Maids and Ma'ams in Singapore: Constructing Gender and Nationality in the Transnationalization of Paid Domestic Work

  • Shirlena Huang National University of Singapore
  • Brenda S.A. Yeoh National University of Singapore
Keywords: Domestic Helpers, Gender, Nationality


This paper examines the migration of women to work as domestic helpers in a foreign country as part of the global and regional systems of labor movements associated with global economic restructuring. A growing component of labor flows from less developed countries has been that of female migrants seeking work as paid domestic helpers in the households of their richer neighboring countries whose women have gone out to work in the formal economy. We argue that while the availability of foreign domestic helpers helps to alleviate the shortage of local maids in well-off economies like Singapore, it is a solution that is predicated on certain nationalistic and gendered stereotypes: while each nationality of women is 'valued' for a specific quality seen as enhancing their worth as domestic helpers, their valorization rests on attributes perceived as feminine, viz., a willingness to do a repetitive, boring and menial job for relatively low wages. Thus, while Third World women may see working as domestic helpers in a higher-growth economy as a means of improving their economic future, it is an option that reinforces existing social ideologies of the low worth of Third World women's labor.


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