By Gerald Lim, Lionel Ong and Marjorie Pang
“Don’t bother talking to my maid. She knows absolutely nothing and is impossibly lazy” – the words of a Singapore employer, who wouldn’t allow us to speak to her Indonesian domestic worker as part of our survey. It speaks volumes.
You can’t ignore the indifference with which some employers treat domestic workers here, but to see it up close and personal is chilling; that dismissive manner towards her helper may reflect the broader attitude of Singaporean employers.
As part of our survey we spoke to about 30 domestic workers, who told us they had experienced small problems with their employers, mainly a lack of respect and a constant berating for not completing jobs on time or to the employer’s satisfaction. Some said this stemmed from their limited language abilities. As being shouted at doesn’t constitute a case of abuse by an employer; domestic workers said they could not report them to their agents, and felt that there was nothing much they could do.
On the subject of life in Singapore, many bear the great burden of supporting families back in their homeland, and live in constant fear of losing their jobs. With the full weight of responsibility for their family’s welfare, it is little wonder that the domestic workers we encountered lived in an atmosphere of persistent trepidation and insecurity. Even though some domestic workers had problems with their employers, they had no choice but to grin and bear it.
That being said, many replied that they were happy being in Singapore and that their network of friends was also very good, allowing them to feel at home here. Some domestic workers have also been with their employers for a long time, showing that they enjoyed their work. Of the 30, the majority had at least a day off once a month, so even though they did not get one weekly, at least it was regular.
Outside a primary school gate, we see a number of domestic workers waiting for the children they look after to finish their school day. The children run grinning out of the school gates and are met with a warm hug by their domestic worker. We waited to approach the Indonesian maid, the one who was dismissed as “impossibly lazy” by her employer, but we were cut short.
We did ask her for her input, but the employer asserted her authority before she could even speak. Perhaps this is the most worrying aspect of life as a domestic helper in Singapore: they don’t have a voice of their own.
This guest essay is from three students of Raffles Institution Junior College; they were part of about ten students from RIJC who approached TWC2 to do a volunteer project. TWC2 proposed that the project involve distributing information booklets and doing a simple survey among foreign domestic workers. They were tasked to go door to door in housing estates and to look for other areas where domestic helpers could be approached.
The exercise was conducted in April/May 2013.
We also asked the students, who operated in teams, to write essays based on their observations and experiences doing this project. This essay is one of them.