They share our lives and homes, but have you ever wondered what life is likefor a migrant domestic worker in Singapore?
Our Homes, Our Stories offers a look through their eyes as they share real-life stories, from childhoods in mountain villages to rogue agents and difficult employers, and that one thing they all suffer from the most: homesickness, and the pain of leaving their families behind – in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and India.
The women write frankly about sacrifice, broken trust, exploitation, lack of food, and salary deductions. But there are also tales to lift the heart, of supportive employers, the love they have for the families they take care of, and how they use their time in Singapore to realise their dreams for the future.
The stories explore different facets of the theme ‘home.’ All proceeds of this book go to HOME, to support their important work. All the writers in Our Homes, Our Stories are part of the HOME community, either as volunteers on their one day off, or as residents at
HOME shelter for domestic workers.
And mark your calendar: on March 11th you can pick up your copy at our launch event, at the Hollandse Club.
The book will be available at the HOME offices and select bookstores in Singapore. Watch this site for further details on how to order or purchase your copy after Match 11th. An ebook version will be published in March 2018 as well, available with all major international retailers.
My name is Jo Ann Dumlao, and I have been a Migrant Domestic Worker (MDW) from August 2007 up to the present. Being far away from home in this festive season pinches my heart. I long ache to be with my children, with my mom and my siblings. Working thousands of miles away from home is hard; and it is even lonelier when the festive season comes every year. I am a Filipina and a Christian; Christmas is a very important part of my year. However, being a MDW, most of us committed to spending the festive season working – unless we are one of the lucky ones whose employer lets us go home to spend this festive season with our own loved ones; our family.
Wanting to understand what my fellow MDW’s are experiencing during this festive season, I set out to gather some of my fellow MDW’s and hear their stories about Christmas away from home. When was the last time they spent Christmas holidays with their family? How do they spend their holidays?
Hearing some of their responses went straight to my heart and made me speechless. I am away from my own beloved family for the festive season, but I am still one of the lucky ones. The following are their stories:
Aida Leste Ocampo
My first chat was with Aida Leste Ocampo, 36 years old and single from Cagayan Valley, Philippines. Aida has been working in Singapore for 16 long years as an MDW and in all that time, not once has she been home for Christmas. Unbelievable but true.
For 16 years, she always dreamed of being home for Christmas, but it has never happened. I felt her pain when she said: “it really breaks my heart every time it crosses my mind that my Mother passed away in 2010 and then my Brother passed away in 2013 without me spending Christmas with them.” She is teary eyed and I am too. Does she have a choice? Sorry, but, “No she doesn’t.”
I asked her why she is not able to spend Christmas with her loved ones. Yes, she has tried asking her boss’s if she can go home on Christmas holidays, but her employers are businesspeople and during the holidays is their busiest time. If Aida goes home, there is no one to look after the children and to take charge of the household. So a big “NO” answer is what she always gets.
Now that it’s Christmas time again, it’s still a wish for her to be home and be with her loved ones for one more Christmas holiday. Aida is wishing good health for her family and she wants them to know that she misses them so much. And to her employers: may their business grow more abundantly.
Diwata started our conversation by saying, “I am very blessed having this family I am working with. I think they are the coolest employer.” Let’s find out why she is so happy!
Diwata Prepose Jaravata, is a 42 years old mother of 2 from Baler, Quezon Philippines:. She has a 23 year old son, (Mechanical graduate and has a good job) and a 20 year old daughter (Bachelor in Secondary Education; student).
Diwata has been working as MDW in Singapore for 17+ years and hasn’t spent Christmas back home in all of those years. Diwata’s first employers were Chinese and she worked for them for 4 years. After her 2nd employment contract with them, she decided to find a new family to work with. Diwata is blessed in finding her current employers: a Eurasian family (Chinese Ma’am and Portuguese Sir) with a Lawyer daughter and 2 sons still in University and studying abroad. Diwata has now been with this family for 13 years and counting.
Diwata goes home every 4 years but not during the Christmas holidays. Her employers are in the party mode in this season especially as they are Catholic in religion. Diwata spends her Christmas working long hours. Diwata’s schedule gets busy from the 1st week of December – putting up Christmas decorations, checking food warmers and crockeries, menu planning for the Christmas party. For the 2nd and 3rd week, she is busy baking; everything from cookies to fruit cakes and pineapple tarts. Here comes December 24! A whole day cooking for Christmas Eve. Noche Buena for the family and guests. Christmas day itself, more guests are coming,. The cooking continues with more food to prepare. Diwata only get the chance to rest on the 2 days after Christmas.
“Did you ever complain?”, I asked. I was expecting a yes answer, but “NO” is the answer I get. Diwata is happy and contented with this Eurasian family. Every year without fail, she gets 13th month pay and jewellery. In 2012, Diwata needed to undergo surgery for her Thyroid and her employers were there for her: they supported her all the way. Just recently, they got her a pair of eyeglasses. And her lady boss is a gift-giver with or without occasion. In her 13+ years with them, Diwata has never been scolded. She said that if her boss gets upset or didn’t like something that Diwata did: she simply gets an emoji on her phone of upset or angry look. How cool is that? Diwata is one heck of a lucky MDW, she doesn’t even do car washing as her Sir does it. Every time they have a party, her Sir helps her in the dishwashing and her Ma’am in cleaning and vacuuming. On top of this, Diwata’s employers help her in her children’s schooling and tuition fees. They know that Diwata alone can’t sufficiently support the University expenses.
In your opinion, my fellow MDW’s, if you were in Diwata’s shoes, would there still be room for complaints? But wait, let’s see how far Diwatas patience is…In her 12 years working with the family, guess how much her salary is: $550’ Yes, it’s true! Only in January this year did she finally get the salary increase she has been waiting for (and may I say: “Long overdue”). Patience is a virtue, indeed.
I asked Diwata how did she manage her salary in that long years. “I am receiving other ways of blessings from them and I am treated very well and with respect. Sometimes we need to see how good and kind our employers are: its not just about money. With their help in the University tuition fees, I won’t ask for more, but I still received more. That’s why I am trying my best to reciprocate all I have received by working hard; working with dedication especially when there’s occasion that they need my help.
Don’t ask for more if you are blessed with more than what you asked for.
Myself, I am a single mother far away from home working hard and not being able to spend Christmas holidays with my children, mother or family. I feel in my heart what these fellow MDW’s has gone through: I am teary eyed .
But come on guys, let’s not lose hope that someday, somehow we’ll be able to spend Christmas holidays with our family and our love ones. Let the spirit of Christmas be with us.
Jane Andote has been working hard in Singapore for 20 years. Because of her hard life dedicated to supporting her 2 children, she has experienced the pain of not going home for 20 years. She said, she has had to hold on to prayers and thoughts of giving her children a good future.
Her husband passed away when her children were still very young (her daughter, the youngest, was just a baby at the time). One month after her husband died, she decided to work overseas and chose Singapore. Many were against in her plan. The people around her told her that the pain of losing her husband was still very fresh, her children were still very young. But she was determined and came to Singapore to start working as an MDW. Jane told me that she doesn’t regret her decision at all.
Jane says she has been very lucky with her employer because she is still with the same family she started working with 20 years ago. Needless to say, they love and care and treat Jane as part of the family. “Needless to say”? Unfortunately, this is not the reality for so many of our MDW friends.
All Janes sacrifices for her children have paid-off. Her son is a Marine Engineer already and is working on a ship. Her daughter is a BS Hotel and Restaurant Management graduate and is also working already.
In Jane’s own words, said with a mix of sadness and happiness: “I have experienced all kinds of hardships. I get drowned in debts that till now am still paying. Being a single mother away from her children is not easy. There are nights that I am not able to get to sleep thinking about them especially if they are sick or unwell. I know that they are well being taken care-off but the mother feelings of me most of the time make me feel guilty. But on the other hand, I’ll feel more guilty if I won’t do anything for their future.”
No one can be happier than a mother seeing her children become successful in their lives.
One of the hardworking HOME volunteers, the friendly and jolly Jojie Maravilla is here to share her story as well. Jojie is Single, 41 years old and the youngest of the 13 siblings, from Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro Philippines.
She is the youngest but the toughest of the 13. She sacrifices herself to work abroad in Singapore to support her family. She is the guardian angel of her parents and her siblings, nephews and nieces. Jojie said, she loves her family so much that she will do anything for them to make life a little bit easier. Name all kinds of sacrifices for the family, Jojie has gone through them already. She is single but she is working like she has her own family to support already. I consider one heroic act in what Jojie has done to her siblings—paying their debts so not just to put them in trouble. Bunso (youngest) to the rescue! Salute for you Jojie!
Working here in Singapore, it’s known that struggles are there on the way and for Jojie’s struggle has been in finding the right employer. She has had more employers than she has spent years in Singapore. 13 employers in 11 years! It’s either that the employer goes back home for good or else the employer is not a good match for Jojie. Just recently, Jojie joined her latest employer and she is crossing her fingers, hopes and pray that finally she found the right one.
Like any other MDW, she wished to go home on Christmas holidays too. With a deep sigh and sad look, Jojie said: “I am looking forward that my wish to be home on Christmas holidays will eventually happen in God’s perfect timing. For now, it’s like a puzzle that some pieces are missing.”
It’s been 11 long years away from home. No Christmas at home: no visits back home at all. Overflowing love for the family. This year Christmas holiday for Jojie is much better or let’s say she feel the spirit of Christmas within her. She wishes her love one’s and her employees “A Joyful Christmas and a Bountiful New Year!”
Inhale, exhale for few minutes. And here we go writing the next story.
Introducing Evangeline Canognog Pulpulaan, 42 years old from Bala Makabunsod Magsaysay, Davao del Sur . A single mom of a son, 18 years of age this coming January 2020. She was 26 years old when she started working in Singapore
To count, 17 years working in Singapore and never been home for Christmas. Her reason: it’s better to send ticket money to her family so they can buy what they need for Christmas. “Yes, it’s true, it is sad not being together with them but knowing that they are happy with the Christmas gift I give is all that matters.”
But this year it’s different: a difficult and heart-breaking period, all she can do is pray and tells herself and her family: “anytime soon in God’s good hands. everything will be back to normal.” Earthquakes devastated her home town and Vangie’s house didn’t escaped undamaged. Her house has cracks in the walls making the house unsafe. Not to take risks, her family moved-out and now live in a tent. “The house is still standing but with the cracks and the unpredictable earthquakes that may strike again, they better to be safe than sorry” Vangie said. She is really worried for her family safety.
In spite of this, Vangie never loses hope and she is thankful she works with very understanding and supportive bosses.
Vangie will be going to church with her friends for Christmas Eve Mass and after that, they will be strolling around Orchard to Marina Bay to enjoy the night.
Next we meet Jona Baranit from Sigma, Capiz. 38 years old, “still single and available”. After 16 years of working as an MDW in Singapore, Jona still hasn’t been home for Christmas.
The colourful ambience of Christmas holiday is all around and it’s the time that we all wait for, to be with our families back home. But for Jona, nothing has changed: the same as the past years, Jona is not going home.
She has mixed emotions for this season, happy and sad. Happy that her family will enjoy the Christmas season with the presents she gives them. Her family will experience the things that they never could if she had’t made her sacrifice. All she thinks about is her family that depends on her to make life a bit easier for them. There’s a pain in her heart too that she’s not home for Christmas but work doesn’t give her the chance to. The family she’s working for needs her services during the holidays. All she can do is to video call her family on Christmas Day and that makes her happy.
I was curious if this year she asked her boss if she can go home for Christmas. “For a change, I did. I had hoped that maybe I can and will give a big surprise to my family so I asked my boss but a shake of the head for NO is what I got.” Jona said sadly.
So much sacrifices for the sake of family because the love for the family is what makes Jona keep going.
Christmas, it is a time to relax, to spread love, to laugh with our love ones, to forgive and forget, to eat great food and most of all, always remember, God is love.
What is stealing? For me, the word stealing has a lot of definitions. Of course, I understand the most common is, when you take something, an item, that does not belong to you. That is simply stealing.
But what should we call it when people take away someone else’s rights?
Being a domestic helper, we have the right to know what our rights are. The employer should be responsible to let their helper know for instance, that if you are not allowed to take a day off, they must pay you in lieu. Also, they should let them know how much the minimum salary of a domestic helper is, or that the employer is not allowed to ask the domestic helper to clean another house, office, condo – or ask them to do a job that is not part of your everyday task. For me that is stealing too. It is stealing to deny people their rights.
Why do many employers so easily accuse a domestic helper of doing wrong? Is it because to them, we are poor only, and cannot afford to buy anything? Do these employers try to ask themselves if they are not stealing too?
Not allowing a domestic worker to know the truth about her rights and not following the government rules that is STEALING.
YOU ARE STEALING WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY THAT OF YOUR DOMESTIC HELPER!
Jofel was accused of stealing by her former employer and has been staying in the HOME shelter for a year and eight months now, whilst her case is being investigated by the authorities. Jofel denies the accusations against her. She has not been convicted, yet she has not been free to leave the country, nor hold a job – and thus has had no means of income for the past years. Jofel volunteers at the shelter by helping her peers, and developing her skills in crafts and writing. Read her life story here.
HOME shelter volunteer Puja shares her experience of teaching English at our shelter for domestic workers. We have a team of volunteers running these lessons at different levels, managed by long time volunteer Stefania.
I started volunteering with HOME six months back, joining a few other motivated ladies in teaching English language to HOME residents (all migrant domestic workers in Singapore). When I started, I had no idea how challenging the classes could be. After a few classes I realized that my well thought out lesson plan had no place here, I had to think on my feet every single class! Our lessons have to be as dynamic and fast evolving as the students of the class – some days we have over 30 enthusiastic students, other days just a handful. Some residents attend lessons for weeks and need structured teaching while others leave after one class. Some residents are confident English speakers and write prose and poetry, while others cannot communicate in English beyond their name.
Despite the challenges, what keeps me and my fellow teachers going is the fact that we are empowering women in the true spirit of the word – little by little, utilizing the limited time they have with us to upgrade their skills and hone their confidence. Our classes are also an opportunity for residents to share stories of struggle, joy and hope. Some classes have emotionally charged moments, like on International Women’s Day when we asked residents to write about a woman in their life who has inspired them; one resident broke down as she described her beautiful relationship with her stepmother, who was in her eyes a “wonder woman.”
Finally, at the end of the day, I hope and pray that we have in some way kindled the joy of learning through our classes, even in those who don’t stay with us for long. For as they say, “A teacher affects eternity; she can never know where her influence stops.”
HOME is grateful to all our amazing volunteers, and we want to extend a big thank you to all in our team of tireless English teachers. Learning the language is very important when living in a foreign country, not only to improve communication with employers, but also express their feelings and ensure these women know their rights and how to ask for assistance when needed.
Are you inspired by Puja’s story and interested to volunteer at HOME? Look here for more information.
I came to Singapore because of my mother. Why ? Because my mother told me I was a useless daughter. So I said to myself that I would prove to my mother that I am not. At a very young age, I started to be an independent person, I supported myself in finishing my studies. And thanks to GOD, I graduated after two years in a course in computer secretarial.
I arrived in Singapore in 2006 at the age of 26. I suffered a lot for my first employer, my salary was very low and I had to pay seven months of salary deductions. I had no off-day for two years, I was not allowed also to use a phone and not allowed to talk with my neighbor helpers. It was not easy for me at first but being always positive helped me to finish my two-year contract. After a few months I received bad news from my family- my brother had passed away. He was a diabetic. I wanted to go back home to see my brother for the last time, but my employer never allowed me to back home and that hurt me a lot.
Being far away from family in not easy, especially when our employers treat us badly, some talk so much if they are not satisfied with you, they just throw hurting words at you like you are stupid, very slow, no brain and useless. Sometimes they do not give us not enough food. Once I had to take food from the dustbin because I was so hungry.
How can we do our job if our stomach is empty? I always hoped employers would realise that they need to give enough food to their helper, until I realized that I need to communicate to my employer myself, I need to make her understand my situation as a helper and my needs.
Why do a lot of helpers suffer? I always asked myself, why? Some employers treat their dog like a human but their helper like an animal. They feed the dog nice food like salmon fish, fresh milk and sometimes sausage, and they feed helper left over food only, sometimes just the bones of a fish. As a helper we don’t have a choice, we just need to accept this, even if it is not acceptable. Its very unfair. Why Because we are just a helper?
Being a domestic helper you need to be very brave and strong. You need to be deaf for those hurting words coming from the employer’s mouth. You need to be patient and not give up during those trials: you need to find a way to communicate with your employer. In my own experience, since I wanted to continue working with employer, I tried my best and did not give up easily. And then one day my employer’s heart melted for me after I tried to cook nice food for them everyday. Every time I saw them in the morning I always greeted them, good morning sir and ma’am, and I asked them if they wanted me to make coffee with a happy face. After that I receive a gift from them, not an expensive gift but it’s very valuable to me. They wrote me an appreciation letter and gave me a mug that has my photo on it. And that is how my good relationship with them started.
Good communication with an employer can help to let them understand our situation but some of them still treat us badly. In their mind they pay us just to do our duties. Every time I hear of a helper being abused by employer my heart cries for them. Sometimes I ask myself why Singapore government is blind and deaf for this issue.
My 12 years in Singapore as a domestic helper were not easy. I needed to adjust myself. I made a sacrifice because I love my family and I became very brave because of them. I give everything just to make sure that they are happy and I don’t want them to think that I am useless person. Being alone, far away from family and friends is not easy. I hope employers can also see that what we are sacrificing. We are human beings and have feelings. My life for the past 38 years has been like a wheel: sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. I experienced a lot of trials in my life that made me very brave and strong. God has a reason why we are in difficult situation sometimes.
After a year I proved to myself and my mother that I am not a useless daughter. The first time I heard her say “That is my daughter who supported us for our needs” I felt happy and knew our mother and daughter relationship had turned into a good relationship. I am very proud of myself being a domestic helper. If you too are one of the domestic helpers, be proud!!!!
But after 10 years of working for one employer, I got accused……
Jofel has been staying at HOME shelter for some time whilst her case is being investigated by the police. She likes to write to clear her mind. Jofel won a special award in the writing competition HOME hosted together with the National Museum of Singapore last June.
Rest in Peace?
How many lives will be wasted
How many dreams will be tainted
How many Migrant Domestic Workers will go home cold and lifeless
How many hearts will shatter with distress
How many children will not be able to hug their mother
How many parents will miss their daughter
How many siblings will loose their sister
How many husbands will be left heartbroken
How much you pay for her as a commodity
How much is her worth to be your property
How much it takes to treat her fairly
How much respect to spare her freely
How much tears she'll shed for humanity
How long she'll beg for equality
How many times will she be denied of justice in this society
The answer my friend is the storm she carries with her to the grave
We, the contributors of the Our Homes,Our Stories book have been waiting for this day to come: November 11th, 2018. Who could have thought that ordinary Migrant Domestic Worker (MDW) writers would be featured at Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2018?
First, we shared our stories of struggles, failures, victories, learnings, love and heartaches compiled into book. The book was launched, and since then we have been invited to numerous reading events then unexpectedly, Singapore Writers Festival invited the Our Homes,Our Stories writers to read at their prestigious festival.
Singapore Writers Festival is one of Asia’s Premier Literary events which was founded in 1986 and was called Singapore Writers Week by then.
Thank you Singapore Writers Festival for inviting us. It is such an accomplishment for us and so humbling. It is beyond our dreams that we were a part of SWF 2018as presenters and not just in the audience.
The General theme of the 2019 SWF is “The world(s) we live in, which is a perfect fit with that of our book: “Domestic Worker Writers reflecting on their two homes: Singapore and their “home countries.”
Our Homes, Our Stories is a book that give a voice to Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore. A book that every household with MDW should have and read. It is a must-read for employers.
On November 11th Seven MDW writers read part of their stories in the following themes:
1) Homesickness- Jo Ann Dumlao
2) Making a home:support network- Novia Arluma
3) Home countries:missing family- Miriam Escander
4) Role model- Nina Rotelo (Cute)
5) Love- Rea Maac
6) Self-confidence- Kina Hidayah Kastari
7) Pride in your job- Robina Navato (Bhing)
With pride, they read their stories. The audience showed interest as they listened and asked questions afterwards. These MDW writers has been working in Singapore for many years and have considered Singapore their 2nd home.
Migrant Domestic Workers spend a big part of their lives making sacrifices working away from their love ones, from their families. Employers should treat them fair and just and respect them as Human Beings – just like anyone else. They are people, not commodities. And, be mindful that these MDW’s play a big role in your lives – taking care of your loved ones.
Again, thank you Singapore Writers Festival for this enjoyable experience!
If ever there was a holiday that deserves to be commercialized, it’s Halloween. It comes second only to Christmas and kids and adults can both enjoy it. I am especially attentive to Halloween, because it happens that I was born on Halloween. So for me it has always been a special occasion.
In many countries, Halloween is celebrated on October 31st, but in the Philippines, due to a strong Catholic tradition, we celebrate it on the first two days of November. November 1st is All Saints Day (Araw ng mga Santo) and November 2nd is All Souls Day (Araw ng mga Patay). We spend these two days remembering our dead loved ones and you will find most of us at the cemetery or a memorial park. We don’t celebrate these days with tricks and treats. When we visit the cemetery we bring candles with different designs, different colours and amazing smells, as well as nice and beautifully arranged flowers.
When you go and live in a foreign country, you might feel amazed at how a favourite holiday is celebrated there, how different. That is what I have experienced here in Singapore. Halloween as is celebrated here started in Britain and other parts of Northern Europe as part of the ancient Celtic Religion. I’ve been working here for 12 years yet only last year experienced my first Halloween celebration with my friends. It was a lot of fun and vey exciting, though I did have some difficulty in saying NO to dressing up and putting on Halloween make-up. That’s the thrill and highlight of having a Halloween party.
Here in Singapore, a few weeks before, you can already sense that Halloween is just around the corner. Shopping malls display Halloween stuff. Adults, teens and especially kids are getting more excited every single day. Take for example the 4 year old boy I look after. The whole family was invited by a friend to attend their Halloween party. They started planning their costumes and he was excitedly counting the remaining days left before the big day. Every morning he would tell me “Miriam, 5 more days more to go before Halloween!”
He said that every day until the big event. That morning, when I was making coffee for myself, I asked him, “How many days left before he Halloween?”
He showed me his clenched fist and said “ZERO”
I could not stop myself from laughing. The excitement on his face made him look even more adorable. When we arrived at the venue, we saw hanging balloons with Halloween designs, amazing food, residents with their kids wearing scary costumes, and a corner for the games they prepared. At the end of the event, everybody was looking tired and exhausted, especially the kids, but I could see the happiness and satisfaction on their faces.
When we got home and I was already on bed, I looked at the pictures I took, and suddenly reminisced about the Halloween we used to celebrate when I was a kid.
In the Philippines, a week before, we start to clean up the cemeteries and the graves of our love ones; the graves get a layer of fresh paint and everything is made ready for the visits on November 1st and 2nd. People from other places start going back to their hometowns to visit their dead loved ones. Airports are packed, as are ships and buses.
You might think we have a very boring Halloween, I mean cemeteries, graves, prayers and all, make it seem like a serious affair. Not so. Spending Halloween in the cemeteries is a fun event. It is like a mini-reunion for families and friends alike, a chance to be with those people that we see only once a year. Tents, shelters, chairs and tables are set up in front of the gravesites to provide a place for families and their visitors to stay and talk. Best of all, food and drinks are overflowing during this time, with families bringing basket of foods and drinks to share with others. Food we prepare is not the same as food here, we make native delicacies called “kakanin” some of which are only prepared during Halloween. I remember when I was a kid, my grandmother used to tell us not to eat the food that they cooked until it had been offered to the dead loved ones. We do this by taking a small portion of each food and put in a corner with candles.
If I am to compare the way Halloween is celebrated today and before, I’ll still choose to celebrate the “BEFORE”, it was so much more fun than these days.
There you have it. Halloween Filipino style. It is definitely different but equally as interesting as the Halloween celebration in other parts of the world…
The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) is an anti-human trafficking organisation advocating empowerment and justice for all migrant workers in Singapore