By Jacintha Gopal
Amy (not her real name) hadn’t been home for Christmas for seven years.
The mother of two boys, aged 13 and 10 years, is a domestic worker from the Philippines working for an expatriate family living in Singapore. Having lived apart from her husband and children since 2007, Amy told me that the annual holiday never felt the same in Singapore.
Christmas in 2014 however was special. While she couldn’t go back to the Philippines her employer brought her a little piece of home – in the form of her sons who would spend their Christmas and New Year in Singapore.
Undaunted by the rainy weather, Amy and her children visited Marina Bay Sands, the Merlion, Orchard road, Vivocity and Sentosa. At the time of my interview, trips to the Singapore Zoo and East Coast Park were also on the cards. Beyond visiting the must-see places in Singapore, something else made this trip extra special – the boys spent time with their paternal grandmother who also works as a domestic worker in Singapore.
Thousands of miles away from home, the family had reunited.
Amidst the stories of domestic worker abuse, Amy’s story is a refreshing change. It provides a glimpse of how things could be, if more employers could recognise the common humanity of domestic workers. After all, they are people like us, and they have a family too.
Amy shared with me how the visit had been going. She told me that the boys were shyer than usual, but got along very well with her employer’s young children. The holiday also marked several firsts for them – their first trip out of the Philippines and their first time on a plane. They found the food here different from what they usually eat in the Philippines, which is saltier. Her children’s friends back home were also fascinated by how the Merlion spurts water from its mouth and wanted them to take a photo of it as a memento, she said with a chuckle.
Amy recounted her feelings when her employer broke the news that her son could visit. “Since 2007, I only went back to the Philippines once for my son’s primary school graduation in 2013. Of course, I felt happy, surprised and overwhelmed.” She became a little teary-eyed as she expressed her gratefulness for her employer of two and a half years, “I don’t know what is the best word to describe my boss. She wants me to be happy.”
Amy’s previous experience working in Singapore had not always been smooth. The Singaporean family she worked with previously did not give her days off. She hardly stepped out of the house except to pass money to her mother-in-law. “They said that if I went out I would find a boyfriend,” she said with a shudder.
Things are different with Amy’s current employer. With the encouragement of her boss, Amy attended courses on Sundays where she picked up different skills – she has gone for basic baking and cake decorating classes, computer classes and a nursing aid course. She also volunteers with Sunlove Abode, a home for the intellectually-disabled. These experiences have made her more confident.
Having a supportive employer has made it easier for her to live apart from her family. Amy reflected on working in Singapore, “As a mother I am the breadwinner of the family, I need to be strong. I need to sacrifice for my children’s future. My dream is for them to finish their studies.” Amy also hopes that she can earn enough money one day to go back home and start a small business.
Until her dreams come true, her sons’ visit is a Christmas gift that will remain close to her heart.