A gruesome act has been committed. An Indonesian maid, Maryani Usman Utar has allegedly killed a young toddler in her care by punching and gripping the baby’s neck. (ST report). Last December, an Indonesian maid was sentenced to 10 years’ jail for killing her employer’s mother-in-law by smothering her while she was sleeping. The papers seem to be plastered with news on maids committing murders. At the same time, we also heard often about maids being abused.

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So what happened? Why do such cases happen? It’s easy to push the blame to either side – either the maids are crazy or the employers are looneys. But, the situation is more complex than it seems.

The phenomenon of stay-in domestic helpers seem more common in Asian countries, namely Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as compared to Western countries. If you tell your European or American friends that you have a maid who stays with you, they would most probably imagine that you must be an aristocrat living in a huge manor. Think of Downton Abbey.

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This is simply because in the West, it is generally the rich who has stay-in maids while the masses will just employ part-time maids. So it seems that we have this unique (or not so unique) situation where a middle-class family in Singapore can afford to have a stay-in helper.

Of course, the relationship between Singaporean employers and their Filipino/Indonesian maids may be quite different from the relationship that was shared between Lord Gratham and Charles Carson, the butler. For one, modern domestic helper will have to renew their work permits every two years but a Victorian era servant will most likely stay in the same household for his/her entire working life.

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However, the servants in the Victorian era are looked upon differently from our maids. Servants in the Victorian era comes from the working class and even though they are seen to be in a lower class than the aristocracy, household management is an exclusive art which belongs to the butler/housekeeper. The management of lower-ranked servants or maids was definitely not the sole prerogative of the butler/housekeeper, and the mistress of the household made a lot of decisions too. However, it was done in a more consultative manner where the views of the butler/housekeeper were treated with respect.

Having said that much, I’m not arguing that we should go back to the Victorian era and start embracing a socially segregated life. But, maybe, we can take a leaf out of the Victorian book and look at our maids from a different perspective. They can be seen as a ‘domain expert’ in cooking, cleaning or even babysitting.

Although this may sound Marxist, such a process allows maids to own the value from their own production. Think of craftsmanship. Isn’t cooking, cleaning or babysitting a craft that can be honed? By owning the value from their production, maids won’t just be a mechanistic part of a social class which estranges them from their humanity.

I recognize that my argument is definitely not representative for all households and it’s just a general observation of the prevalent attitude. But if we can make our maids a little happier in their job, won’t it make them more productive too?

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