I recall my experiences with emotional abuse with my previous employer. My employers and I had a group chat, but it was not used for communication. Instead they used it to send pictures, to complain when I’d forgotten their instructions or were not happy with my work. Almost every day, they complained about me. That made me feel sad and worried. Every night, I cried. But when I remembered that my son needs me, I told myself to be strong. When I woke up in the morning and opened my eyes for the first time, I wondered what my employers were going to complain about next. I felt very scared thinking about that.
I also had a very strict schedule, and if I did not follow it, I was scolded very badly. I felt so tired and overwhelmed. Even when they were on holiday, they checked in on me to ensure that I was following my schedule. After they returned, I was scolded again, saying that my work was not up to their standards. Eventually, I decided that I could no longer work for them.
When I asked for a transfer, Ma’am said wait until she finds a replacement. After one month, nothing happened. They thought I was joking, that I wouldn’t be able to find another employer. One Saturday, I told them that I will go for interviews on Sunday. They were shocked that I was serious about leaving, and they still didn’t believe I could find a new employer. One week after that, I told them I had confirmed employment with another family and asked when they would release me. Finally, after much persuasion, I got my release paper.
A few months ago, I started working with a new employer. Thank God this family is nice and I’m happy working here.
To all my friends, if you have a problem at work, don’t be quiet. You need to talk to your friends or go to a help desk to share and ask for advice. Fight for your rights. Your family needs your support.
Many domestic workers suffer emotionally. Most of them are new here and not aware of their working conditions. Culture shock, treatment of employers, homesickness, isolation… As a domestic worker for 27 years, I have had experiences with two of my past employers where I felt isolated, afraid and helpless. For my first experience, I thought I had found a good employer because we were both agreeable during the interview. But when I started work, she changed. She will come home from work, and blame me for things I did not do. She will scold me for nothing. I had the same experience with my employer after her. I thought he was happy with my volunteer activities on my off days but I was wrong. “You think you’re smart? No, you’re not.” These were the words he growled into my ear when he was angry because I did not follow his instructions exactly. During those times, I cried every night talking to my family. I tried to tell my friends too but I felt they were not listening. I had every Sunday off and even on public holidays, but I dragged my body back to my employer’s home at night. That was why when I decided to talk to them, my only option was to get out of that situation… out of that house.
As a help desk volunteer for HOME, I spoke to many domestic workers who experience emotional abuse. They were told that they would be sent back home if their employer was not happy with them. There are some who cannot go out and feel isolated. Some are overworked, working till wee hours in the morning. If they complained, they would lose their job. Many new domestic workers were told differently by their agents about the rules. Some agents will say, “No point complaining because you will still go home.” Confiscating their phones only made them feel more homesick. Not being able to talk to their families, especially their children, worsened their situation. Emotional abuse drains one’s mind and pushes some to the edge. This is what happens to some domestic workers who cannot get help. Emotional abuse on domestic workers should not be taken lightly. Such treatment affects one’s mental well-being.
Our job as domestic workers is our bread and butter. That is why losing it is not an option. We will endure as long as we can to keep it. However, enough rest, off days, communication, understanding… These are very important to us, domestic workers. We are not robots. We are not kids. We are not commodities. We domestic workers are women living away from our families. Most of us are married and mothers, many of whom are single mothers and sole breadwinners of their family. Sacrificing our time for our children in exchange for a job that will help to support the family, not being able to see our families at times for two years or more… Why is it so difficult to understand? Why do some employers ignore our pain?
I have always been in awe of beautiful pictures. For a long time, I wished for an opportunity to attend a photography workshop that would equip me with the skills to capture precious moments. However, the workshops available in the marketplace were beyond my means.
Last December, I received a message from HOME’s Academy Director, Sisi, to send out an invitation to fellow domestic workers for a photography workshop organized by Holdinghands Studio for free. Thank God for answering my prayers!
Holdinghands Studio is a social enterprise set up in August last year, in the hope of using photography to equip under-resourced communities. It sought camera donations from individuals and lent these units to migrant workers for free. Holdinghands Studio is also the first social enterprise providing a full suite of photography activities and services i.e. skill-building classes, free camera use, opportunities to practice at real-life events while guided by seasoned photographers. The social enterprise believes that through these activities, a photography enthusiast can grow his or her skill set, which will be useful if they wish to pursue photography as a professional career when they return to their country of origin.
HOME, in collaboration with Holdinghands Studio, held its first in-person photography workshop in December last year. Tan Chin Hock, founder of the social enterprise, was the instructor. Together with his teammate, Benjamin, they conducted a fruitful workshop where the participants learned and laughed a lot. The easy-going personalities of the facilitators made the session an enjoyable one. There were clear learning objectives and we had a lot of room to ask questions. We even won prizes for participating in a quiz.
At the beginning of 2022, Holdinghands Studio even sponsored Genelyn, one of the migrant photographers in the photography club, to participate in an international photography award.
Last month, Holdinghands Studio organized a workshop on studio photography for domestic workers. Lanie, a participant, said that she learned about the difference between artificial and natural light, and how lighting affects the mood in photography. Lora Jane, another one of the participants, commented, “It was fun and engaging… It is evident that this kind of creative class brings people together. I encourage other migrant workers to join future sessions as it is worth a try.” Domestic worker Sunarmi added, “Thank you, Holdinghands Studio. I enjoyed learning something new with other migrant workers.”
Since its partnership with HOME, the workshops have received positive responses from the community. Chin Hock then decided to form the Migrant Workers Creative Centre (MWCC) Telegram chat group so thatmore migrant workers could receive announcements, share their photographs and receive feedback. The membership has ballooned to more than 70 members as of July 2022.
Why did Chin Hock reach out to HOME? “It all started with the belief that everyone can take pictures with a wow factor,” he said. His life had changed due to his passion for photography and he wanted to share it with under-resourced communities such as migrant workers. He added that everyone should have an opportunity to hold a camera and learn how to take pictures. From past experiences, he learned that working with agencies will help the social enterprise reach more people. That was why he knocked on HOME’s door offering free photography services. “It is one of my best decisions. We have come so far now.”
A monthly photo contest was also organized by Holdinghands Studio as an outlet for members to express their creativity. The prizes are sponsored by HOME and the administration is led by a team of enthusiastic migrant workers.
Witnessing the improvement of the quality of pictures taken by the migrant workers, Chin Hock decided to select a few photos to print on coasters to raise funds for HOME and FAST. The first batch of coasters features photographs taken by domestic workers, namely Kate, Jumaiti, Yunis, Alma and Agnes Tono. There are only 2,000 sets printed.
Each set of five coasters is selling for $20, and 20 percent of the proceeds will go to HOME and FAST. They can be purchased here. The coasters are as practical as they are beautiful and inspirational. They are waterproof and do not stick to the bottom of your cup when you lift it; they stay put on your table to protect it from drips and cup rings. It is a good gift for your loved ones.
Lastly, we would like to congratulate Agnes, one of the photographers in the group, for having her photo featured at the 17th Ngee Ann Photographic Exhibition 2022. It is one of the largest photographic exhibitions in Singapore. With Chin Hock‘s encouragement and support, Agnes submitted her entry on the last day of submission. Her photo was later showcased alongside the works of professional photographers.
Thank you, Holdinghands Studio and Chin Hock for empowering migrant workers in Singapore. Through your support, we are able to fulfil some of our wishes in life!
Jo Ann A. Dumlao MyVoice Contributing Writer
*The featured image is a photograph taken by a domestic worker who attended a photo walk organized by Holdinghands Studio.
As a member of and volunteer at HOME, I am always open to whatever programme is offered to migrant domestic workers (MDW). So when I received a message that a professional journalist wanted to hold a writing workshop for us, without hesitation, I said, “Yes!”
I love and enjoy writing but I want to learn more. I want to know what writing is really all about. What are the different forms of writing? Are there any rules to follow? I knew I would be learning more from this workshop, so I looked forward to it.
The instructor was Marina Lopes, a Brazilian American journalist currently based in Singapore. She was a reporter based in Brazil for The Washington Post, as well as Reuters in Mozambique, New York and Washington. She also produced TV segments for PBS and BBC.
Excited, I invited participants for the workshop. Many were willing to join but sadly we had to limit the group size. There were 25 participants in all. The workshop started on March 2 and ended on May 29. Every Wednesday, we would meet on Zoom at night after we had completed the housework for our employers.
Ms Lopes had prepared a syllabus for the workshop. Over the weeks, she instilled in us the basics of writing, from emails and resumes to social media and creative writing. She had set expectations and goals for the course as well. It was to teach participants how to write clearly, concisely and with confidence whether it was professional or personal work. All of us were expected to participate in the class, read the homework assignments, ask questions and share our writing if we were comfortable with it.
As one of the participants, I can say that we have learned a lot and enjoyed the class. The interactions, the sharing of our reflections… wow. Who would have remembered that we are all MDWs in that class?
On our last day of class, we gathered in person. I finally met my classmates and our amazing trainer. Ms Sisi Sukiato, HOME Academy’s Director, dropped by to greet everyone as well.
This was the best session of the workshop. It was a mind boggling time as we were tasked to write one-liners to a few paragraphs of poetry on the spot. But it was fun nevertheless. We did not know whether we could do it, until we read what we had written! It was challenging because if ideas did not flow at that time, you ended up staring at the ceiling or into blank space.
Let me share with you some of our on-the-spot writing. We wrote about rain, getting lost, and about a person who has left us.
Why does everybody love the rain?
I hate rain,
I can't play, it is so muddy!
Here, I am, lonely, nah!
Just for today.
On my way to meet love
Run in circles, sweating
Maze lost its beauty, I left.
- Lora Jane
Description of my heart, feel pain
When you left me.
Remember your struggle
Patiently you teach me, even I can't
But I believe, I can make you proud.
Now you will leave, leaving a million meanings
You said goodbye that I never wanted
I can only pray that you will always be happy.
Miss you a lot.
- Fatma, My Mentor
Astray who knows
One day, every step of the way
I'll find the safest place,
It's in your embrace
The beautiful soul of mine.
It's been 5 years dad
But still I can feel
The loneliness and pain inside.
If I could only turn back time
Would hug and hold your tired arms.
How can I overcome my regrets, dad?
The mistakes I made when you were alive
I really wish that even in my dreams
I can hear your voice
And hug you tight.
I'm sorry Dad!
- Amy, Longing for Dad
Hey Jo, why those eyes
You look sad, in bewilderment,
Look up, the stars are shining on you!
- Jo Ann
For these pieces, we were given up to five minutes. I liked the challenge! See, we could do it. Hooray to all of us!
Ms Lopes said that we will have a part two of this writing workshop. I can’t wait for it. If you are a MDW, join us!
Here’s what the rest of my classmates had to say.
“Yes to part two! I’ve learned a lot. The lesson is very clear and precise and her feedback was very constructive. She encourages us to do better in our writing. I’d love to have more lessons with her.”
“Our first writing workshop was really helpful. The 10 sessions which covered different topics taught us different writing techniques. From the proper way to write an email to effective ways of writing a narrative, Ms Marina was so patient in answering our questions, carefully checking our homework and replying to them.”
“The workshop went beyond my expectations. I learned a lot and appreciated how kind Ms Marina was. She was approachable and had tons of patience in teaching us even when one missed a class.”
“The workshop was very informative especially on writing emails and resumes. I look forward to the next class.”
My eyes watered. My hands were shaking. I felt butterflies in my stomach. You were seated on the plastic chair, head bowed toward the ground and rubbing the palm of your hand on your lap. As I put my last piece of clothing in my bag and closed it, you looked up. Our eyes met, but neither one of us utter a word. I am not sure how I feel leaving you, mother, brother, and my three year old daughter.
You hugged me, so tightly that my muscles felt a pinch. You combed my hair with your fingertips and rubbed my back saying, “Be careful, my child. I love you.” I let go, grabbed my bag and walked away without saying anything to you. I stepped into the minivan that will take me to the airport. With a heavy heart, I watched you standing there waving as tears fell from your cheeks. I imagined my family without me as the driver took off.
My heart was pounding so hard, I thought my chest would burst. In an air-conditioned airport, perspiration dripped down my spine, my forehead, my nose, my lips. Reality was kicking in. I was leaving my home country, my family, my friends, my culture, for a different life. A brighter future.
It is a beautiful city. Big, tall buildings. Clean streets. At night, you feel safe walking outside by yourself as the roads are lit. As far as I know, it is the safest place I have ever been to. Singapore is a place where dreams can come true.
After three years of being away, homesickness was not an issue. I was able to talk to my parents, my brother, and my daughter weekly.
It was a Sunday night. Something was off. At a restaurant where I was having dinner, I kept seeing my father’s image whenever I turned to look at the waiter. I remember his brown eyes staring at me and smiling, nodding as if he was saying, “Hello, my child.” His hair combed back. His wrinkles and gray hair. My heart was happy then, seeing my father’s face on someone else’s. But whenever I blinked, my father’s face faded. I brushed it off as my imagination.
At three that night, my phone rang. I was startled. I picked up my phone as I rubbed the sleep off my eyes. It was my mother, her voice lower and hoarser than usual. She shouted, “You need to come home now!”
I asked why.
She simply repeated, “Come home now.”
Angry and frustrated, I asked again. “Tell me why.”
“It’s Papa. He was in an accident. You need to come home now.”
She started crying.
I was confused. “What happened to Papa?!”
I was getting emotional now.
“Papa is gone. You need to come home now!”
I started crying. Tears streamed down my face as my nose dripped. I held my phone to my ear even though I had hung up. I kicked my covers and myself. Finally letting the phone go, I grabbed my pillow. I buried my face in it and sobbed for a long time. Before I knew it, my alarm clock started ringing.
I rose from my bed and washed off the tears from my face. I tried to pretend that everything was fine, but I could not help my tears from flowing. My employer approached me and asked me what had happened. I told her about my father and said, “I want to go home.”
Never would I have thought that I would return home without Papa to greet me. I will no longer hear his stories about my childhood. His hands will not be there for me to hold anymore.
My Papa is in a casket, lying peacefully while the rest of my family mourns for him.
I ask myself, “Why my Papa? Why so soon? Was it a punishment for the mistakes I have made in the past? Why? Why? Why? What is going to happen to my family? How is mother going to get through this without me by her side?”
The biggest question is, what am I going to do now that I do not have him around anymore?
I was heading to the baggage carousel when I glanced at the waiting area on my right side. My heart jumped when I saw my parents waving. I stopped at belt 26 to wait for my luggage. While waiting, I kept staring at them. I waved once in a while. My excitement turned me into impatience. “Why is this carousel so slow? It’s wasting my time. It’s been six years!” This was my very first vacation home since I started working as a migrant domestic worker.
I remember vividly how she stared at me. She was a skinny little girl, wearing a pink floral dress. Out of the blue, she asked me, “Are you my mama?” I was taken aback. As I looked at her, tears flowed down my cheeks. I realized she had not seen me for six years. I left her when she was two years old.
“Yes, I am.” I tried to say with a smile.
“You’re beautiful.” She said with excitement on her face.
This was an unforgettable conversation with her 21 years ago. She is now 28, but I am still working in Singapore.
I have three children. Airra is my second child and my only daughter. One night, on one of my vacations home, she came to my bed where I was lying and laid down on my lap.
“Ma, can you help me find an employer in Singapore?”
I was stunned.
“No!” My answer was firm.
“Why?” She asked.
“Seriously? Don’t be a second me! Don’t follow my footsteps. Look at your children. They’re almost the same age as when I left you and your brothers. It was because your father didn’t fulfil his responsibilities. But your life is different from mine.”
She stared at her three children. They were all sound asleep. Her husband was on his way home from work.
I continued, “You had a second chance in relationships. You have met the right man. He is a very responsible husband and father to your children. They need you here. Don’t leave them. Don’t let them experience the life that you had when you were growing up. Do you understand?”
She did not say a word after that. As the night wore on, she fell asleep on my lap. I gazed at her with love. She is still my little daughter, no matter how old she is.
“I will not let you be a second me.” I whispered to her.
I remind myself of my strength often. There were times when I have had to hold on for dear life while working as a domestic worker in Singapore. But honestly, the true test has always been deciding if I should still stay with an employer or leave.
As a domestic worker, I only asked for a clear record. My patience wore thin when I realized that my working situation was against the law.
I was working in two houses and I was the eighth member of the household. Carrying this heavy workload was tough. The living room was where I laid my tired body each night. During the wee hours, I would hear footsteps to the toilet as they passed by me. Sometimes, they will turn on the television and ask me to turn my body against it. The CCTV in the house never turns off, causing me to feel uneasy during my rest.
I knew for sure from the very first day that I should only be working at the address listed in my Work Permit, but I did not dare to report it. I was bothered by the thought of waiting out a case if I complained, so I remained quiet for almost four years. But there came a time when I could no longer tolerate the situation. I needed to leave. Soon, it was the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. I had to choose between repatriation or renewing my contract.
But God is amazing. He works in ways we cannot see. I asked a lot of people for advice. They were concerned for me. It was a while ago when I met one of HOME’s help desk volunteers. When I approached her, she told me to stand firm and fight for my rights. I finally found the courage to lodge a complaint, though the process was not easy.
I am very thankful for the sympathy shown to me, and the fair judgement made in my case. For now, I am finally free from my illegal deployment and found a new employer. I feel much better because I am valued as a domestic worker, and a human being. I now have a private space to rest.
It is not easy working as a migrant domestic worker. We face many difficulties but a piece of advice I have for my fellow workers is, be strong and courageous. Remember, you are not alone. There are a lot of people who care, who are willing to listen and offer helpful advice. Never lose hope and above all else, have faith in God for He has promised that He will never leave nor forsake us.
Photo is taken from CNA and used for illustration purposes only.
The COVID-19 pandemic has stripped many migrant domestic workers of employment options, forcing them to choose between abusive work environments and the risk of being sent home. As the pandemic worsened and Singapore’s borders closed, the number of new domestic workers allowed into the country dwindled. Employers began rejecting transfer requests, confining workers to their homes and asking them to work overtime. At the same time, faced with the uncertainty of obtaining a transfer, many workers looking to leave abusive environments decided to extend their contracts or remain with their employers. In fact, the number of employees requesting to transfer shrank by 80 percent during the pandemic. Many more domestic workers that I spoke to had to take on an increased workload, by working on their rest day with no compensation.
I spoke to several domestic workers to learn more about the agonizing decisions they were forced to make during the past two years.
For many women, the risks of staying in abusive jobs were pit against the uncertainties of transferring. One woman I spoke to had been patiently waiting to leave a difficult employer after her contract was finished, to avoid damaging her employment record. But when her contract finally ended, the pandemic was at its peak and she grew scared of not having her transfer approved or finding a better family to work for. “I have to stay, to renew my contract,”’ she said. Her family depended on her.
She prayed her employers would treat her better. Instead, the abuse worsened. One night, six months into her new contract, she decided she had enough and asked to be let go. Her relief after leaving the employers was quickly replaced with anxiety about her future. Luckily, after a week of interviews, she signed with a new employer who she describes as considerate and understanding. She found peace and happiness there.
Many others described heightened levels of abuse during the pandemic. One worker recounted with tears in her eyes how she lost 8kg and became suicidal after working for an elderly woman whose family became increasingly abusive, forbidding her from eating food in the fridge and monitoring her with CCTV cameras. “I feel so useless and think so little of myself because of the way I’m treated. It’s as if I’m not a human being, like them,” she said. She worried the process of transferring during the pandemic would be too difficult, but ultimately decided to look for another employer. She is now working for a single father who treats her with kindness and respect. There is no more yelling, no more verbal abuse and she gained back the weight she lost, and even a little extra.
Other women suffered the aftershocks of disruptions in their employers’ lives. One migrant domestic worker I spoke to was given one month to find a new family after her employers found their bank accounts squeezed by the pandemic. “We’re sorry, we have to let you go,” they told her. “Things are not going well for us.” She scrambled to interview with different families, and get her paperwork to the Ministry of Manpower, but her employment request was denied three times before it was approved. The turbulence caused her tremendous anxiety, but she finally found a great family to work for.
I hear the despair and agony that these workers went through, but I am also inspired to see their courage in the face of the unknown. In the face of tremendous difficulty, they discovered their voices and sought out better situations for themselves and ultimately, their loved ones. I tell them to keep the faith and to not give up hope.
Jo Ann A. Dumlao HOME volunteerand MyVoice contributor
Photo is taken from Channel NewsAsia and used for illustration purposes only.
After reading an email I received from the Verve Arts Festival 2021 committee, I was excited and happy! On one hand, I knew that participating in this event would widen my horizons. But on the other hand, I had doubts as I was involved in another project at the time. So I told myself, “Practice good time management.”
After our final discussion for the festival, I was all set to go.
Verve Arts Festival was organised by Ngee Ann Polytechnic students, and it was held online from 11 to 18 December 2021. Bhing, a fellow HOME volunteer, and I, participated in a segment titled, ‘Blurring The Lines Between Us’. This initiative aimed to raise awareness of the discrimination migrant workers face, such as moving freely in the city, through audio trails. We hope they will allow for more interconnection between migrant workers and locals. It’s undeniable that locals have a poor impression of migrant workers, and this programme seeks to change their perspective. May the local viewers come to see that migrant workers can navigate spaces in Singapore with dignity.
We narrated three audio trails set along the lines of Lucky Plaza, Orchard Road, and in one’s own home. Recording these audio trails made me think back to when I first arrived here in Singapore. The first time I entered Lucky Plaza, I was reminded of home as there were numerous Filipino products and food on sale. On my first day off, I remember feeling amazed by the sculptures around the area. There were so many differences compared to where I am from; stunning tall buildings, convenient underground passages that allow you to escape the hot sun or heavy downpour, and rows of shops and food stalls or restaurants. There are shopping malls in every corner, creating a lively and beautiful Orchard Road. As you walk along Orchard Road, you can see us migrant workers as well, and I am sure your thoughts and opinions about us flow.
I wrote a poem titled ‘One Fine Sunday Off’, which I narrated in the audio trail listed as ‘Along These Lines at Orchard Road (Audio File 6)’. You can listen to it below.
If you would like to know more about Bhing’s and my artistic journeys as writers and poets, you can watch this Q&A video below.
There’s a line in the programme that says, “Migrant workers form one-fifth of Singapore’s population, but do we consider them part of our community?” Insightful, isn’t it? It makes me wonder, “Do I feel recognised? Do you recognise us?”
I really appreciate the invitation to participate in this amazing project. I enjoyed the process of filming and recording the audio trails in different locations.