February 19, 2014, by Yvonne Teoh

Modern Day Slaves

TIME recently covered a story on an Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih who left for Hong Kong with the hopes of making a good living and helping her family to make ends meet. Her efforts were cut short as months later, the 23-year old returned home with bruises replacing her delicate face and open sores on both her feet. Erwiana suffered eight months of beatings by her employer. Leaving her nightmares in her past, she was unable to walk when she arrived at the airport and had to be carried to the hospital. Erwiana’s case is not the first. Many young women before her suffered the same fate.

Many, like you and me, would like to think that “slavery” as a concept that stayed in our dusty history books and a culture that was practiced at a point in time when society was uncivilized. Slavery persisted through time and now seeps and settles within our society in a subtle manner with a new name, domestic workers or maids. Some more unfortunate than others, would endure unkind treatments by their employers, such as Erwiana’s case. But what makes an employer feel justifiable to inflict pain on his/her maid?

The Stanford prison experiment done back in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo illustrates the power of authority that befits the employer-maid relationship. In the experiment, a number of undergraduate students were randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison down in basement of Standford’s Psychology building. What Zimbardo found was shocking beyond beliefs. The “guards” enforced their authority to extreme measures until it caused psychological torture and abuse on the “prisoners”. The mechanism of this relationship can be translated to the employer-maid relationship that goes on within some households.

During the experiment, the participants were provided with props and they adapted to their roles very quickly. “Guards” were provided with mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact, uniforms, and wooden clubs to further reinforce their authoritative roles while “prisoners” were striped from their individuality. Maids like Erwiana traveled to a new a place and would have to stay and work in a new home and in a culture that is so strange to her. She traded her individuality for a new label that requires her to work to her bones serving. Employers don’t exactly have uniforms or wooden clubs as façades to make them feel psychologically superior. However, they have money and power that they comfortably hide behind.

The experiment demonstrated the impact of roles and situation on human behavior. When someone is placed in a higher position hence they would behave in dominating ways that would establish their standing compared to another’s roles that lie on the polar opposite. These factors are not the main reasons that drive employers into mistreating maids. However, the study paints a clear picture of how dark our behavior can evolve into given a situation that continuously reinforces certain traits and Erwiana’s case is one unfortunate example in the modern day.

Poh Wei Lin
(PhD Student, School of Psychology, UNMC)

Posted in behaviourblognewspsychobabblepsychologyresearchsocial psychologyunmc