Family members often have different views on migrant workers, especially on the treatment of their own domestic workers. This short story by Anne Bergen-Aurand, first published in our members’ newsletter of March-April 2010, recalls a difficulty faced by a caller to our helpline:
TWC2’s helpline frequently receives calls from “concerned others.” These are callers who are not foreign workers themselves, but who are making an enquiry or asking for advice in regard to a foreign worker. Occasionally, these calls come from employers or agents, but most often they are from average citizens (friends, neighbors, or acquaintances of a foreign worker) who are concerned about a worker’s welfare.
The helpline recently received a call from a man seeking advice regarding a foreign domestic worker. He first asked whether shouting and name-calling would be considered verbal abuse. Once assured that it definitely would, he explained that he was worried that the foreign domestic worker of his aunt was being verbally abused. He explained further that though he is a middle-aged adult, he does not feel it would be appropriate it for him to confront his aunt. Prior to calling the helpline, he had brought up the subject with his mother with the hope that she might be willing to approach his aunt. Instead, his mother became very angry and warned him not to make trouble for the family.
He called the helpline to find out if there were any other way for him to help. The first suggestion from the helpline was that he makes a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower (which can be done anonymously). However the caller was very reluctant to do so, and seemed fearful that his aunt might get into trouble. As the conversation went on, the worker’s situation began to sound more dire. In addition to the verbal abuse, she had long hours and no day off. When it was suggested that the caller try to pass her the Helpline phone number so that she could access assistance herself, it came out that the worker not only had absolutely no access to a telephone, but that she was rarely if ever allowed to leave the apartment.
The caller was in a truly difficult situation, having to choose between his respect for elders and family and his obligation to help a worker who was enduring abuse and isolation. By the end of the call, it was not clear how he would choose to proceed. This case, though, illuminates how difficult it can be to assist foreign workers. Making tough choices takes not just conviction, but courage.