By Nissa Mai
Asty attributes her improved quality of life to the new weekly day off law, which has opened up opportunities for her to develop valuable skills and connect with other Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore. But for the first six years of her employment here, she had no regular days off, nobody to talk to, and no way to know what her rights were.
When she was scolded by her employers — sometimes for things that weren’t under her control — she had nobody to turn to, she says. In her first two years employed in Singapore, she wasn’t allowed to leave the house — her employers would do all the grocery shopping — and she was forbidden to talk to anyone besides the family she was working for. When her employers’ children kicked her or yelled at her, she felt like she couldn’t do anything. Her employers would threaten to call the agency, and because she was afraid of getting repatriated and having no source of income for her family, she just kept to herself and cried.
“I really don’t know my rights; I think I really must follow whatever they say,” Asty tells me in an interview.
Her next employer, Asty says, was even worse. For meals, she was expected to cook, eat, and clean up within 30 minutes. She was forced to do a week’s worth of ironing for the whole family in one hour. She was told to clean the bathroom in seven minutes. She had to bathe — with no shampoo, only a bar of soap from a hotel — in five minutes, once a day. The employer would stand beside her and make sure she finished these tasks on time.
The children in the family would curse at her and beat her, but if she brought it up to her employers, they would just explain to her, “You’re an adult; they are kids. Just let them do what they want. You are my maid.” So she allowed them to hit and scold her.
Finding it difficult to handle the incessant pressure, she would again cry alone in her room, reminding herself: “I have two girls and one son in Indonesia. I’m a single mother. I need to keep this, to work for my kids.”
Finally, in 2011, her contract came up for renewal. “I used that chance to ask [my employer] whether I can have a day off or not.” Prior to asking, she spoke privately with the employer’s husband’s sister about her wish for days off “after for so long working without day off.” Asty believes it made a difference. “I’m sure my employer sister understand my situation and talk to my employer to give me day off.”
The reason she believes the sister helped was because when she had previously asked, the employer refused. But this time, “my employer agree to give once a month.”
Even so, daily life was hardly easy. The workload continued to be heavy. The family had three cars and “I have to wash [each of them] everyday. Morning wash one, afternoon wash one and after cook dinner, wash one.
She lists the things she had to do: Besides “cooking, cleaning, washing,” she also had to shower the young children, “prepare them [for] school, check their school bags, help them with homework, etc”. Every day, she woke up at 5:30am and worked till 11:30 at night.
Then the family moved to a bigger house in Bukit Timah. Now there was the garden too. “I take care of the garden including cutting the grass, watering the plants, and pull out the wild grass.”
It wasn’t just the physical work and the long hours. There was psychological stress. While “Madam trust me to look after the kids,”, the grandmother had a different attitude. “Grandma jealous and not happy about what I do.
“Between me and grandma always have some misunderstanding. She don’t like if I [am] close to the kids.”
And “Sir” often uses “bad words” when he is upset.
While giving a domestic worker a weekly day off doesn’t solve all these issues, it allows her time to rest and to de-stress. It also offers the chance to make and meet friends, with all the social support benefits that come with them.
Asty is with a new employer now, and she gets a day off a week. She uses this time to see her friends and help out with the Indonesian Family Network, which provides self-improvement classes — on subjects such as computing, English, and sewing — to domestic workers on their days off. She much prefers this situation, and she’s happy that she can volunteer for a good cause.
She also says, “I know my rights, better picture. Not like last time [when] I always stay inside.”