The script of servitude: maid agencies in Singapore and the positioning of English-speaking ‘products’

Beatriz P. Lorente

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


Recent theoretical work on language and globalization has called attention to the active role of mediating institutions such as the music industry, international English training programs and tourism and service industries in globalized flows. As intermediate nodal points between global and local contexts, between the macro-level of the world system and the micro-level of individual subjects, mediating institutions designate new and niched functions to sociolinguistic items and accomplish specific goals with them (Blommaert, 2003).

This paper focuses on a particular mediating institution – transnational maid agencies in Singapore. Maid agencies which specialize in the recruitment and placement of migrant domestic workers are key gatekeeping institutions in labor migration. They take care of the nitty-gritty details related to the recruitment, deployment and employment of migrants; they also do much of the semiotic work of ‘packaging’ migrant women into marketable ‘products’ for prospective employers. In this regard, this paper looks at how transnational maid agencies position English-speaking Filipino domestic workers in the labor market for transnational domestic workers in Singapore. It analyzes the mechanisms they employ to style the English language skills and verbal behavior of migrant Filipinas according to the script of servitude, a discourse that positions and socializes migrant women into their subordinate roles as domestic workers. In particular, this paper examines the processes by which maid agencies: (1) script the prospective domestic worker’s performance in video-taped interviews; and (2) ‘coach’ and require the domestic worker to display linguistic deference in pre-employment ‘training’ sessions. Through these mechanisms, maid agencies re-assign the functions of particular speech acts, address terms and politeness formulae, and re-signify the meanings and values of English in order to establish a singular linguistic repertoire that indexes the subordinate position of domestic workers and turns the migrant women into marketable ‘products’.

Blommaert, J. (2003). Commentary: A sociolinguistics of globalization. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7(4), 607-623.

Session: Paper session
Globalization 2
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 03