Why stay?

Image source: The Standard HK

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.

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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.

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“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,

The Great Singapore Bake-off, Pinoy-style

Self-raising flour clearly wasn’t popular…

There was a story on the Straits Times yesterday about the Great Singapore Bake-off, the three-ish months most of us in Singapore turned to the “comfort in combining flour, sugar, eggs and milk to make something delicious”. It was a way to deal with the all the shit going on right now in the world, Covid-19 included. We were called “circuit bakers”, named after Singapore’s so-called circuit breaker period (a.k.a. don’t-call-it-a-lockdown).

I could tell everybody was planning to stress bake just like me – bags of plain flour, pancake mix and vanilla extract were sold out in the shops. I waited weeks to buy instant yeast at RedMart (a popular online grocer) and the nearby NTUC FairPrice, without success.

In the absence of yeast, we turned to Betty Crocker boxed cakes. All we needed were fresh milk and eggs. My kid loved to sprinkle chocolate chips in the batter (and sneak snacking on a handful or two of chips).

We turned to fridge cakes. I had a few trays of fresh blueberries bought on sale and we made them into a sauce for a cheesecake, which I made using Nigella’s Cherry Cheesecake recipe (my go-to recipe for an easy cheesecake). If I had access to sweet ripe mangoes I would have, without a doubt, made a Filipino mango float. Alas, the quality of mangoes in the shop was hit-or-miss.

Then, awesome Ate C reminded us of Filipino kakanin, local sweets usually made from glutinous rice flour and coconut milk. With no yeast required, we set off on a roll. We made biko (glutinous rice cake) with a dark brown sticky sugar topping, cheesy puto (steamed rice cake) from a mix which turned out surprisingly well, purple sapin-sapin with leftover jackfruit liberally applied so you got a lot with each bite, yema or custard balls from condensed milk and rich egg yolks.

The yeast eventually arrived. I still managed to squeeze in some gooey chocolate chip cookies – the secret is a tiny pinch of salt over the top of each cookie before baking – and misshapen cinnamon rolls, à la Cinnabon. But by then our sweet tooths had been fully satisfied. We didn’t need the yeast after all.

Think critically dear readers,

Why did I leave?

The view from my plane window, when I first left the Philippines to work abroad.

No doubt, for a majority of overseas Filipinos the incentive to work abroad is economic. We can earn incomes potentially up to 20x more than in the Philippines.

My initial reason for leaving was simpler: love.

My then-boyfriend (now husband) had been assigned to the UK the year before I left. We both agreed that a long-distance relationship wasn’t sustainable, so I left a fairly comfortable job in Makati to apply for a UK role within the bank I worked for. Thankfully I got in.

It wasn’t an easy decision for me to make, but I’m no stranger to OFW life. My dad, trained as an engineer, decided to work abroad in Indonesia in the early 1990s and left my mom behind to care for me and my siblings. Like most middle-class Filipino families, we had domestic helpers to assist in daily chores but my mom was effectively a single parent for a few years. She also decided to keep on working.

We were never in want during those years. But I could see it was tough on my mom: she and my dad often argued over the phone, usually about money, and I spotted her crying by herself a few times. I remember how unnerving it felt to see her in such a vulnerable position – for a kid, seeing a parent cry meant something wasn’t quite right in the world. I wrote in my diary that if I ever had a family of my own, I would never put them through something like that and dreamed of the day we were all together for good.

Eventually, my dad managed to bring us all to live with him in Jakarta, which made things much, much better.

Two decades later there I was, on the cusp of following in my dad’s footsteps. Right before I left, my mom and siblings gave a me a blank scrapbook to fill with memories of the new life I was about to have. There were short and sweet messages from family and friends pasted throughout the pages, but right on the inside cover was a printed e-mail from my dad (he had just moved out of the Philippines again, this time to work in the Middle East). He said:

“In my own view, OFWs are always confronted with a dilemma; that is, to know when to stop if he/she prefers later to go back for good, or to stay permanently in a host country of his choice. Either way, you have to be resolute in your decision. The difficulty is that you can’t do this unilaterally. There will always be pressures from relatives, peers, even from your would-be spouse and children.

I’m jumping the gun here. I should be saying… enjoy and build a career! Seriously, be focused and build one while you’re still young!”

A decade on and here I am, still abroad. Still building, still dreaming, still finding my voice.

Think critically dear readers,

Mabuhay! Welcome to my blog

“Mabuhay.” I bet you expected me to write that. It’s a Filipina blogging — isn’t that how we greet each other in the Philippines?

Well, no. The only times I ever hear someone say “Mabuhay!” is at Duty Free Philippines or at a Miss Universe contest.

I suppose the reason why I’m starting this blog is I’m tired…

  • tired of being pegged as a great singer (though for the record, I do like singing but it doesn’t like me back);
  • tired of people automatically assuming that, as an OFW or overseas Filipino worker, I’m a nurse / domestic helper / seafarer (all valuable and tough jobs, by the way) or that I’m either loaded with money (back home) or poor as a mouse (abroad). It’s strange to paint an entire nation’s overseas population this way;
  • tired of seeing other OFWs work so hard for so long in difficult conditions abroad, only to have near zero savings when they finally decide to return to the Philippines for good. I work in finance, so I hope to share a few tips on how to manage our hard-earned cash;
  • … and other stereotypes.

By sharing my thoughts here, I hope to give you another perspective on us OFWs and Filipinos in general.

I’ve been working overseas for over ten years with around seven of those spent in Singapore. I grew up as a third culture kid, but for the most part was raised in the Philippines.

I’m also a mom to a preschooler, so expect some posts about #momlife here and there.

Oh, and I’m two years in to learning an entirely new language, which has been made more interesting in the days of Covid-19.

I’m looking forward to reading your stories and hearing from you too. 🇵🇭 | 🇸🇬

Think critically dear readers,