In Singapore, maids are put on display and made available for 'purchase' in central shopping malls.
Go to the Bukit Timah Shopping Centre, a 1970s mall in central Singapore, and you will find five levels of brightly lit rooms and galleries called "Homekeeper" and "Budget Maid". Inside these rooms, dozens of women sit in a listless, artificial silence. They nod respectfully as you enter, and some watch closely as you speak to staff. You might take one home with you - for two years, or longer.
The women, domestic workers, come from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar. They sit beneath garish signs and posters, testifying to their friendliness and industriousness, or advertising "super promo" rates and "special discounts".
Some "maid agencies", as they're known locally, display women at work. Along one aisle, domestic workers push each other around in wheelchairs, as though they're taking care of the elderly. In another gallery, a woman cradles a baby doll and pretends to change its diapers. Others stand in mock living rooms ironing the same shirt, or making the same bed - scenes enacted elsewhere in Singapore at malls like Katong Shopping Centre on Mountbatten Road.
Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics (HOME), a migrant workers advocacy group based in Singapore, said that some agencies market their domestic workers like "commodities". He adds that racial stereotypes are sometimes used in transactions with patrons. "Some of the stereotypes include Filipinos as 'smarter', Indonesians as 'less bright' and Burmese as 'sweet-natured and compliant'."
There have also been complaints of women being underfed at certain employment agencies, according to Ummai Ummairoh, president of the Indonesian Family Network (IFN). "We always receive calls about agencies not giving enough food. In one case, an agency was spending $20 to feed 40 people."
Ummairoh, who also worked as a maid, added that the shopping centres made women look like "dolls at a supermarket".
For Anandha Nurul, a domestic worker who spent seven years in Singapore, her time at the shopping malls was marked by boredom and long hours. "They did not treat me very nicely," she said, recalling that she was fed instant noodles for the three days she was at her agency. "We didn't even boil the noodles properly. We just used warm water."
But standards vary considerably within the industry, and other agencies claim to afford female domestic workers more dignified conditions. "We should be fair and treat these workers as human beings," said Dawn Sng of PrimeChoice Maid Agency, who claims that her agency provides domestic workers with in-house training, free meals, and counselling. "We should not put them into a lower category of people."