By Rob

Irene joins the queue to get her height measured. She is in a group of about 10 new arrivals from the Philippines packed into a training room to take the Ministry of Manpower’s mandatory Settling In Programme for domestic maids.

Irene arrived from Manila last night and joins a group of about 20 other young women aged between 23 and 35, who, in the coming weeks, will join a local family as a domestic maid, to cook, clean, look after children and perform many more chores.

This course is designed to welcome them to working life in Singapore, and over the next nine hours Irene will be trained in skills and competencies that are central to her role, such as how to hang out laundry and safely clean windows, and how to manage employer relationships and deal with stress.

More than 16,000 foreign domestic workers completed the course between May and September.

They look very young as a group, but the girls bring with them a host of life experiences: one of them was previously a sales rep for the Chinese electronics company, Lenovo; one girl was a factory worker in Manila, another worked previously as a maid in the Middle East before her employer moved back to London. Two of the class worked as babysitters, two were housewives, two were single mums.

There is also a mother of five here today; she left her own children behind to come here and find work.


Introduction to Singapore life

Christine, today’s trainer who speaks five languages, opens up with a discussion about working life in Singapore and throws some questions around about the life that these girls have left behind and their first impressions of Singapore.

“What are the differences between Singapore and your home,” she asks.

“It’s very clean,” says one girl.
“In the Philippines bus passengers can board anywhere, here there are bus stops,” says another.
“In Manila, there’s pollution and lots of garbage and smoke, here – fresh air.”
“Here people are disciplined,” another girl adds.

The introduction to Singapore as the clean, efficient city of opportunity opens up into a broader discussion on shared goals. All of these girls have dreams to save up enough money to put their children through school and set up their own business when they eventually get back home – a market stall or a shop – which is why they have come to find work here.

Out of the 20 new maids about 12 will be working with local families and the realities of life in a local home gradually becomes apparent as the course goes on.

After the practical tasks – such as hanging laundry appropriately and securely cleaning the outside of a window with an extended window wiper, a tricky manoeuvre that requires them to bend their arms through a security grill – the girls are shown a video on how to work safely at heights.

Nine maids have fallen to their deaths in Singapore this year alone. The video includes testimonies from several girls who had near fatal falls – one from six floors up – followed by an image of a corpse lying by the roadside in a pool of blood… the maid that wasn’t so lucky. This section of the training programme is entitled: ‘One of you in this class may not make it home alive.’

While it notes that a lot of these accidents take place early on when the girls have the least experience and they’re more likely to make a mistake, you can hear a pin drop in the room as this gruesome reality is digested: life as a domestic maid in Singapore is no cakewalk.

The course includes role plays where they learn how to remind their employers to pay their salaries on time, provide them with food, rest and a private place to sleep.

“Good morning ma’am,” says one girl. “Can I have more food as you haven’t given me enough?”

If the role play scenarios sound implausible, sadly they are anything but – one Indonesian maid went without pay for six years. By the time the authorities caught up with the employer she owed $19,318 and was jailed and fined.

Physical abuse isn’t uncommon either, Christine describes one domestic helper who was kicked in the back for working too slow.

Each horrendous scenario presents one more opportunity to remind the girls of the emergency hotline for the Ministry of Manpower – 1800 339 5505 – which they are encouraged to call only when issues can’t be resolved “harmoniously” with employers.

MOM issues all new maids to Singapore with learning cards to help deal with different domestic scenarios.

“If an employer has hit you – you have a black eye and blood – you call the police,” says Christine, explaining what action to take. “But if it’s a salary dispute, you should approach your employer first.”

That places a lot of faith in employers. Among this group I learn that few, if any, will get a day off during the working week: most of them will have one or two per month if they’re lucky. A law passed by the Singapore Government this year will make it mandatory for all domestic maids contracted from January 1, 2013, to be given a day off per week.

Their ‘conditions of employment’ while working in Singapore require them to visit a doctor for a check up every six months – the contract they sign on arrival in Singapore prohibits them from getting  pregnant. Working illegally outside of their maid commitments is also a fast way to return home, and on this point the girls are advised to report any cases of illegal deployment – where an employer asks them to work outside of their maid duties – to MOM.


Coping with stress

Eventually, we come to stress management. The girls are encouraged to discuss their feelings and share their thoughts with their employers, take walks to clear their minds and call their loved ones at home. Beyond that, there isn’t much more on offer except the MOM hotline. TWC2 case workers tell me that few, if any, domestic workers will share their feelings with an employer out of fear it could jeopardise their jobs.

But Christine encourages them to keep talking.

“What makes you sad?” she asks.
“Leaving my husband and baby at the airport,” one of the girls volunteers.
“What about feeling happy? You win the lottery – it’s $10,000 – what do you feel?” Christine asks.
“I go home,” says Irene, laughing nervously.

“You feel stressed and sad, what do you do?” she asks the whole group.
“I cry and pray,” one of girls replies.

All of this highlights how maids have to suppress emotions to remain on an even keel with their employer, which is a huge problem in itself. For the severity of the employer case studies that have been shared here, and the problems that they will encounter with stress, it’s noticeable how much they have enjoyed this class – there have been laughs and jokes throughout the day.

As its draws to a close, they begin to file out: a bus is waiting to take them back to their dormitories, where their agents will pave the way for them to join a family in the coming days and weeks.

However bleak the picture is of working life in Singapore, they are reminded through the course of the reasons why they are here today.

“Remember, you and your family have lived apart to be here, so you have to make the most of it,” Christine tells them.

They leave giggling and chatting. They all seem so young.

I’m asked to raise any further questions with the MOM personnel who have sat through the course with me. In an email exchange I mention the glaring problem of employers installing cameras in their homes to monitor maids and the impact this can have on them, something that isn’t covered by the course.

I am told MOM does not have guidelines on the installation of CCTV in homes, but stresses that CCTV recording should not infringe the privacy of the maids.

The course does encourage maids to communicate with their employers on any issue they may encounter or where their privacy is infringed – which is good in theory, but in practice very difficult, for the reasons we’ve outlined previously: no maid is likely to speak out if it could lead to her job being terminated.

An MOM official tells me: “We would like to encourage such open communication between employers and their FDWs as they help to establish a harmonious working relationship between the two parties.”

Good employers and bad ones await these girls; ultimately it comes down to the roll of a dice which of the two they land. But in coming to Singapore in the first place to provide for their families, they have already shown they’re prepared to take that chance.