Jessel is a domestic worker from the Philippines currently staying at the HOME shelter. She shares with us her story of her agent, who when she complained about having been deceived with a false contract, send Jessel a text message stating ‘I told you before my business is making money’.
‘Getting married at an early age is quite difficult. At 19, I gave birth to my eldest daughter, and the following year to my second. Life was hard with my husband having no permanent work. So I decided to apply for work abroad, in Singapore. Applying to work in another country takes time, money and patience. My first attempt failed and I had no choice but to stay with my family. I gave birth to my third and fourth child.
At that point, life got even harder. When my youngest son turned two I decided to apply again to work in Singapore. I had to pay six months of salary to the agent, but my employer let me pay small deductions every month. I was lucky, my employers were good people. I felt at home with them, even if I did not have any days off and they did not allow me a handphone. The first three months were hard. I missed my children. I cried a lot. But I got through that, as my family in Singapore was treating me well. After two years, my contract finished, and I had to find another employer. I did not go home to take a vacation because I wanted to earn money. To transfer I had to pay two months of salary to the agent again.
My second employers were good people too. They treated me as family. When my mam gave birth, I felt like I was having a baby too. After a year and a half, I made a mistake that I regret badly. I decided to go back home. My mam wanted me to stay, and I am now very sorry she agreed to send me home.
Life back home was difficult, as I did not have any income and could not provide for my four kids. I felt so down. I applied for a job in Singapore again. Processing went very fast and after only one month I was back in Singapore. I was very shocked when the agent told me seven months of my salary were going to be deducted as an agent fee. I did not get to see my contract until I had been working for the new employer for three weeks already. By that time I had little choice but to sign it. I felt that I had been fooled. Why had they not told me this when I was still in my own country? They had said that because I had worked in Singapore before, I would be a direct hire and would only get four months of salary deductions, spread out over a longer period. I had trusted them to tell the truth. Another mistake.
This time, I had left for Singapore together with a friend, through the same agency. My friend’s contract stated she would pay four months of salary deductions, and that they were going to be spread out over ten months, just like we were promised. Me, I would not have any money to send home to my family for seven months.
I asked my agent, who had turned out to be my mam’s sister, why my loan was so much higher than my friends. The agent said my friend was different, but when I asked why, she would not answer me. Neither did she answer me when I asked to go home. When I told the agent I was very disappointed in her, she texted me back, saying: ‘I told you before my business is making money.’
I thought I was very strong. I thought I had patience. But now, I started to feel unhappy with my work. Every time my mam raised her voice to her kids, every time I even saw her, I felt nervous. I could not fight the thoughts anymore about my own kids, now I could not send them any money. If I can’t send any money to my kids, they will starve. I was worrying so much I could not work properly. I felt depressed. I wanted to go home. That is why I ran away .’
HOME has managed to negotiate a reduction of Jessel’s agency fee, and she is hoping to find a new employer soon. It is common for domestic workers to find upon arrival in Singapore that agent’s fees are higher than agreed. Since contracts are either substituted, or not signed until after they have arrived at their employer’s house, domestic workers find they have little choice but to accept the new conditions.
Singapore’s Employment Agencies Act stipulates that agencies are allowed to charge a maximum of two months salary as a fee to foreign workers entering Singapore, yet most workers end up with a debt that is much higher, either knowingly or unknowingly. Singaporean agencies justify charging higher fees by claiming it is not a debt but a loan, or by claiming that they are merely asking workers to pay off fees charged by agencies overseas, for which they have no responsibility.
The Philippines government regulations stipulate that domestic workers should not be charged any agency fee. By allowing agencies to charge up to 8 months salary, and more in some instances, the Singapore government has contravened its own laws and also violated the Philippine government’s regulations.