The Two Singapores: Rethinking Migrant Domestic Care Work in COVID-19

This article is part of the following series:

“The Two Singapores” is an ongoing interview miniseries run by Somatosphere to interrogate Singapore’s COVID-19 response, in particular in its handling of the explosion of cases among migrant workers living in cramped dormitories. The series aims to shed a light on Singapore’s reliance on cheap migrant labor in maintaining its image as a glitzy, cosmopolitan city-state, and aims to offer an insight into a more harmonious and equitable post-pandemic future where migrant workers are accorded better protections and access to healthcare systems in Singapore.

In our first interview of the series, we talked to Amanda Low, who is a public health research assistant at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore. For today’s installation, we conducted an email interview with Megha Amrith, who leads the ‘Ageing in a Time of Mobility’ Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany. Her research interests are on migrant labor, care, ageing, inequalities, and belonging, with a current focus on ageing migrant domestic workers in Asia. She is author of Caring for Strangers: Filipino Medical Workers in Asia (NIAS Press, 2017), co-editor of the volume Gender, Work, and Migration (with N. Sahraoui, Routledge, 2018).

Wahid Al Mamun (WAM): First and foremost, how has the pandemic affected your fieldwork? How has it helped you re-evaluate your relationships with your interlocutors? How has it changed the sites and modalities of your current and future research?

Megha Amrith (MA): I was lucky to have done some fieldwork in January and February this year in Hong Kong and Singapore with older migrant domestic workers – it is now unimaginable to think it was in 2020. In Hong Kong, I remember my discussions with migrant women were still centered on how the recent protests in the city have been affecting their lives. There were still large crowds in Central with only background murmurs about ‘a virus.’ By the time I left Singapore in February, we had to cancel a number of fieldwork gatherings as cases were on the rise, generating much uncertainty and affecting the mobilities of my interlocutors, even though there had not been an official lockdown yet.

The pandemic has undoubtedly changed ethnographic fieldwork as we know it and I miss that embodied nature of being with others in the field, navigating spaces together, sharing food, and spontaneous conversations. At the same time, I do take inspiration from colleagues working in the field of digital ethnography, many of whom have put together incredible resources to support scholars in this time in reimagining our connections with our interlocutors and in rethinking how we do ethnography. In terms of my own fieldwork, instead of long afternoons walking around the city, I’m now occupied with the different online rhythms of connection, through brief but regular exchanges on WhatsApp either using text or audio messages, receiving updates about the pandemic, prayers, images from my contacts. Of course, for many migrant domestic workers, being apart from loved ones over long periods of time and sustaining those connections virtually with friends and family, chatting with strangers/companions on Facebook Messenger, have always characterized their lives. The current moment intensifies those existing modalities. Thinking ahead, I’m hoping to continue longer conversations on the phone or via video call, as well as setting up new fieldwork virtually in migrants’ countries of origin, perhaps with the support of local collaborators. I’m also exploring how the migrant women I work with represent this time and their lives through photographs, poetry, or blogs.

WAM: Having been in Singapore for the past five months, I’ve observed many restrictions to personal mobility – the lockdown obviously, but also even as Singapore moved into Phase 211, movement into public spaces were placed under great scrutiny, with QR code scanners and entry restrictions in many areas in the country. I wonder what this has looked like for migrant domestic workers in particular, whose mobilities are already greatly controlled by their employers. How has the pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown, affected matters of trust between employer and employee? How have migrant domestic workers reacted to the lockdown? 

MA: Indeed, migrant domestic workers mobilities have always been highly controlled – by the state, and by employers. Many still only have a day off every fortnight or month; they live in their employers’ homes in cramped conditions; their intimacies, sexualities, and bodies are also controlled. The controls brought about by the pandemic compounded the many limitations they already faced. Nonetheless, in the initial days, a number of my interlocutors themselves expressed a desire for the most part to stay in the house on their days off. They worried about being exposed to the virus (and then exposing the people they were looking after – oftentimes children, chronically ill, or older members of the household), they spoke of wanting to ‘play their part.’

But of course, as the months went along, the sense of isolation, the overwork, the increase in caring responsibilities in multigenerational households, cooking, and cleaning all take a major toll, physically, mentally, and emotionally. In spite of the many restrictions on their lives, domestic workers have negotiated spaces for themselves over the years which are important spaces of social connection, faith, (self-)care, and self-making, so it was not surprising to hear that when these spaces of nourishment and meaning were no longer accessible, it affected their sense of self and purpose. For some, going out to walk the family dog might have been the only opportunity for fresh air.

The commodified employer-employee relationship sometimes blurs into a kin-like relationship, particularly when these relationships develop over many years. Sometimes, situations of strain and tension like our current moment expose or remind us of the tenuous and fundamentally unequal nature of these bonds. When things started to open up, a number of domestic workers noted the double standards of their employers going out, but then not trusting them to go out on their days off; or telling them to take public transport to do the market shopping but not allowing them to go to remittance agencies. Domestic workers are being asked to take a day off on weekdays instead of weekends, there are restrictions on who can enter particular spaces according to the number on their identity card (a new rule applicable to the migrant-frequented malls which are full of remittances agencies, eateries and services) and of course, more surveillance via apps, which is a concern for domestic workers who are already subjected to multiple forms of surveillance inside and outside the household. It reflects long-standing anxieties about which kinds of bodies can be trusted to circulate in public space, and which not.

That said, there were also some domestic workers who came to a good understanding with their employers over the past months; some even said the lockdown made them closer. However, the system which relies so heavily on this lottery of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ employers does not address their working conditions structurally.

WAM: On a related note, I have also been thinking about the matter of migrant labor mental health as well. There has been a great focus recently on the mental health of migrant workers in Singapore. Furthermore, in my conversations with migrant worker interlocutors, I have also noticed how some of them are greatly anxious about the precarity of their living conditions and their employment, as well as the constant and uneven quarantine orders given to them, in the present pandemic. I am wondering if you have noticed any analogue of this sort of public expressions of migrant labor mental health as well.

MA: In the Singapore context, a lot of the focus has of course been on the mental health of migrant laborers quarantined in the dormitories. The pandemic starkly revealed their dismal living conditions (though local NGOs have pointed this out for years!). Domestic workers I know express pity or sympathy for the migrant men in these situations, reflecting that their own situations are not so dire. Yet, the mental health challenges for domestic workers are significant too. One local NGO, the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), reported that they had a 25 % increase in calls to their hotline in the first month of the restrictions as a result of threats from employers, domestic workers being asked to work on their day off without compensation, longer working hours, stress, paycuts, difficulties finding new employers or returning to their home countries (HOME, 2020).

It is clear that there are also multiple emotional anxieties to do with not being able to send money home to their families, wondering how their families are faring in the lockdowns back home, how to deal with illnesses from afar. Many are turning to faith, praying that everything will get better soon, sending each other motivational messages via Messenger and Whatsapp, expressing care for one another in their friendship circles22. Some are expressing the challenges through poetry, or documenting their lockdown lives with photos or discussing specific issues on Facebook discussion groups. Some organisations have put on webinars for domestic workers on mental health. Other courses that they might have attended on their days off have moved online too. But one of my interlocutors told me that the groups are small because some employers do not allow them to participate in these online courses (on their day off!). The already very fleeting moments of time to themselves are becoming more elusive. A significant source of anxiety is naturally about health but also insurance – who will pay for their care if they fall ill? What are the limits of care? Some are threatened by employers that their contracts will be terminated if they go out and catch the virus or that they will have to pay themselves. These threats then also feed into domestic workers’ (im)mobilities, as they limit their outings to the supermarket or to remit money, fearing the multiple repercussions of falling ill. One of the women I’m in touch with has been sending me updates on a crowdfunding campaign for a friend of hers who was diagnosed with cancer amidst the pandemic: it was raising money to cover the high costs of her treatment in Singapore since migrant domestic workers’ health insurance only have limited coverage, and it is obviously impossible for her to travel home. The impacts on migrants’ mental health have thus been expressed in different ways, both implicit and explicit.  

WAM: In your previous research about migrant care workers in Singapore, you have observed that there exists an ambivalence between the transnational care networks that bring workers to Singapore, and the marginalization of many of these workers from mainstream Singaporean society.33 Do you think this ambivalence has been disrupted by the pandemic? How have migrant care workers felt about Singapore as a place of residence? 

MA: There is an enduring ambivalence that characterizes migrant care workers’ lives as they seek a better life for families back home, discover new things about themselves, and also develop connections and caring relationships within the context of their work, and far beyond. There is always a tension in care work: the proximity and intimacy of care generates bonds between a domestic worker and say the older person they are caring for, at the same time as these relationships are marked by inequality and fragility. I feel the pandemic, in many ways, accentuates this ambivalence. It goes back to your earlier question of trust. One of my interlocutors is primary caregiver for an older person in the house, someone for whom she constantly professes her loves and care. She also has a partner living in the migrant worker dormitories and she naturally wanted to meet with him on her day off, saying she would keep her distance, after the months of lockdown. Her employers tried to dissuade her from going, or to otherwise pay for a test and the whole thing led to both sides feeling that the other had betrayed their trust.  

It exposes the many grey areas where different worlds fold into one another in the context of a global pandemic, which transcends the boundaries that normally keep these worlds separate. The pandemic, particularly in light of how it has impacted migrant dormitories, has revealed a myth in Singaporean society that it was possible to keep migrants and locals existing separately. It took a virus and threats to the ‘locals’ to recognise that you cannot invisibilise an entire migrant population. Many Singaporeans have responded with sympathy to the situation and there have been many new voluntary initiatives and spaces of solidarity forged with migrant workers as a result, in addition to the groups that have long-advocated for change for migrant workers in the city. I remember reading about one online group that connects ‘migrant domestic workers’ and ‘locals’ to share their passion for gardening, growing food, and cooking. Still, it is interesting to note that the language of reporting new coronavirus cases still makes the distinction between ‘community cases’ and other cases, which reflects the parameters drawn around the notion of ‘community.’

This all speaks to a broader theme in my current research, which is with a particular group of domestic workers: those approaching retirement after having worked in the city for decades. These women call Singapore home in spite of the policies that keep them in a state of ‘temporariness.’ Yet it is also a place that does not offer them any kind of future or support for their later life years, in spite of their laboring for families in the city for much of their adult lives. So, who cares for the care workers when they age? While some domestic workers do express that they feel cared for by the state in the midst of this pandemic, it seems that perhaps this care is also temporary.  


[1] On 19 June 2020, Singapore moved into Phase 2 of reopening as determined by a multi-ministry taskforce. This decision was taken because community infection rates had remained stable and cases in migrant worker dormitories had dropped by then.

[2] For a similar discussion on the digital modalities of care during the pandemic, read Paige Edmiston’s “Cultivating Resemblance: Moving Strangers on the Internet to Care,” published on May 20, 2020 at American Ethnologist.

[3] See Megha Amrith, “Caring for Strangers: Filipino Medical Workers in Asia” (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2017).

Wahid Al Mamun is an undergraduate studying Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is a summer intern at Somatosphere.