By Joyce Law and Geng Zhaochong

We undertook some outreach for TWC2 recently, which involved talking to foreign domestic workers and finding out more about the challenges they face working in Singapore.

Domestic workers play an increasingly important role in Singaporean households today due to the rise in dual-income families: when neither spouse is around to look after their children or grandparents, the role is filled by a domestic worker. They are an essential care-giver in most families in this city.

In some households children (and elderly parents) spend more time with their domestic workers than they do with their parents.  While there has been much debate regarding the issue of domestic workers gradually taking over the role of working couples, less attention has been paid to their personal welfare. Flying abroad and leaving their families behind to find a job in Singapore is an emotional journey, and the turmoil of that separation is often neglected.

Do they feel satisfied with their jobs here? Are they able to lead well-adapted lives in a foreign environment, miles away from their homes? We wanted to ask these questions to a few domestic workers to find out for ourselves.

Perhaps the question we felt most compelled to ask was how they managed the emotional burden of leaving their families behind.

Marie, a domestic helper we spoke to told us: “I cannot see [my family] so I feel sad sometimes”. Although she is able to stay in contact with her family via frequent phone calls, it’s a poor substitute for seeing them or touching them. A consolation for Marie is that she is fulfilling her job as the family provider, sending a portion of her wages back home to “help [her children] pay for textbooks, shoes and stationery”.

A recurring theme we found when we talked to domestic workers was that despite a day off being mandatory in Singapore now, a lot of them still don’t have one. An Indonesian domestic worker in her thirties told us: “I have worked here for eleven years already, but no day off still”. When we asked if she had ever approached her employer to request a day off, she said she “didn’t dare to”. She is “not happy” working here without a day off, it affects her emotional wellbeing.

Although she is aware of TWC2’s efforts in advocating for a day off for domestic workers (even prior to receiving our pamphlets), she feels there is “nothing [she] can do” if her employers do not wish to grant her one. It seems that advocacy only goes so far in Singapore: it doesn’t extend into those households where domestic helpers are still working 24/7.

Why do these women not get a day off? There seems to be a deep-seated misconception that either they do not need one or they are not deserving of one.

The domestic workers we spoke to who do enjoy a day off expressed their enthusiasm for enrichment activities and training sessions. Yati, 35, told us that she “wants to learn computer.” Several others have already signed up with agencies to take up computer classes and cooking lessons every Sunday.

Like any of us, these girls have aspirations and are keen for opportunities to learn while they are living in Singapore. Domestic workers want to learn but equally they should be free to choose how they spend their free time, whether it be shopping with friends or just resting up. As long as the domestic worker feels recharged and well-rested after her day off to commit to the household she is serving, then it has served its purpose.

One of the Indonesian domestic workers we spoke to said she had made many friends during her time in Singapore. All in all, we found the positive energy displayed by many of these domestic workers – despite being away from home and the struggles they faced – deeply inspiring.


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.