After working in Singapore for 19 years as a domestic worker, Kina Pitono made the difficult decision to move back to Indonesia. She now lives in Jakarta where she works and continues her studies, trying to adjust to live in her home country again. Her husband still works and lives in Singapore. In this article she reminisces on her recent stay in hospital, the COVID pandemic and freedom.
I DREAM OF BUTTERFLIES
It was dark, it was quiet … half of the world was sleeping, but not me. My body ached, I felt itchy all over, and I felt so much pain in my stomach. It hurt, it really hurt, but why? What was going on, what was happening to me? Slowly I opened my eyes, trying so hard to get up from the bed and finally I could sit up and I was surprised to see red rashes. I panicked, scared and so weak because of the pain in my stomach. I reached out to my phone and tried to call my roommate, but only 30 minutes later I managed to get a hold of her because she was charging her phone and had put it on silent mode.
The moment she came to my room my condition was at its worst. The rashes had spread all over my body, my head two times bigger, my eyes and my lips swollen – I looked horrible, like a monster. My roommate was trying hard to keep me calm while she was calling for an ambulance, grab, taxi – I think she was calling everyone in this world to pick up us.
When we reached the hospital, I had to go through a few tests to make sure that I was not positive for Covid-19. I was relieved when the result was negative. Later, the Doctor confirmed that I had an allergic reaction and also a digestive infection. I felt so much pain, I cried so much. How I wished my mother was beside me. But because of the pandemic, I kept my illness a secret, I did not want her to worry, I did not want to see her tears. I wanted her to be happy even though I knew she was sad, because none of her daughters could come back home for the important day which is our new year: Hari Raya Idul Fitri.
The hospital room was quiet, the night cold …. slowly I pulled up my blue blanket, I stared at the wall – with a drip on my hand so I could barely move. The nurse came in and gave me some medicine, so I felt better at last. I tried to sleep but I could not. I really missed my family and my husband. This pandemic has so much impact on all of us and we are forced to face it. We are forced to lose our jobs, we are forced to leave our loved ones behind, we are forced to stop our businesses, we cannot meet our friends and family, we are not allowed to visit medical patients, the world is suffering. Money is no longer the priority, a title is no longer important, rich and poor are no different -everyone only focuses on their health.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak has begun, each and every morning that we wake up and still have food on the table is a blessing. Some people worry, can they still survive tomorrow or the day after? They might have no income, but their family still needs to eat. The children are no longer going to school, they are forced to stay at home to study. They cannot go outside to meet their friends and play. Their smiles have turned to gloom.
It was 4 pm in the afternoon. I was told to get enough rest after taking my medicines. My phone suddenly rang … I was too weak to even move my hand to get my phone from the table. It was my friend who called me, and crying she told me that her mother had passed away. I was so shocked, I cried too. My friend cannot go back home to see her mother for the last time, she cannot say good bye to her beloved mother, she cannot even attend the funeral. I cried as my heart ached, I felt her pain, which must be terrible, hurt, sad, miserable and disappointed…but what we can do? Knowing we cannot travel because of this pandemic saddened me. But I knew my friend has a strong heart, she can hold her pain of losing her loved ones, and for that I salute her.
I stayed in the hospital for 4 days and finally I was discharged. When I got home I had to quarantine in my room for a week to prevent spreading of the virus to my roommates. I am blessed, I still have people here, friends who treat me like family. They take care of me very well and help me whenever I need their help.
But still I miss my freedom, I miss going outside to smell the fresh air, I miss listening to sweet voices of the birds singing on the tree, I miss my family back home, I miss spending quality time with my friends, as we talk and we laugh together.
On the other side of me I could see how they wish the same too. I kneel down, I put my hands to pray, dear God please heal our world, Covid -19 has made us realise we have so much to be thankful, to appreciate every blessing , to care and to love our family and friends. Our health is our priority. We miss our freedom of life and wish to have back of our normal life.
Recently I read an opinion piece by Renee Graham, a Globe Columnist that stated “Being a person of color isn’t a risk factor for Corona Virus. Living in a racist country is”.
Racism is a killer. In a pandemic like the one we are in now, it can be a mass murderer. And despite of what we are facing now, discrimination is unstoppable. Don’t get me wrong, by quoting this, I’m not saying that Singapore is a racist country. Instead, I’m referring to some Singaporeans who don’t even think twice before they burst bubbles. It is not only about color, it’s wrong to treat people differently just because of their race, ethnicity, culture or profession; we’re all human beings. What I want to discuss here is discrimination against foreign workers.
Last Friday April 10, 2020, The Straits Times published an article that highlighted a Corona Virus update from dormitories – with 287 cases as the highest cases in a day. Reading the comments under the article I became very upset. There were comments along the line of: “better get all your maids to go for a test too and advice those workers to stop visiting their maid girlfriend” or “those workers should stop patronizing red light district for prostitutes” and “some foreign domestic helpers have Bangladeshi or Indian boyfriends, some sell themselves during their day off too, I see many helper on Skout asking men to pay her services”.
These comments are below the belt. If you have something to say, you can do it with good manners. We as domestic workers have no problem if we have to go and get tested, as this is for our own good. But before you say something harsh about FW’s (Foreign Workers-male) and MDW’s (Migrant Domestic Worker-female), think again.
Aren’t many Singaporeans also patronizing those red light districts? And how would those commenters know if helpers on Skout ask men to pay for their services, unless they were on it themselves, looking? If some of the helpers have Bangladeshi, Indian or whatever race boyfriends, what’s the problem with that? Are we not allowed to like or love them, just because we are helpers? Is that a crime?
As my co-writer Iya said in the anthology Our Homes, Our Stories: “Our hands has five fingers with different lengths, just the same as every other person in Singapore.” These foreigners you are discriminating are working hard, even if some employers maltreat them; because they want to give the best for their family back home..
If FW’s and MDW are showing some public display of affection, often people take photos, upload them on social media and let those netizens criticise it like they’ve done a horrible crime. Of course we understand right now we need to practice social distancing, but even before, this happened. It’s normal to show affection for a couple in a relationship. And if there are some helpers and foreign workers, who do more than they should do still, you can’t think that all FW’s and MDW’s are the same. You never know what they are going through – each person you meet has a story to tell, so instead of being judgemental, just listen well! It’s so unfair to judge MDW and FW’s and exclude us from the things that human beings are free to do, just because we are helpers or construction workers.
I’m wondering if these people have ever imagined their lives without a foreign worker to collect their everyday trash, trim their garden, fix their leaking pipes, renovate the broken things inside their house, re-construct the road so that they can drive conveniently? Have they ever thought to figure out what to do in their everyday lives without a foreign helper to cook their meals, tidy their bed, clean their house, stay up late at night, when their kids are sick and look after them in their absence.
‘Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’. Remember domestic workers and foreign workers are human beings that work hard. For them, this time of Covid-19 is as bad as for anyone, maybe worse. Don’t judge them without knowing them. They don’t deserve to be discriminated!
Can Foreign Domestic Workers Still Go Out To Parks For Exercise?
I refer to the article published on April 11, stating that foreign domestic workers must stay home on their rest days.
I want to clarify whether domestic workers are allowed to go out for some exercise, such as walks in parks. The article states that “if they need to go out to buy meals or run essential errands, they can do so but should return home immediately after that and should not loiter or gather in any public spaces.” No mention is made about whether we can leave the house for some fresh air.
I understand that the government has clarified that people generally are allowed to go out to parks during this period of circuit breaking, as long as we practice safe social distancing. I want to ask if this advisory by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also allows domestic helpers to exercise in parks as well, since the article published seems rather ambiguous.
This has contributed to much uncertainty for domestic helpers like myself, since I am unsure of whether I am allowed to go out for walks during this period. My employer is also not sure, and because the law holds my employers accountable for my actions, they are reluctant to give me permission to go out.
I understand why my employers are hesitant, for the advisory is written rather ambiguously. I also understand that MOM is trying to discourage people from congregating in public spaces, and I wholeheartedly support this and understand the public health reasons behind this.
However, I am concerned about domestic helpers who may feel claustrophobic or suffer from cabin fever, after being cooped up in a house and working so hard for so long. We are not asking to go out to meet our friends; we are simply asking to have the chance to leave of place of work once a while and go out for some fresh air. I am also concerned that there is a double standard at work here, where other people are allowed the rights to visit parks as they please, whereas us domestic helpers need to seek permission from our employers.
I hope MOM clarifies this point quickly. Domestic helpers are also human, and have similar needs. The government has previously classified socially distant exercise in parks as “essential” for people’s well-being; I hope domestic helpers’ “essential” needs can be met as well.
We Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) are living with the scare of COVID-19 just like everyone else. But at the same time, for us, it is not like for everyone else.
All of us are living in a different reality right now. Work places and offices are closed, shops and roads are empty. We are all asked to stay home. How is that impacting our daily life?
Ironically, domestic workers are protected financially because we are working from home already. We have been living in isolation for years, locked down, some even locked up; all because we want to give our families a better life. But on the other side, we are not at our own home, we are away from our love ones, unable to be with them in a time of need. Imagine not being allowed to go home to a funeral of a love one?
Does this mean we cope easier in the current situation? I don’t think so. Being used to a pain doesn’t make the pain less, it is still the same pain as for another person. Maybe it does help us to understand it better, and maybe that helps us deal with it better in the long term. But the pain of isolation the Corona virus- COVID-19 is inflicting on us is a pain none of us should have to deal with.
As an MDW, I chose to inflict this pain on myself as a normal part of my daily life….So yes, MDWs have some prior exposure to being “locked down” but that just puts us in a better position to deal with the stress and emotions the rest of the world is experiencing. I wish we would all have the privilege of being locked down with our loved ones. For us MDWs, we can not. That is stressful but survivable.
I had some conversations with my fellow domestic workers and they shared their feelings, and experiences that this scary COVID-19 has inflected on their lives.
Daisy is a widowed mother, she sacrificed a lot and now has adult children. She has been working for 12 years as an MDW and her 2 children are both professionals already: her son a Police Officer and her daughter a Medical Technologist. Since this pandemic erupted, every week is a nerve wrecking one for her, day by day Daisy prays hard that her daughter is safe while doing her duty. Her daughter as a MedTech is in close contact with patients every day, and there was one patient who just came from an overseas holiday in Italy and didn’t declare it. A concerned citizen informed the Medical Staff of the Rural Health Unit (RHU) about the patient’s travel history. That alarmed the whole RHU as it put many of the staff at risk. At the time of writing this, the patient is still a Person Under Investigation (PUI). Being a mom, I can comprehend how Daisy is feeling right now: scared to the bone. We are all hoping and praying for the best results, not just for Daisy’s daughter but for everyone in the community.
Ate Lita has been saving every penny she can, so she can bring her son over for a holiday. “My son is so excited, I was in high spirits and set to go home on the 31st of March. I would be attending my son Moving Up Ceremony of Grade 10. And after 3 days I would be flying back to Singapore with him. It was our long awaited journey together to Singapore. We have been looking forward to this holiday for a very long time. But because of COVID-19, the happiness and excitement have turned to disappointment and sadness. Every single plan had to be canceled. What can we do? Being safe and being healthy is what matters most in this health crisis. We pray that all this will end soon, that everything will be back to normal soon”.
I also spoke to beautiful bride to be Rei. “I can hear the church bells ringing, it sounds like music to my ears. My heart skips a beat – I’m nervous and excited! You sure it’s still beating? Am I not dreaming, no, I am wide awake, I am sure of that! These were the scenarios playing in my mind. I have waited for so long and so has my boyfriend, for this wonderful couple moment that is going to happen- from planning to reality. Walking with my boyfriend’s hand in mine, and mine in his. But then everything turned upside down because of COVID-19! Yes, my boyfriend and I planned tying the knot this 15th of April, we both went back home (he is working in Dubai) last year to arrange everything for our big day. I can’t stop the tears flowing abundantly from my eyes, feeling frustrated, devastated, feeling down … It is all I can think now and I told my boyfriend also that, maybe God has other plans for us, maybe it’s not the right time yet (though we’ve been together for 4 years). I know that the rainbow will come out soon, will give colour again to our quarantined life”. A very emotional Rei , but she is still full of hope.
And it’s Ate Tess story that is the most heartbreaking, I get misty-eyed listening to it. “I am hugging myself, holding my mother’s picture right to my heart while tears are unstoppably running down my cheeks”, Ate Tess said. (Ate is a Tagalong expression that means “like an elder sister”). Her elderly mother died and there’s no way she can go home and attend the wake and funeral. Every year Ate Tess goes home for her mom’s birthday, but this time she was not able to go home and see her mom for the last time. How painful it must be – I hug Ate to comfort her. Sometimes a hug is more powerful , and needed despite social distancing. “If only I had lots of money, I would take the risk of going home and not coming back anymore”, an emotional Tess added. COVID-19 has stopped Tess going home in this most painful of moments.
Hearing their stories and trying to put myself in their situations, it crushes me.
How does it affect me? Honestly, it is scares me and still (sometimes when am out for grocery shopping) makes me feel uncomfortable. I have to stop, take a deep breath and take a hard look at my own life as a mom away from her 3 children; as a daughter away from her elderly and sickly mom; as an elder sister away from her brother and sister. As if I am into darkness feeling anxiety, scared, uncomfortable, suspicious and angry. The moment I heard that there’s a case of Person Under Investigation (PUI) in the condo where I am staying, the next block to ours, my first thought was – “I am not ready to die yet, I am away from my children.” Yes, that sounds like overreacting, but I don’t care, I have so many mixed emotions that I can hardly get a decent sleep at night. I know that I am walking with God, He is my yardstick that I and my family are surrounded with His love and protection. I keep all this in my mind every time I open my eyes for a new day and as I close my eyes at night to sleep.
I hope and fervently pray that this pandemic will end soon, no more pains and sorrows.
This Corona virus is affecting us globally. Don’t forget your self-care routines these days. Remember to wash your hands frequently with soap, wear a face mask if you are unwell, practice good hygiene and social distancing.
Let’s help the government, let’s do our part to fight this COVID-19, Stay at Home. Stay Safe. Stay Healthy.
JO ANN A. DUMLAO
Migrant Domestic Worker
The situations described below happened in the last few weeks, and in the meanwhile rules keep changing. Please refer to government websites for up to date information and read this message on our HOME website. If you have any concerns, please contact the HOME helpdesk.
COVID-19 has created chaos across the world. All countries are fighting the viral pandemic and try to stop the spreading the virus and keep their people safe. Just like in Singapore: new regulations are made according to the changing conditions continuously. But there is a lot of misinformation and most people find it hard to keep track.
Due to lock downs and travel restrictions many people find themselves without income. Everyone is affected, including foreign domestic workers. And as usually, it is the most vulnerable that suffer the most. But this is not the right time to talk with loud voices and anger. Instead, Novia Arluma, one of HOME helpdesk volunteers, shares some real-life stories of how COVID-19 created problems for some domestic workers and how she tries to help by supplying them with correct and up to date information.
The situations described below happened in the last few weeks, and in the meanwhile rules keep changing. Please refer to government websites for up to date information and read this message on our HOME website. If you have any concerns, please contact the HOME helpdesk.
JOB LOST ON HOME LEAVE
Last Sunday I was in a workshop as part as my volunteer activity with HOME when someone called me from my country, Indonesia. Unfortunately, I was unable to pick up the call. Then, I got a text message and I could feel that who sent it was in panic and shock, she didn’t know what to do. The woman is my fellow domestic worker, who is on home leave after renewing her contract with the same employer. Earlier, she had told me about her employer’s offer for her new salary, which she agreed with and then happily took her home leave to visit her family.
Just after 3 days at home, her employer called her and said that they chose to cancel her work permit, for safety reasons. I felt sorry for her, knowing it was unfair, but I also know that we can’t do much about these situations. I know that she is allowed to come back to Singapore, as long her employer takes their responsibility. They can either allow her to serve her ‘Stay Home Notice’ in their house, or if they can afford it, find her other accommodation for the 14 days isolation required by the government. But her employer did seem not willing to work on it; they did not want to take the risk. The domestic worker was shocked, sad; feeling lost and angry at the same time. She feels helpless and is still trying to figure out what happened to her, why she lost her job.
MANY CONFUSED WHEN STUCK IN HOME COUNTRY DURING LEAVE
Meanwhile, there are many other domestic workers who are still waiting nervously, unsure whether they can come back to continue their jobs. Because the employer can’t find accommodation for them to serve the home leave. Or because flights have been cancelled.
My fellow domestic workers on home leave feel distressed. They are confused about the information given, which is often conflicting and changing all the time. They are still trying to understand information that they just received, when new information and new regulations come in already. And some are making things worse, by spreading more information than just the actual regulations itself. Like claiming you can be blacklisted or banned from working in Singapore, without explaining in detail about when or why this can happen.
I am fully aware that many domestic workers do not fully understand the information and regulations available. At our Indonesian Helpdesk, I try to focus on those who do not really understand what is going on. I focus on those who are not free to use their mobile phone, and therefore not always have access to the right information. I do not want them to be in a blank, because that will make them feel unsafe.
I have to do something to counter this situation.
NOT UNDERSTANDING REGULATIONS LEADS TO STRESS
I receive a lot of questions regarding COVID-19 issues trough messages, and I do not have enough time to answer one by one: I also have my own job as I work as a domestic worker myself too. The questions I receive are similar, and I also observe on social media how domestic workers panic when they are given updates of new regulations by their friends, without any explanation. Different reactions and expressions can be seen. There is anger …sadness …fear …stress and a feeling of unsafety.
So I am starting to put together all the information I have about the COVID-19 issue, both in Singapore and Indonesia. And all the regulations specifically for migrant workers that we have to know. I connect the questions and the answers, including the reasons behind. I try to give the best advice I can give them, advice for the sake of everyone’s safety. But still, even when they have the information, I notice they need more: they need to feel that we are there to listen to them and understand their feelings.
My concern is now, that I want to help calm my fellow domestic workers down. I want them to be aware that COVID-19 is a serious issue, that everyone should take it seriously. But yet … we should not panic.
So when I hear about a problem of a domestic worker that is stranded in her home country, I try to look at it from different angles. Both that of the worker and that of the employer. Because the employers do not find this easy either, they have to pay for expensive accommodation or multiple air tickets when earlier ones have been cancelled. Honestly, it’s hard for both sides. And unfortunately, we cannot do much but to follow the regulations, for the sake of everyone. All of us have to fight COVID-19 together. So I ask my fellow DWs to be patient. I tell them I understand what they are feeling.
On the other hand, I also see some employers trying to take advantage of the situation. They do not allow their domestic workers to have a day off, and do not want to pay the compensation. Some need to stay home but they have no own room, no privacy at all.
I HOPE EMPLOYERS UNDERSTAND WHAT WE FEEL
By telling these stories about Domestic Workers feelings, I hope that people out there, particularly employers, will understand us better. We try our best to understand your concerns too. We try our best to understand why certain regulations are made. But it is also the job of employers to explain the reasons behind their decisions. Employers should talk to us in a nice way, explain their concerns and reasoning. I am sure that with simple explaining and good communications between employer and domestic worker, everyone can come to an agreement in a respectful way.
We all understand that we have to do our part to fight the virus.
Foreign Domestic Workers are strongly encouraged to stay at home on their rest day. Employers should not assign work to FDW’s on rest day or they can compensate in lieu.
– MOM notice
With notices about COVID-19 situation from MOM regarding domestic workers rest day, many domestic workers are now worried if they can still have days off.
Many employers asked their domestic worker to stay home because of the current COVID-19 situation. The number of infected people are increasing everyday, and they are worried that their domestic worker will get the virus. Mainly because they can see the way domestic workers mingle with each other. This situation now has become the problem of many domestic workers. Their rest day is the only time they can do their personal errands; like sending money to their families, buying their personal necessities and meeting friends. Though MOM suggests that they can do their errands on weekdays when places are less crowded, it is still different to when they go out on their rest day. This is the time too when they are free of work, fully relaxed.
Many domestic workers worry that when they stay home on their rest days, they will continue working without compensation. This can happen to domestic workers who do not have their own rooms or personal space. They will be forced to work, since they have nowhere to go to. Being at home with their employer will surely feel like just another working day. Some employers offer compensation to make it easier for their domestic workers to choose to stay at home.
Let’s take my own employer as an example. They talked to me about the importance of staying away from the crowded areas like Orchard Road, and said it might be better to stay home. I did not understand it at first. I told them, that I know how to take care of my self and practice social distancing. But after a while, when we talked about it again, I realised their concerns were not only for them, but for me as well. It was not about stopping me from my normal Sunday activities. It was purely about safety for all of us. If I refrained from doing my activities for a while, I will be safer.
Anyway, there are alternatives that I can do if I choose to stay home or to go out. In our conversation, my employer and I discussed what I can do if I stay home. They gave me choices like, I can stay home and sleep as much as I want. I can do my writings, exercise, or swim. I f I want to cook or bake, they will buy what I need. And if I choose to do some work, they will compensate me.
I tried it. The following Sunday, I would have preferred to go out. But this time, I let them know where I was, so they would not be worried. I did not go to my volunteer activities, nor to church, as both would involved being around a large number of people. I stayed around our building and saw some of my friends in the condo. We had all chosen to go out of the house, but stayed in our area. I think we all felt the same: that it was good to be away from our working place for a while, to have some time for ourselves. Staying close to home is something new for me but I know it is for my own good. I enjoyed my Sunday.
Discussion between employers and domestic workers regarding this current situation is important to understand one another. Apparently, not all employers are like mine, they don’t explain their reasoning. And we domestic workers, do not have a power of negotiation. No matter what we say, it is seldom taken into consideration. There are times that we don’t have a choice but to say “Yes” to avoid arguments. Some domestic workers might insists on going out because this is the only day they can be away from work. I hope employers will try to understand them. They must explain properly to their domestic workers why it is needed to stay home.
Domestic workers should understand their employers too. Safety is for everyone who lives in the house, particularly if there are elderly or otherwise vulnerable people in the house. If you are allowed to go out, refrain from going to crowded places. Especially avoid gatherings in big groups or having picnics for now. We should follow social distancing guidelines. Go out only if you need to do something very important.
The Ministry of Manpower is strengthening inspection and law enforcement. If we do not follow, our work permit might be revoked. Remember there are many countries right now that are in total lock down, where nobody is allowed to go out at all. If we practice social distancing diligently now, maybe in Singapore it does not have to come that far.
I know this current situation on COVID-19 is difficult for everyone. But this too shall pass and one day, our days off will be back to normal.
Draw and Create with Bote Dyaryo Man at the National Gallery Singapore
Let me take you to a one awesome Sunday event at the National Gallery Singapore. This noteworthy Sunday, the Filipino Artist Robert Alejandro is with us to conduct a Tagalog workshop for the Filipino community in Singapore.
Yes, it’s Robert Alejandro, does that name sound familiar? He is an Award-Winning Graphic artist, an Illustrator, a Painter, a Crafter and one of the Pillars of Filipino Arts and Crafts shop- Papemelroti. He is also a founding member of Ang Illustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK) – an organization of children books illustrators.
Robert Alejandro proves that making Art is Fun and Unique!
Bhing Navato and I (Jo Ann Dumlao), are partners today, we are the Filipino Sister Guides of HOME. We are officially part of the Best Friends of the Gallery (BFG) volunteers. A super splendid part of our Singapore life journey.
We invited participants for the workshop through posting on social media. The event was open to the public – anyone of the Filipino Community at this time, but the main target was the Filipino Migrant Domestic Workers.
First we did a quick tour to see some art works in the museum – Ang Baraha by Filipino artist Brenda Fajardo and Those Chased Away from their Lands by Indonesian Amrus Natalsya. The participants were split into 2 groups. And they were in awe – they expressed that in how they applauded the artworks, how they admired the wide range imagination of the artists. Other participants said, they will be coming back to the NGS to see more of the artworks. They are fascinated by the art, just like me.
After the quick tour, we headed up to the workshop room where the drawing materials were waiting for us. This time, we were going to Draw and Create with the Artist.
For most of the participants, it was their first time to do drawing and water coloring. The artist was so generous that he let me and Bhing and the NGS staff join the said workshop. I can say this Art workshop was a wonderful experience, art is fun and you’ll enjoy it once you start stroking your brush. Even if you don’t know how to draw (just like me), at the end the workshop you’ll say, I did it without a sweat! We draw a pop up jeepney greeting card.
The Artist himself is very energetic (wonder where it comes from), approachable, all smiles when he mingles with us. But you know what, he is an Inspiration. With his looks and energy, you won’t know that he is now living the best years of his life after his successful battle with Colon Cancer (he was diagnosed in 2016). He is a fighter and a motivated soul.
Coming to Singapore and giving a workshop to fellow kababayans is a Dream Come True, this is what Robert Alejandro said.
Thank you to the Artist and participants. We all did well and great at the end of the day!
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.
It’s celebration time! This December HOME celebrated both International Migrants Day and their 15th year Anniversary. Every year, HOME celebrates these 2 remarkable events, which are important to us, and give us the opportunity to show unity and oneness instilled in us Migrant Workers.
And this day was special in another way: the new Executive Director of HOME was introduced. The entire HOME team was there to wholeheartedly welcome Ms Catherine James.
We were thankful that our very own “ Sister Big B” made it to the celebrations. Sister Bridget Tan, the founder of HOME, had a stroke in February 2015 and has been unable to walk since, but is still the jolly one in spite of her condition and she always joins us in these celebrations. Her presence helped make the celebration such a wonderful event. Everyone was beaming with happy faces to see her, listening to her inspirational message and singing with her. We love you, sister Bridget!
All the HOME Family leaders made a speech that linked to the Migrant Workers situation and well-being. I myself represent the My Voice group.
•HOME Roses—Re- Integrate with Innovation by Zoe Menez
•HOME Nightingale—Depression is a Silent Killer by Marina
•HOME Academy—Don’t Stop Learning by Cristina
•HOME Helpdesk Lucky Plaza—Domestic Workers Right by Bhing
•HOME Suara Kita—Decent Work by Novia
•HOME Kartini—Overworked and Underpaid by Yanti
•HOME My Voice—Employer Employee Relationship by yours truly, Jo Ann
•HOME Myanmar Helpdesk—Effective Communication by Khin Lay
I can say, all were very well delivered campaigns!
As the celebrations continue, we make a toast to HOME’s Anniversary: wishing for more years to celebrate abundantly. May HOME prosper and continue to be the shelter of the abused, the defender of the hopeless and giver of strength of the less fortunate migrant workers.
Singing and dancing followed to keep the celebrations exciting and lively, and gift packs were distributed to the migrant workers. Amazing prizes for the lucky draw winners and the best-dressed from the migrant workers were handed out also. Each one of the winners received a prize. Today, abundant prizes and gift packs were given away – every migrant workers was a winner today! It was a fun filled, enjoyable day of celebrations with lots of splendid prizes and splendorous lunch. HOME staff, HOME Family leaders and volunteers were all amazing. Once again, they proved that the spirit of team work sprinkled with love is within them. So much dedication.
Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I would be one of the Sister Guides at the National Gallery Singapore. But in a blink of an eye, it happened.
The National Gallery Singapore (NGS) is a modern art museum in Singapore that has the largest public collection of Southeast Asian Art in the world. The Sister Guides program is a collaboration between the NGS and HOME (the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics). In the program several volunteers are trained as mentors to lead gallery tours for our fellow migrant workers – in our home language. For me, that is in Filipino (Philippines), other languages in the program are Burmese ( Myanmar) and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesia). There are 2 HOME volunteer mentors in each team. The great thing about this program is: there is free admission for migrant workers, and it includes refreshments after the tour!
There are several objectives for NGS and HOME to collaborate in this program, and with these, they hope to develop meaningful engagement of migrant domestic workers in their community.
Develop a deeper understanding of the migrant domestic worker community In Singapore and their connection with the Gallery.
Reduce access barriers for the migrant domestic worker community – become an inclusive museum.
Pilot a self-empowerment/self advocacy model of engagement with a community of need.
Pilot a strategy to reduce the linguistic barrier faced.
Explore meaningful programmatic connections between the Gallery Children’s Biennale and the Gallery permanent exhibitions.
The tours took place on 2 Sundays in November, with different time slots for each language. To make the program successful, we invited participants by giving-out Sister Guides flyers and posting on social media.
Each group made a journey to six different artworks from the Children’s Biennale and UOB Southeast Asian Gallery. In line with the theme of the tour “Embracing Hidden Stories,” we explored hidden and untold stories through looking at artworks from Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.
Under the guidance of the Sister Guides, participants thoroughly studied the artworks. The participants then willingly and excitedly shared their thoughts and opinions at the Q&A part of the tour. It was a delight to see how focused and interested they were! The selected artworks are connected to our lives as migrant workers, and they also speak about women, other minorities or indigenous people, about democracy and history. For me, yes, I definitely have this emotional connection to the artworks.
The feedback of the participants was great: they had fun, they gained knowledge about art and generally found the experience heart-warming and overwhelming. The most asked question afterwards was: “when is the next tour program of NGS? I will come again!” Everyone had an enjoyable experience – very different from what they thought was going to be “a boring art gallery experience.”
To us mentors, what challenged and excited us was that we did not know most of the participants, we met them only during the day of the tour. But gladly we were able to mingle and get to know the participants. Afterwards, all of the Sister Guides happily and willingly signed the volunteer form to make us officially part of the “Best Friends of Gallery “ team.
I want to say a big Thank You to the NGS for giving us – my fellow tour guides and myself this amazing opportunity. My heart is full; to see the Artworks of Juan Luna was a dream come true. He is not just an artist but also a National Hero in the Philippines. We are both from the province of Ilocos Norte.
There is no Right or Wrong in Arts, just enjoy what you are seeing and experiencing!
The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) is an anti-human trafficking organisation advocating empowerment and justice for all migrant workers in Singapore