In Singapore, the media has a very important role in manufacturing perceptions of foreign workers. In the past three months I have witnessed how the media can shape local perceptions of foreign domestic workers, such as news reports of incidences where domestic workers have murdered employers and vice versa. I have also seen the mental health of domestic workers discussed in the news. These sorts of reports become a part of discussions about domestic workers among the public. For example, I have heard many individuals in Singapore vocalize that the most prominent reason for disagreements between domestic workers and Singaporean employers is that the domestic workers are not mentally prepared. Even when reports of the employers harming the domestic workers come out, local discussions tended to focus on the problems with the domestic worker. There is certainly more emphasis on issues surrounding the domestic worker, rather than things that the employer could improve on. Though the portrayal in the media can make life challenging for domestic workers in Singapore, some domestic workers have reported that the constant criticism from employers and negative images of them portrayed in the media have actually helped push them to improve their work ethic and capabilities.
Social media has also played an important role in manufacturing perceptions of domestic workers in Singapore. There are Facebook groups for Singaporean employers, in which they fully disclose their issues with their domestic workers and will warn other employers not to hire those individuals. The stories which employers post are not verified and could either be completely false or completely true. The problem for the lack of verification is that these stories are often taken at face value and affect the future employment of mentioned domestic workers, regardless of if the stories were actually true. There are many cases where employers have used social media to blackmail domestic workers who reported their mistreatment to others. Along with hearing the stories of mistreatment, witnessing how these reports have negatively impacted domestic workers when they were not in the wrong has been one of the most difficult things for me to cope with throughout the duration of my research. The domestic workers all come from very poor families and have many people relying on the money they send back home, especially their children. Thus, when a domestic worker is unable to work because of a false story reported on social media, it can be very detrimental for both the domestic worker and her family for a prolonged amount of time. For what I’ve understood through my research thus far, the number one reason why most foreign domestic workers work abroad is to pay for the school fees for their children, as in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, public education is not free. The individuals who suffer most in the mistreatment or false reports of domestic workers are often their children who are back home, because they rely on their mothers’ employment to continue their education. This knowledge has been emotionally challenging for me.
A few of the women I have worked with have asked me to use my research to counter the ways in which they have been portrayed in the news and social media. They have been very happy to express their opinions about their experiences and have asked me to help create a positive image of domestic workers in Singapore. These women have extremely limited channels to share and communicate their ideas, and very little control over how they are portrayed in public. Thus, my work has given the women an opportunity to express their thoughts, beliefs and experiences in a safe, non-judgemental way. I have finally seen how my research can positively impact the women who I work with in an overt way. There is so much room for advocacy of domestic worker rights, as well as the need for a platform for domestic workers to openly share the experiences from their perspective. My work aims to do both.