Having a maid or helper around the house is quite common for many middle class Asian families. Many of these workers, however, suffer from poor working conditions and receive low wages. Now, in Hong Kong maids are demanding more rights, while Singapore has seen similar demands in recent months. Could this be a sign of bigger changes to come?

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Demand for labor in Asia

A massive regional population in Asia means that the supply of labor generally outstrips demand, especially as advances in technology reduce the need for labor in agricultural activities. This has kept unskilled labor prices low, which means that maids can be affordable even for middle class families. In areas such as Singapore and Hong Kong maids often come from poorer countries, such as Indonesia or the Philippines.

In Hong Kong, maids are being championed by Amnesty International, which released a scathing report outlining numerous abuses. According to the international agency, maids have been subject to numerous verbal and physical abuses. A separate survey meanwhile revealed that 18% of maids had suffered physical abuse while 6% had suffered sexual abuse. Some believe that the actual numbers are higher and maids are simply too afraid to speak out.

Couple arrested for abusing maid

In September some maids took to the street after a Hong Kong couple was jailed for abusing their maid. Among other things, the couple has been found guilty of scalding their maid with a hot iron, beating her with a shoe and chain, chopping off her hair, and forcing her to wear a diaper. The couple’s sentence, however, was relatively light, ranging from a little over three years for the husband to five and a half years for the wife.

This past September maids in Singapore also fought for at least one day off per week. Technically, maids are guaranteed this day off by law, however many maids say that the law is rarely enforced and days off are rarely given. The law was introduced two years ago after repeated complaints regarding working conditions in the country. 

Singapore agencies levy heavy fees against domestic helpers

With over 200,000 maids residing in Singapore, and working in an estimated one in five Singaporean households, the issue is no small matter. In fact, after local recruiting agencies continued to levy heavy fees against domestic helpers, withholding as much as eight months worth of their salaries, many Filipino agencies stopped sending maids to the country. 

As Asia continues to develop in terms of economic and education levels, the risk of these sorts of push backs will only increase. Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Asian countries have seen increasing numbers of workers demanding better conditions and higher pay. This is a natural part of economic development and has been observed in many countries, such as the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. With many Asian countries adhering to a more authoritarian style of government, however, the results of these push backs remains unknown.