What are you teaching child by the way you treat maid?

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A scene from Anthony Chen's award-winning movie, Ilo Ilo, which is about a family's relationship with their Filipino maid.

THE ongoing discussion on the rights of foreign maids to days off and leisure spaces is not just about how the Singapore state should treat its foreign workers who contribute to the economy.

Nor is it only about relations between domestic workers and employers.

Ultimately, it reveals who we are as a society, and what kind of culture and values we hold dear.

Most intimately of all, the way we treat a domestic worker sends strong signals to our children regarding the ethics we live by.

The values and beliefs that make up a culture are not passed on through textbooks or formal education alone. Culture is produced through everyday practice. Values are learnt through micro interactions and everyday observations.

This is demonstrated embarrassingly to parents when children parrot kid-inappropriate words, or mimic the anti-social behaviour they observe in adults.

When people resist efforts to improve the dignity of workers, they embody values of injustice. When we protest every little "inconvenience" whenever the maid is on annual leave, or when we are obliged to share space with people from different classes or ethnic backgrounds, we put into practice attitudes of superiority and intolerance.

Sociologist Raka Ray and anthropologist Seemin Qayum argue in their book Cultures Of Servitude that children growing up with servants learn much about inequality, class, gender and ethno-racial differences from experiencing the employer-servant relationship every day.

Too often, children learn that some humans - their needs, opinions and aspirations - are less valued and valuable than others.

In Singapore, some children learn that their caregivers are different from them when they see their "aunties" sleep in spaces with little privacy.

They see this person attend social gatherings only to help with menial tasks.

Most kids also learn that this is the only person in the household doing chores before others are up and long after others have finished work.

The maid is the only person working every day - often with only one or two days off a month, sometimes with none at all.

Many children also hear adults flippantly discussing their "maid problems".

Despite this, many such children love their caregivers and listen when given instructions.

But a fair number can also be heard discussing caregivers among themselves with language like "my maid" and "your maid"; or barking orders and making loud demands.

Many even rely on domestic worker caregivers to do things that non-disabled human beings their age should be able to do themselves.

It is true that the needs of some families cannot be met by family members alone. Many Singaporeans also treat domestic workers decently. The employer-domestic worker relationship can be a positive and fair one.

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