Four domestic helpers tell us life stories from the heart
A typical day in Singapore looks something like this:
A sea of (mostly) tired and flustered faces amidst frustrating peak hour crowds, each with a different story to tell.
Some longingly look forward to a hot bowl of rice back home, some excitedly anticipate reunion with another equally busy loved one, and some might even feel that the night’s not over. *wink*
But for about one fifth of these Singaporeans, life involves an important, non-Singaporean, member of the household: their domestic helper.
Since you should already know all the sob stories about ‘maids’ (which mainstream media platforms churn out endlessly) by heart, how about some different perspectives? By different, I don’t mean ‘positive’, I simply mean ‘real’.
At first, what my colleagues and I thought was real was how we just threw ourselves into the shameless business of stopping and chatting up strangers under the punishing sun.
Instead, it was more of how these domestic helpers shared their stories like we’ve been pals for a long time.
Here are their stories – raw, honest and uncensored (but with edits to grammar of course):
1. Eliyana, 40, Indonesia
Why did you choose to work here?
Most domestic workers like me work due to financial problems. In Indonesia, many have very low incomes. For myself, I’m the breadwinner of the family.
How is your English so fluent?
Even in Indonesia, I really loved studying English. I have dreams of teaching upper primary children at my own tuition centre when I go back home. I study the subject in a college here. It was difficult at first, because it costs a lot of money. Back in Indonesia, I only studied until High School and then I started working in a supermarket, where the pay was really low.
What’s life like in Singapore?
My employers are really wonderful. My ma’am’s from Netherlands and my sir’s from England. They’re really appreciative of whatever I’ve done and when I’m hardworking. Since they’re busy, they need someone to look after the house, the kids, and dog, and also to take charge of cooking, so they’re really thankful.
What do you think about off days?
I think it’s a must. The government makes it a must, but some families don’t give breaks to their helpers. They have so many reasons and excuses like not wanting the maid to get involved in relationships and get pregnant. But we’re not robots, we deserve off days. Yes, it’s not easy to trust outsiders but employers should trust the helper since they hire them. Of course, the helpers need to remember what they’re here for, and do only what they need to do, not do silly things that will get their employers into trouble.
What was the most memorable experience you’ve had in Singapore so far?
My graduation from college last year. It was a big achievement really. My employers couldn’t come for it sadly, because they went on a trip. But just last week, I performed at this year’s graduation ceremony at the college, where I did a traditional Indonesian dance.
2. Arlene, 44, Philippines
What’s your salary like? What do you do with your savings?
I earn S$600 at most, and I don’t have any savings at all. That’s a very sad fact, because things are so expensive in the Philippines now. The prices of things in the Philippines are rising like in Singapore, and I’m supporting two children with their school fees.
How do you find working here?
Tough. Being a domestic helper, you don’t really have free time to do whatever you want, because you have to follow what your employer wants and what is needed. My current employers (who are German) treat me well, but it’s still tough because of the long hours I have to work and how my employers expect me to give my 100% when I work.
How’s your relationship like with your children after you left?
We didn’t have much difficulty adjusting because they’re grown up and understand. As far as possible, we try to communicate, so there’s no feeling of being distant. But I do still miss them, I still want to be with them and take care of them. They’re now doing all these by themselves and trying to be independent. I don’t think they find it hard though, because they’re not complaining.
3. Varwasinah, 41, Indonesia
What are your duties like here?
I take care of ‘ah ma’, cook and clean. Honestly, I do everything. Normally, I wake up at 5am, because my ma’am goes to work at a canteen, so I help to prepare breakfast for her before that. After that I clean, and maybe take ‘ah ma’ out. She’s 87 years old! She has leg pain and can’t walk properly, so I’ll give her a massage. When she’s sleeping I do housework the whole day. Sometimes I finish everything only at 11pm and after that I might even massage ma’am because she has leg pain as well.
Do you get a day off every week?
I want a day off, but no one is around to take care of ‘ah ma’ and she can’t be left alone. It’s very difficult to take care of ‘ah ma’ because I’m the only one taking care of her. Even when I want to have a day off once a month to rest, I can’t. But it’s okay, I will bear with it because it’s just for these 4 years.
4. Sirini, 29, Indonesia
Why did you choose to work here?
Mainly, it’s to earn money so that my sister can go to University. The fees are very expensive: 2 million Rp (around S$200) a month. Also, I must provide for my mum because my father passed away last month. But for myself, I hope to open a mini market when I’m back home, which will cost around 20 million Rp.
How long have you been in SG? What do you like about SG?
3 months. I’ve worked in Singapore before, and all my employers have been very nice to me. For example, a few days ago, m crying husband called me to tell me that he was upset that his mum was remarrying. I felt very troubled also, but my employer advised that these things happen and can’t be helped, which made me feel better.
When I worked for my previous employer who was Malay, I used to walk her kids to kindergarten. The teachers there always say hello and talk to me. Over time, they recognised me. One of the teachers even gave me advice saying that I have to be hardworking and humble when I work in Singapore, and I think I’ve took the advice seriously.
Do you miss home? Why?
What I miss most about home is my 20-year-old sister, because I’m very close to her even though the age gap is so big. I always took care of my sister like a mum would. Before she goes to school, I’ll prepare her breakfast and clothes. Sometimes I’ll sneak behind her when she’s revising to make sure she’s studying. If she doesn’t study I’ll scold her because studying is very important. She wants to study medicine, so what I do is spur her on and make sure she makes use of her time well. But I don’t do this on Saturday because she must rest.
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