Lately we’ve been placed in the unusual position of speaking to over a dozen domestic helpers looking for work here in Singapore. Our own helper, Ate C, who’s been with us ever since I gave birth, tearfully told us around a month ago that she had to leave later this year for personal reasons. I fully support her decision though I expect our lives to be upended when that day comes – my kid will lose the only Aunty he’s ever known and we’ll lose a core member of our little family.
Talking about having a live-in helper may come off as rather entitled. But here in Singapore (and the Philippines), they are an important – if invisible – part of daily life. Often, especially for families like ours where both my husband and I work, helpers are our primary source of child care. We have no extended family members here, no lolos/lolas or titos/titas to mind Junior while we’re at work.
I recall attending a “women at work” seminar years ago hosted by a huge law firm. The women present were mostly senior professionals, with a few juniors (me included). One woman quipped that in Singapore, the old expression “Behind every great man is a great woman” should be changed to “Behind every great woman is a great helper” – she never would have made partner back home in Sydney, especially with three kids, she said. Her peers back home had simply dropped out of the workforce once they started a family. “Let’s count ourselves lucky!”
I was kid-free at that time and didn’t think much about what she said. But the encounter lingered in my mind, and I’ve thought about it many times since.
The absence of Ate C will be deeply felt especially since we’ve spent so much time together the past years – shared celebrations, holiday trips, stories. Not all the helpers we’ve spoken to recently have had the same relationship with the families who employ them.
There are the lucky ones who’ve spent over five, ten years with a single employer. They’ve raised their employer’s children as their own and are treated as very much a part of the family. They have above-market salaries, get months of vacation during the school holidays, stop working 8PM or earlier on a usual day, have both Saturdays and Sundays off. The only reason why they’re suddenly looking for a new job now is because their employers are flying back to their home countries for good, mainly due to layoffs and changes to long-term plans driven by Covid-19.
Then there are those who aren’t as lucky.
One transferred to three different families in nearly as many months because of abusive situations in all of these homes. Some spoke of not being given enough rest or food. A helper said she had only salad to eat for dinner, which doesn’t sound so bad – except that was all that was given to her after a full day’s hard labour cleaning the house, doing laundry & ironing, walking the dog and picking up the kids from school.
One of the more insidious cases was of a helper who said her employer never spoke to her. “Text lang ma’am, kahit katabi ko s’ya” (She sends me an SMS, even if we’re seated beside each other). I cannot even begin to imagine the indignity of that situation. But the helper we spoke to managed to stay at that post for four years.
“Retention rate” is the term Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower uses to describe the percentage of foreign domestic helpers who have stayed with the same employer for at least a year. The average retention rate is a mere 44.47%, which means most do not stay long with the same family. (Source: MOM)
There can be various reasons for these statistics of course, both due to the helper and the employer. But it’s clear from our informal poll interviewing for Ate C’s replacement that the working conditions for helpers who do stay vary widely. While Singapore has various rules in place to guard against the worst abuses, things fall through the cracks. On top of all that, helpers here also have to deal with the ever-present feeling of homesickness – they miss graduations, births, deaths of loved ones.
In the midst of these challenges, what motivates them to stay?
For the younger ones, there is a sense of independence (“Marami na po ako friends dito”) and the novelty of being in a new country.
For the vast majority though, there are the photos of the children they’ve managed to put through college, posted on walls and in wallets. Stories of the homes they’ve financed in the province. The nest egg they’re carefully, slowly building. That’s what keeps them going.
“Hanggang kalian po kayo sa Singapore?” “Hanggang sa kakayanin, ma’am.”
(Until when do you plan to stay in Singapore? As long as I’m able, ma’am.)
Think critically dear readers,