“I get about 10 messages a day, either on the phone or Facebook. Most of them come after 10pm when the ladies finish work” Kitty Aye Mar Mar explains. “Sometimes they just want advice on how things work in Singapore, but sometimes they need urgent help”.
Kitty is a volunteer at Helping Hands, a small organisation of around 20 Burmese professionals living in Singapore who give their time, day and night, to assist the 30,000 domestic workers from Myanmar. Kitty came to Singapore from Myanmar 19 years ago to work as a civil engineer. In the last few years she has dedicated much of her free time to helping the many less fortunate Burmese migrants who have arrived in Singapore.
Myanmar has been in the news recently for its decision to ban domestic workers coming to Singapore, due to the refusal of Singaporean employment agencies to sign a Memorandum of Understanding protecting their rights. Workers from Myanmar are popular in Singapore, as they demand lower wages than workers from the Philippines and Indonesia. Despite the ban, the women continue to come. As Kitty explained, many of these women come from rural villages where on average they would earn $50 a month working in a market stall or farming and selling produce. The promise of earning $400 – $450 a month as a domestic worker in Singapore is enormously tempting. However, many of these women have very low levels of education and may not even speak the Burmese national language well. They are easily exploited both by unofficial agents in Myanmar who charge high recruitment fees and offer no training, and by unscrupulous agents in Singapore who claim high placement fees. Most women arrive with large debts that can take months to pay back.
As Kitty explains, their debts are just the beginning of the many challenges these women face on arrival in Singapore. Whilst they may sacrifice a day off in order to pay back their debts, the biggest issue they face is the isolation and vulnerability that comes with not being able to communicate in English. Many have no more than a few words and struggle to understand their employers. Misunderstandings can easily escalate and with no network to turn to, the women feel afraid and alone. Kitty sees one of her priorities as creating a network via social media and word-of-mouth so that the women know there are people who can provide help if they need it. She and the other Helping Hands volunteers regularly go to the library in Peninsula Plaza on Sundays, where many domestic workers from Myanmar congregate, and spread the word about services and organisations that offer help and support.
Kitty and Helping Hands came to know of HOME through the shelter where they brought women who could no longer stay with their employers. Through working together it became apparent that HOME could help the domestic workers from Myanmar in other ways, mainly by addressing their need for English language classes. In July HOME opened two Sunday English classes for domestic workers from Myamnar and plans to expand these in the coming semester. Plans are also underway to work with a local school on producing booklets in the Burmese language explaining the rights and roles of domestic workers in Singapore. These books will help the women understand and adjust to the cultural differences in Singapore, inform them of their rights and provide them with information about services where they can go for help. Hopefully with these tools the domestic workers from Myanmar will feel more confident and supported in their jobs, and Kitty will have a few less phone calls to answer during the night.
Would you like to help Kitty and her Helping Hands reach out to domestic workers from Myanmar? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch.
And please help supporting HOME to continue to hold English classes for domestic workers by donating much needed funds. More information on how you can donate, very easily, online can be found here.