Vinoth Ramachandra

Nickel and Dimed

Posted on: June 3, 2011

It is tempting to read Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of a hotel maid as paradigmatic of the IMF’s attitude towards poor nations and their citizens. It is also tempting to see the incident as typical of the abuse and harassment of women that are taken for granted in corridors of power around the world. I shall avoid both temptations, not because I don’t agree, but because they have been explored at length in the world’s press.

What I do find interesting is that while we are repeatedly told how much Strauss-Kahn’s salary was ($420,000 a year) and how much his luxury Sofitel suite in New York’s Times Square cost the IMF ($3,000 a day), I have not come across any report on what the maid herself was earning. We also don’t know her name. All we know is that this nameless maid was a 32-year old single mother from a village in Guinea, living with her child in the Bronx. She is typical of those employed  in the world’s luxury hotel industry. These men and women who clean the rooms of the rich, and wait on their tables, are drawn from the global “underclass” and paid minimum wages or less than the minimum. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her best-seller Nickel and Dimed, took an undercover job as a New York hotel maid and showed how the wages were less than livable and the working conditions subhuman. Many are often undocumented – that is, “illegal” workers- and unsurprisingly, some are forced to turn to prostitution to complement their meagre incomes. Yet without such people, the hotel and restaurant industries in the US and Western Europe, not to mention agriculture in states like California and Texas, would collapse.

Last week, I visited the dormitories of so-called “migrant workers” in the city-state of Singapore, one of the ten richest countries in the world. I say “so-called”, because strictly these are not people who have chosen to migrate; they are, rather, those who have been recruited by companies in Singapore from the poorer Asian countries on short-term contracts. They do work, usually in the construction industry and as domestic helpers, that most Singaporeans would shun. Singapore has over a million such workers, forty per cent of the total population. Some are decently housed and well-treated by their companies. But others live in abysmal conditions, such as disused containers which have been turned into shelters and in which 15 workers may be put up in a small cubicle on three-tiered bunk beds. Depression and loneliness are the biggest emotional problem they face. And hordes of Chinese, Thai and Malaysian women are trafficked into Singapore by criminal gangs in order to provide “sexual services” for these workers separated from wives and families for the whole duration of their contracts.

I spoke with workers from India and Bangladesh who have paid huge amounts of money to unscrupulous local agents in order to get these unskilled or semiskilled jobs in Singapore. Their families back home are plunged into massive debt as a result. On a daily salary of $16-20, it will take two years for the principal, let alone the interest, on the debt to be repaid. Most of the temporary jobs don’t last that long. So, once their contracts are over, they have to scramble to find another job. Only then can they hope to start earning.

The injustice in the global labour market needs to be tackled at both ends. Governments in poorer Asian countries need to regulate these local recruitment agencies and negotiate fair wages and legal safeguards with the foreign governments that want their labour. Some economists have argued cogently for a global minimum wage. Why can’t the arguments used by Lord Shaftsbury and others in early industrial Britain against the sacrifice of men, women and children to the idols of profit and economic growth be marshalled on an international scale by Christians and others with a moral sensitivity? The rights of access to affordable medical care, holidays and a living wage are paid lip-service in international charters and conventions.

Conditions in Singapore are probably better than in many other countries (I have seen worse conditions in Dubai, another darling of the West). But given the affluence of Singapore, it is inexcusable that there is no minimum wage in the country. (There are many poor Singaporeans, not only migrant workers). The answer usually given by politicians is that it will make Singapore “less competitive” in the global market. That is the identical argument given to justify slavery in eighteenth-century Britain and the nineteenth-century American south.

My host during this tour was a small group of volunteer Christian doctors who offer free medical clinics to migrant workers. They also recruit volunteers, including students, to give English classes, and provide legal aid and counselling. (See http://www.healthserve.org.sg). Given the enormous wealth of the Christian church in Singapore, and the huge numbers of Christians serving in government, the judicial system and medical professions, it is tragic that these doctors and helpers struggle to find financial support and people willing to advocate for the rights of these workers on whose backs the rich make their money. Churches raise millions of dollars to send their members on so-called “mission trips” to poor Asian countries, but seem indifferent to the suffering and injustices on their doorsteps.

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4 Responses to "Nickel and Dimed"

[...] Vinoth blogged his visit of migrant workers dormitories in [...]

Vinoth, you are truly a rare and fresh breath of air in Christian circles. Especially to us Americans…

Interesting that, for the French, SK’s ‘peccadilloes’ are — well, he is, after all, male — and French. So in some circles, culture ( or stereotype) trumps simple respect, or moral vision. It happens in far too many cultures, to far too many people who have no recourse because of gender, race, or economic position on the pyramid, and the perps so often get away with it for the same reasons…

A small correction:
DSK’s trip to New York was private, therefore the IMF didn’t pay of his hotel room. He also “only” paid $800 not $3000, which in some sense constitutes a gift which should have been declared to the IMF as such, but then I think that is probably the least of his worries at this stage. In some sense it highlights all the more the inequalities in this world, to the man who has power and wealth, companies give favors, and to those who have nothing, what the little dignity they have is taken away.

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