct contrast to the clipped pace adopted by the other migrant women, and lingered, sometimes belting songs to herself that echoed off the tiled walls and ceramic sinks. Sometimes she would get up from her bench to wander out of the agency to gaze out over the atrium of the shopping mall, emanating an air of boredom. While she followed the broad steps of the agency’s choreography, the tempo of her movements marked a partial refusal of how she was supposed to move.

These improvisations did not go unremarked. The other migrant women avoided her. One day an agent called her forward to admonish her in front of a crowd, revealing that she had continually turned down offers of employment. This woman did not fit into the agency’s rhythms; similarly, she did not fit into agents’ preferred tempos of circulated labour.

The rhythms of labour migration

Although these observations may appear to be banal or even trite, the truth is that they reveal how conditions of power arrange us all, even in the smallest of details—where and how we stand, walk, and sit reveals who we are in relation to one another.

At the maid agency, migrant women are expected to follow a choreographed set of movements. Its steps are taught by agents who tell the waiting women what to do, and often reinforced by the women themselves. Any variations are corrected or punished.

The movement of women’s bodies at the maid agency reflects the broader movement of women seeking work across Asia, who often face abuse, isolation, and precarious conditions of work. Carefully arranged, dressed in duplicate, baggy shirts, asked to stay silent and wait, then asked to move to enforce the comfort of those in power, the rhythms of bodies at the maid agency shopfront reveal to us how the rhythms of temporary labour migration are echoed even in the smallest details of everyday life.

About the Author: Kellynn Wee is a Research Associate at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. She is interested in migrant labour, precarity, intimacy, moral and ethical life, potentiality and temporality. Twitter: @KellynnWee

This blog is based on a recent publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: Wee, K., Goh, C. & Yeoh, B.S.A. (2020). Choreographing the rhythms of encounter in Singapore’s maid agencies. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 45, 109-122, https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12332

The cover image is a photograph taken by Nicolas Axelrod for Dreaming Singapore, a multimedia photojournalist project which investigates the movement of domestic workers from Indonesia to Singapore. It shows a maid agency at Katong Shopping Centre. It is reproduced here with permission from the photographer.

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