Category Archives: Domestic worker issues

I dream of butterflies

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.

We dream of butterflies (freedom).

 

Kina Pitono

Jakarta 2020

Discrimination is a killer

By Miriam

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?

Can Foreign Domestic Workers Still Go Out To Parks For Exercise?

By Bhing

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.

 

 

 

More stories behind COVID-19

Look What You Have Done to Us

By Jo Ann Dumlao

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

Writer

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.

Image by IG-  india fights covid

STORIES BEHIND COVID-19

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.

 

COVID-19 When is my rest day?

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.

 

By Robina (Bhing) Navato

(Featured Image by Straits Times)

 

Stealing

STEALING

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!

 

By Jofel 

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.

Superwomen that wear aprons

Every time you hear the word “hero” or “superhero”,  who comes to your mind first?
Can you picture what they look like?
Heroes are  persons admired for their brave and noble deeds. Usually, we hear about heroes wearing capes in fairy tales or legends and increasingly we see them in the movies. These days however, there are other heroes and they wear aprons; these are truly the modern heroes.
These superheroes sweat their guts out to provide for two families with grim determination. They are heroes not only to their own family but also to their employer’s family. Yes, they are heroes because they are willing to execute the duties which they should be doing for their own family, for another family. Without these heroes in their homes, their employers would be having a more difficult time in their daily lives. They may have the means and the money, but this money can’t do the chores. They can’t send their money to do errands or to look after their loved ones: It’ these heroes that do those chores diligently. An employer’s wealth can’t help them the way their heroes do.
And even in their home country, these women are superheroes – because of the money they are sending home from the foreign country they work in. They are helping their government and are significant contributors to the improvement of their nation’s economy.
Most importantly, they are heroes to their own families. Unwavering, they do everything to give to their families a firmly supported way of life. They are sacrificing a great deal to support the needs and wants of their loved ones, especially the schooling of their children.
It’s undeniable that it’s a great sacrifice to leave your own family, it is heart-breaking to be serving others, particularly when they are taking care of children not their own.
The daily tasks that these superheroes are doing for other people are not easy, not only physically but emotionally as well. The longing to be with their own family, the desire to hug, kiss and embrace their own children makes their heart feel heavy. While they love and care for the children in their care, they often think: “I wish I was doing this for my own children.” At night, instead of being happy with their children, exchanging stories and opinions, watching their favorite tv shows, playing games and laughing together -these superheroes are ALONE in their own room. They are battling unwanted emotions, wiping their tears away as homesickness is attacking them, flooding and swamping their whole being, as they fall into countless sleepless nights.
Migrant Domestic Workers are the modern day superheroes. They are the superheroes in their own life story, superheroes in their own “true-life” movie of which they are also the director. They are the artists who are  indefatigably playing their roles to give their story, their movie a happy and meaningful ending.
Am I one of those superheroes?
Without hesitation, I am proud to say “Yes,I am!”
Are you?
By Jo Ann Dumlao

My Story, my life

By Jofel Dosano Villaruel

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.

Can I have a day off please?

By Jo Ann Dumlao

I am one of the many standing passengers on the MRT from Paya Lebar heading towards the city -Orchard Road in particular. As always, I choose to stand at the adjoining point of the MRT where I can lean back. Undeniably, the noise of chatting of my fellow migrant domestic workers from different races is catching the attention of the other passengers.

I always carry a book with me that I can read while traveling – be it in the bus or the MRT. As I start to read, I notice a conversation close to me.

“I am new here in Singapore, it’s my third month to be exact and my first time to take my day off. I want to go to Orchard – Lucky Plaza, could you please lead me the way, sister? Are you going there too?” I hear a girl ask the girl standing next to her in a Bisaya accent. Then the other girl replies, ‘Oooh I am just like you but you are luckier. You are fresh here and you are already in this MRT looking for your way to the city!’

A “why” comes out of the first girl. As their conversation progresses I can’t stop eavesdropping – out of curiosity. The second girl has been working with a family for a year and it’s her first time to get a day off. Her boss doesn’t allow her to go out because she worries she might get into trouble or will get lost. Both of which are lame reasons in my opinion. When she told her boss that she wanted to study at a certain short course, they finally gave her two days off every month. The first girl says they are both the same, having their two days off now and they happily exchange mobile phone numbers.

From the corner of my eyes, I notice another girl staring and probably – just like me – eavesdropping on the conversation. Her eyes seem cloudy. I make few steps to get near to her and ask if she is okay.

Ate (elder sister),” she replies, “I have been working here for 6 months, and my boss allow me to have some Sundays off. But $20 is to be deducted from my monthly salary whenever I take a day off.’ I was like, whaaat?!

Then, she added she she always has to buy her own toiletries, while we both know those should be provided by her boss.

I really don’t understand why so many employers are very hesitant to give a day off to their domestic workers. It is not even 24 hours in a week!

“Have you eaten your breakfast,” I then ask her.

“Not yet ate, I intended to have brunch for me to save my money on breakfast,” she replies.

Knowing that I have enough money in my pocket, I invite her to join me for brunch. At first she is hesitant, shy, but when I insist she agrees.

We go to Lucky Plaza and straight ahead to one of the stalls and order bulalo- meaty beef knuckles with soup and vegetables plus rice. We enjoy our food together.

While we are eating, she tells me that alternately of the months, she takes her day off. So in October she has two days off, in November one day and December in celebration of Christmas she’ll have 2 days off again. On her day off, she leaves from work at 10 am after cleaning the house and washing the car. She must be back by 9:00 pm to tidy up the house again before retiring to bed.

To us migrant workers, our day off is what we are always looking forward at the end of the week. Some of us are privileged to have Public Holidays off as well. Our days off are when we rest recharge, meet our friends and can improve ourselves with classes.

My point here is, that domestic workers are not robots, they are not commodities— we are Human Beings too, just like employers are. They need to relax and unwind too and they can do that during their day off. Grant them a day off but please, don’t deduct any amount from their salary- that’s too unfair!

I am sure, your bosses at work or the company you are working for, don’t do that to you. Please at least be kind to her, you are depending on her with all kinds of house chores including taking care of your love ones.

Jo Anne Dumlao is a HOME volunteer and one of the contributors to the anthology ‘Our Homes, Our Stories’, a book featuring real-life stories of domestic workers in Singapore. 

jho