A video of late chef Anthony Bourdain from 2017 recently went viral on Twitter and sparked a heated debate about how Singapore treats its domestic workers.
“What are maids?” Bourdain asks as he sits down with locals in Singapore for his food and travel show, “Parts Unknown.”
“Actually, if you look at Singapore, a lot of women are in the workforce,” the woman tells the chef, referring to maids as “helpers.” “And the reason why that is so is because everyone’s got a maid looking after their child at home.”
The woman further explains that maids are like the “opiate of the masses” in the country, which has more than 200,000 domestic workers from other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar, VICE reported. Domestic workers contribute about $8.2 billion to Singapore, as of 2018. But the country’s Employment Act, which lays out how many hours domestic workers can be on the clock, how many days they can take off and how much they get paid for overtime, is often ignored by employers.
One woman was sentenced to 30 years in jail in 2021 after killing a domestic worker by starving, beating and burning her arm with an iron. That worker from Myanmar ended up with brain damage and severely injured the bone on her neck.
“But an opiate gives you slothful and laying home,“ Bourdain argues in the viral video. “But if you have a maid, you’re saying it frees you up to join the workforce.”
The woman agrees, saying that her husband doesn’t know how to pour himself a glass of water. The bewildered chef then asks if anyone at the table knew how to do their own laundry.
“We know how to do it,” one person replies.
“We kind of, in theory,” the woman says.
When Bourdain says he washed his clothes four days ago, one of the patrons asks, “What, you sent it to the butler?”
But the chef says he enjoys doing laundry.
“I live by myself in New York. I have to tell you, maybe it’s a sickness, maybe it’s a weird thing. But I enjoy throwing my clothes in the washer and then moving them to the dryer. It’s a process that makes you feel very satisfied. I feel very self-reliant,” Bourdain explains.
“It’s like bourgeois, man. You’re living off the labor of a repressed underclass,” Bourdain continues as the other people at the table laugh awkwardly.
The video also went viral just as a new unauthorized biography of Bourdain, which includes text messages the chef sent days before his death in 2018, is set to be released on Oct. 11.
Excerpts from “Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain” by journalist Charles Leerhsen were published in the New York Times on Tuesday.
“I hate my fans, too. I hate being famous. I hate my job,” Bourdain wrote in a message to his ex-wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain. “I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty.”
As for the resurfaced footage, Twitter users appeared to side with the chef for calling out indentured labor in Singapore.
One user shared a guide made by Best Housekeeper, a maid agency in Singapore, which suggests how much you should pay each worker based on nationality.
Singapore’s government has tried to make improvements to the well-being of domestic workers, including giving them a day off at least once a month starting at the end of 2022.