Care work in Singapore and Taiwan: Beyond ‘Migrant Maids’ and Female Employers

Written by Lynn Ng Yu Ling.

Image credit: photo provided by author.

Singapore and Taiwan are Asian Tiger states which have achieved remarkable economic miracles in record time and enjoy a worldwide reputation as developmental states with strong internal autonomy. Yet, at the same time, they exhibit crucial differences, although their governments are heavily influenced by Confucian ideology, emphasising communal harmony over individual rights. My current PhD study is a comparative analysis of the care system in Singapore and Taiwan. In this contribution, I summarise my main takeaways from the ongoing interviews and their implications for our understanding of care work in society.

From the domestic caregivers in both locations, I gather that although there are important differences in the hiring criteria for employers, the root problem of employers having the upper hand in an asymmetrical working relationship remains unresolved. On the whole, it is harder for Taiwanese families to hire a ‘migrant maid’ (wai yong) than in Singapore, and several differences in the hiring process seem to indicate that Taiwan treats home care more seriously.

On paper, Taiwan’s finer differentiation of the job scope for domestic work – ‘live-in caregiver’ and ‘foreign domestic helper’ – implies a finer treatment of caregiving duties as opposed to general housekeeping work. The intended purpose of such a distinction can be interpreted as recognising the unique nature of caregiving for the elderly that should be subject to stricter professional standards and certification requirements, such as the Barthel assessment index and official prescription letters from state-approved physicians that prospective employers would need to furnish. In contrast, Singapore has virtually zero eligibility criteria for domestic employers apart from financial status, that is, adequate disposable income.

My interviews with close to 30 domestic workers and employers in both locations also show that the training standards are higher in Taiwan, where easily more than twice the number of informants than in Singapore said that their agencies had given them basic caregiver stimulation exercises. In addition, Taiwanese employers also seem ‘less spoiled’ in the sense of being more involved in direct care work. They usually trained the caregivers during their first few weeks and had themselves do invasive medical treatment procedures like the ‘three tubes’ (san guan). A lot more live-in caregivers in Taiwan were managing the care burden with their female employers who had day jobs, while I did not hear of such partnerships in Singapore. Compared to many Singaporean employers who ‘dumped’ their elderly to the ‘migrant maid’, Taiwanese employers were indeed more likely to be personal carers who were being assisted rather than replaced as family caregivers. At least for the informants I encountered, these differences were clearly discernible. They suggest that policy differences exert a certain structural effect on how individual households handle care work. To be sure, domestic caregivers in Taiwan were less likely to face problems of unreasonable job scope beyond caregiving, with well over half saying that they were told to focus on just their ward’s care needs and house chores related directly to that.

Apart from the finer details of country-specific domestic hiring rules, there has also been a lot of scholarly research done into the differences in Confucian familism and East Asian welfare regimes. Beyond these broader scales, though at the community and household level, there is a core issue that feminist care advocates are concerned with. This is the devaluation of care work that is seen as a gendered-racialised affair, not to mention an all-natural (tian jing di yi) feminised responsibility. Singapore and Taiwan are both societies deeply influenced by cultural affiliations with the Chinese civilisational norms of Confucian filial piety. In the numerous canonical texts of Confucian thinking, one finds an already presumed hierarchy of male and female offspring as whole and not-so-whole human beings, respectively, consequently their (gendered) role assignments of public (outer) and private (inner) functions. Filial piety was traditionally reserved as the domain of the complete male child who wielded autonomy over the female members of his natal household, mothers, wives, and daughters included. The intricacies of patriarchal subjugations found in indigenous cultures worldwide are beyond the scope of my project. However, in the contemporary wage economy, these norms have exacerbated classed, gendered and racialised inequalities in care responsibility.

In Taiwan, many NGOs that advocate for migrant worker rights have painstakingly called on Taiwanese households to lobby the government and powerful politicians to assume their rightful role as care providers instead of leaving it to individual families unable to manage. It was my pleasure to speak to representatives from NGOs like the Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA), Global Workers Organization (GWO), Domestic Caretakers Union (DCU) Taoyuan, Serve the People Association (SPA) Taoyuan, Hope Workers Centre (HWC), and Migrante International. In their own way, each of them pointed out the unfair care regimen that Taiwanese citizens have to navigate through, which in their view is a system that pits the common people against migrant workers when it is actually state irresponsibility that is at the root of people’s dissatisfaction. For example, one informant from the Awakening Taiwan foundation said:

“Our LTC system only aims to do what the migrant workers cannot do, so whatever the migrant workers can and are doing, LTC is not going to cover those. This kind of division of care responsibility basically means the migrant workers are not in the national care policy. Because migrant workers are under labour policy and not care policy, and the two departments have very different priorities, the divide between them is clear-cut…”

From the above comment and others like it, I gather that many NGO workers and some domestic employers for that matter recognised that their unmet care needs have a lot to do with the government’s neglect of LTC issues rather than the character of migrant workers. The chain of causation seemed to go in a certain direction. Firstly, Taiwanese society was already heavily reliant on foreign caregivers since 1992 when the government first opened up to the idea, which meant that by the first LTC proposal in 2008, this initial dependence on foreign labour (wai lao) was to a great extent irreversible. The policymaking foundations also seemed insincere as care policy was used as a tool by the competing parties – the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – during electoral campaign periods to garner votes instead of solving the structural problems in the care system. While the KMT’s idea of social insurance looks more progressive than the DPP’s tax-based system, LTC managers and domestic employers said that both parties do not diverge in the area of refusing to acknowledge the role of foreign caregivers in LTC. Furthermore, regardless of which party was in power, they felt that the route of liberalisation and privatisation was inevitable, meaning that for-profit private care providers – corporate insurance companies that overcharge and oversell – will only continue to pervade the market.

To many people, allowing market norms to lead the care system is an unsuitable approach because care services should not be allocated based on paying power but according to someone’s actual needs. In their view, the ‘dual choice’ system – hire a ‘migrant maid’ or make do with piecemeal LTC services, since the two cannot be combined – disadvantages everyone other than the elite politician investors. The complaints that many people have about ‘bad maids’, ‘runaway maids’, poor agency administration and inadequate training, are due to the state “stepping back instead of taking its rightful position,” as my TIWA informant conveyed. A few domestic employers I spoke to had problems with unethical labour brokers and poorly trained domestics, a situation that they realised was not the migrant’s fault.

Some informants like the representative of DCU Taoyuan and Awakening Taiwan mentioned that the patriarchal norms of traditional Taiwanese households are also a hindrance to equalising care labour. They referred to the fact that the ‘migrant maid’ is typically a surrogate family (read: female) caregiver for their female employer who is then able to concentrate on having a professional occupation outside the home. When they go for rest days or are not around, the female household members usually step in. This situation was similar to what my Singaporean informants said about caring labour as a socialised female responsibility given to women regardless of whether they are formally employed; the luckier ones can hire migrant women. In some large families with many siblings, only the women ever do the caregiving, although some were obviously struggling to balance family responsibilities with paid work. For the care system to improve, deeper structural reforms in social attitudes about who is responsible for care work is needed in order for it to be socialised more sustainably.

Lynn Ng Yu Ling is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Victoria, Canada. Previously, she obtained a BA (Hons) in Geography from Durham University and an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge in England. Her current PhD project is a comparative analysis of the care systems of Singapore and Taiwan. She is interested in how care work is (de)valued, with a particular emphasis on the role of migrant domestic workers and patriarchal capitalist states. 

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