issue 157 | March 1986
MAIDS in Singapore must undergo regular tests for pregnancy and venereal disease. A local newspaper columnist has described their plight as a 'national disgrace', and claims that employers are out to secure slaves. It is ironic, she adds, that the employers are often middle-class, well-educated Singaporeans who would consider the same working conditions as inhuman if applied to themselves.
Nearly all of Singapore's maids are guest-workers. Four-fifths of them come from the Philippines and the rest originate from Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Foreign maids have to sign an undertaking which includes a ban on marriage to a Singaporean. Pregnancy is also banned during their stay and they must have medical examinations every six months.
Maids are denied official help if an employer refuses to pay their wages, as Singapore's Employment Act does not protect them. And they are not allowed to change jobs, which gives employers a hold over them. Maids have been repatriated for complaining.
It is the employer's responsibility to prevent the maids changing job. If they fail they forfeit a $2,400 security bond under the Immigration Act. This arrangement makes employers paranoid about letting their maids have a day off to socialise with friends. Many maids are never given time off, says the reporter, because employers wish to prevent them from trying to find other jobs, or a husband. Yet enforced captivity makes the maids vulnerable to other abuses. Male employers sometimes rape, sexually harass or assault them.
Some maids resort to desperate measures. Increasing numbers have committed suicide since the beginning of the maid boom in 1979. The less desperate break their employment contracts by trying to find new jobs. Last year 40 were repatriated for this.
There is little official concern for the maids' plight. The Labour Attaché at the Philippine Embassy in Singapore, Alfredo Rosario, receives about ten complaints a day, yet he considers that conditions are 'fair enough'. He regards the problem as 'minuscule'. The Singaporean Government has refused to set a minimum wage. So maids are often paid less than 25 cents an hour. The Government also refuses to lift its ban on maids changing jobs. It claims the maids work in a 'free market'.
Father Arotcarena, who runs a crisis centre for foreign maids, disagrees with Government policies: 'The competition created by allowing maids to change jobs would increase their salaries' he says. 'And it would also prevent abuses because no maid is going to work for someone who doesn't give her a day off or doesn't pay her wages. If it is a free market why not let maids change jobs?'
Anita Chan, Gemini
These are the instructions that were given to a maid in Singapore
OVER 80 per cent of the TV programmes broadcast in the Caribbean come direct from the USA. Twenty-four-hour-a-day transmissions are relayed direct to the islands by satellite. Many Caribbean TV stations pay nothing for the service, operating on the pirate theory of 'broadcast and be damned'.
Concern is mounting over this media invasion. The Caribbean Publishers and Broadcasters' Association has commissioned a study by UNESCO to 'identify the dangers of having American networks fed into the homes of Caribbean people, some of whom are very poor, and have no access to local newspapers.' Gladstone Wilson, President of the Press Association of Jamaica, suspects an ulterior motive behind the growth of US television in the region: 'It must never be thought that the use of technology in the Caribbean is governed by chance. Rather, direct transmissions are growing as part of a larger scenario which includes foreign policy initiatives in the areas of politics, economics, the armed forces and communications technology.' John Wickham, vice-president of the Barbados Senate, also thinks that the Caribbean is being bombarded with alien values: 'On all sides our cultural progress is being threatened. Our food, our music, our taste in books and films, the language we speak are all being invaded and overrun at such a rate that we shall soon forget who we are at the same time as we are beginning to discover our identity. 'Satellite communications,' he says, 'are now the channel through which lifestyles and value systems are imposed on the poor, technologically weak and vulnerable societies'.
Senator Wickham believes that refusing to broadcast foreign TV is the best solution to the problem: 'We in these islands are living in a state of siege and threat on all sides and the cultural bombardment is massive. But we do not have to take whatever we are offered in the name of development or even of gratitude.'
Tony Cozier, Gemini
THE battle of the sexes took an unusual turn when some women farmers in the Gambia refused to lease their land to an irrigation project on the grounds that men would benefit from it. Other women had lost control of land after similar projects in the same region. But the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) stepped in. It drew up rules on land distribution, so protecting women's rights. The women agreed to lease their land to the project.
Eight women and seven men formed a committee to ensure a fair distribution of plots. But the men got upset because there were women on such an important committee. It was unheard of to have women policy-makers in this strict Islamic community. So the men boycotted the project, demanding that no women should serve on the committee.
The women saw that valuable planting time was being lost, so decided to launch the project without their male counterparts. Again lFAD intervened, bringing in a mediator. Eventually the men agreed to put aside their objections and to work with the women.
The improvements happened fast. Almost 1,500 hectares of swampland were immediately drained, flood embankments were set up and an irrigation system installed. In a short time the rice harvest rose from about one ton per hectare to 7.5 tons per hectare, overtaking the international standard of 4.5 tons per hectare. Female farmers were given better credit for seed, fertilizers, thrashers and machines for land levelling and irrigation. And there has been a visible improvement in their living standards. Women tillers now have enough money to take their children to the hospital when they are sick and to buy clothes and other essential items.
Hidden from history
DESPITE iron-willed determination, spilt blood and weaponry an invader rarely manages to control a country and its people. East Timor, a small island territory 620 kilometres north-west of Australia, is no exception to this rule. Despite over ten years of military occupation by the Indonesians, the people of East Timor are still fighting for their independence.
The East Timoreans' wish for self-government arises from their history. East Timor's inhabitants were a complex racial mixture of Malay and Melanesian influences. They had enjoyed their own distinctive identity for hundreds of years before Portugal colonised them in the early 16th century. But even whilst enduring the brutalities of colonial rule they never gave up their wish to govern themselves.
When the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown, the East Timoreans were decolonised. But Indonesia, their closest neighbour, would not let their freedom last. It sponsored an undercover programme of destabilisation in East Timor with tacit US support. After a bitter struggle, the pro independence Fretilin party (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) gained power and declared independence. Ten days later Jakarta launched a fully-fledged invasion.
After the Indonesian invasion there was a bloodbath. Refugees arriving in Lisbon told how Indonesian soldiers indiscriminately shot civilians and conducted mass reprisals where there was resistance. The former Bishop of Timor, Don Jose Ribeiro, witnessed mass executions on the wharf. One woman who arrived in Lisbon revealed that she and her nine children were reduced to eating grass to survive.
Two years ago the fighting was so fierce that Indonesian officers agreed to a cease-fire. The cease-fife enabled Fretilin guerrillas to leave their rural hiding places and enter the towns carrying their weapons. They wore their long hair tied back with yellow ribbons - Timorese warriors do not cut their hair in time of war - and even played a football match against Indonesian soldiers. Four months later the cease-fire collapsed. New atrocities were reported.
The fighting continues. In the decade after the invasion, 200,000 people are thought to have died. Amnesty International has reported on the systematic use of torture by the occupying troops. The Timorese have put their case to the UN. They want the West to stop selling arms to Indonesia. And they still want independence.
Jill Jolliffe, Gemini
INTERNATIONAL health may have reached its most significant turning point since the eradication of smallpox. This follows the pledge by global leaders at the celebrations of the UN's 40th anniversary to support an effort to achieve by 1990 worldwide immunisation against diseases which kill or disable seven million children each year.
Six diseases are the priority of the World Health Organisation's Expanded Programme of Immunisation - polio, measles, tetanus, diphtheria, tuberculosis and whooping cough. The vaccines necessary to prevent these diseases are available and inexpensive. Bought in quantity, the six vaccines together cost approximately $1.10 to which must be added about $4.30 for storage, refrigeration and administration.
Campaigns channelling military, civilian and community forces into national immunisation days have already achieved spectacular results in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Colombia. In El Salvador, during a national immunisation week, Government and insurgent forces suspended hostilities for the duration of the campaign.
The attainment of the 1990 objective will depend essentially on performance among the huge child populations of Asia, Africa and Latin America. India has outlined a new child survival plan in commemoration of assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which aims to immunise all children below three years of age. The extraordinary plan, patterned on the smallpox eradication programme, involves action at every level from central government through state governments to the primary health centres which serve over 700,000 villages.
The Minister for Public Health of China, which has already achieved notable results in rural health, expressed his Government's confidence that it can immunise 80 per cent of children throughout that vast country by 1990.
Particular admiration was expressed for Burkina Faso - one of the poorest countries in the world - where, in what the Minister described as a 'national commando operation', children are immunised not only against the standard diseases but also against meningitis, which for two years has brought a legacy of death and deafness to communities from which the menace of river blindness is only now being lifted.
In all these countries, an impressive effort of logistics and planning is needed to maintain a vaccine at near-freezing point through a delivery that might be by bullock cart to a remote village where the only refrigeration available is a kerosene freezer of dubious reliability. But concentration of resources in national immunisation days simplifies the problem and new gadgetry is becoming available, including a solar-powered refrigeration box.
The managerial talent of the private sector also needs to be recruited. Why is it so difficult, for instance, for African governments to keep vaccines cold when it is possible to buy commercial ice cream in practically every village?
The difference between success and failure in these national campaigns depends on the involvement of the community. This has been done so far by fitting immunisation into the festivals and parades of Latin America, into traditional African ceremonies and into days of religious and community observance in Asia.
John Wilson. Gemini