Negotiating Public Space: Strategies and Styles of Migrant Female Domestic Workers in Singapore

Brenda S. A. Yeoh & Shirlena Huang

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Yeoh, B. S. A. & Huang, S. (1). Negotiating Public Space: Strategies and Styles of Migrant Female Domestic Workers in Singapore. Urban Studies, 35(3), 583–602.

This paper investigates migrant domestic workers as a marginalised group in Singapore's urban landscape by examining the ways in which their social maps are structured and negotiated in relation to public space. It argues that the phenomenon of the 'divided city' evident in capitalist societies which reflects and reinforces the sexual division of labour in general is even more salient in the lived experiences of migrant female domestic workers who must contend not simply with the spatial expressions of patriarchy, but also with racialisation and other means of segregation. However, it is clear that these women are not entirely passive recipients of dominant practices and ideas, but are capable of different styles and strategies in the use, colonisation and even contestation of public domains.

Main finding
The proscription of domestic workers from public space includes gender, nationality, and perceptions of the nature of their work - labor without clear skills, in private, and unprotected by the Employment Act. The survey indicated most maids were allowed very few or no days off which vary with nationality. Days off are usually restricted, controlled and/or surveilled by the employer to, for example, prevent the maid from engaging in illegitimate activities, falling susceptible to immoral situations, or exchanging notes about employers with other maids. On Sundays, domestic workers with days off join their compatriots and effectively recolonize the main shopping center. Through this habitual act, the authors argue that domestic workers construct ‘counterspaces’ using Jackson’s notion of ‘style’ as a form of cultural insubordination in defiance of authority. Despite attempts to rid them, workers colonize the center in a muted form of resistance counter to their compliance while at work.

Description of method used in the article
The authors conducted fieldwork over a six-month period inclusive of mixed methods. A questionnaire survey was administered to 162 maid-employer pairs using a snowball sampling strategy. Interview participants were also gained through a snowball technique which resulted in interviews with 30 domestic workers and 15 employers; 13 of these were matched maid-employer pairs. Furthermore, participant observation (both distant and participatory) was conducted at the sites where domestic workers reported spending their days-off. Lastly, newspaper reports, since 1980, on Singapore’s domestic workers and six employment contracts were reviewed.

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Field Observations
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