Sharing a Home with a Foreign Domestic Worker


My earliest memories of being picked up from school were of Susanni. Susanni was my stay-at-home domestic helper. Employed by my mother, she cooked, cleaned, and took care of me around the clock while my parents were busy at their day jobs. After Susanni, there was Lordes, then Evangeline—all of whom stayed for a mere couple months before the wearisome job that paid little drove them away. My mother liked to use the Singlish (Singaporean dialect) word, “nua,” to describe our helpers. In layman terms, “nua” means soft, a slacker, or, simply stated, lazy. She said that our helpers left because they weren’t cut out for the job, and that the work must have driven them crazy. In retrospect, Susanni, Lordes, and Evangeline weren’t so much “nua” than they were exploited members of the workforce.

Coming in close behind Hong Kong, Singapore is one of the largest destinations for foreign domestic workers. Most helpers come from the Philippines or Indonesia. They usually make the journey to Singapore because of the lack of decent paying jobs in their home countries. Nonetheless, due to the lack of adequate work regulations, a full time domestic helper only has a starting salary of about $600 a monthabout $23 a day. Helpers use most of what they earn to support family members back home. Although the amount may seem small to us, my helper’s family relishes her earnings due to favorable exchange rates and a cheaper cost of living back home. Yet, she still lives from paycheck to paycheck. 

Like some job sites that require a monthly subscription fee, the majority of domestic helpers pay dues to a local employment agency which connects them to potential employers. Depending on the duration of their stay at the agency, they can be charged fees worth up to two months' salary for lodging and placement with an employer, leaving them in debt before they are even employed. If this lack of economical compassion isn’t alarming enough, a survey conducted by Channel News Asia reveals that six out of ten domestic helpers in Singapore are exploited. This can include violence, forced labor, poor living conditions, unreasonable working hours, unpaid-for expenses such as food, and deduction of salary. Moreover, since foreign domestic workers are not protected under the Employment Act, many who work on their rest days (usually once per week) do not receive adequate compensation.

One might think that developed countries should aspire to hold themselves to higher standards regarding the treatment of foreign domestic helpers. However, it seems to me that we pride ourselves on instigating a divide between our ‘well-to-do’ citizenship against people of ‘inferior’ foreign nature. Differentiating ourselves from others should not mean leaving them weak, though it currently seems to be the case.

While foreign domestic helpers are, in some ways, said to be “better off” working here than back home, this does not mean that they should be put at a disadvantage in our economy, nor does it justify our silent prejudice in speech and day-to-day actions that belittles their presence in our little country.

I find myself to have grown accustomed to the archetypal ways helpers are treated. At family or friendly gatherings in the home, I’d often see helpers being scolded, instead of told, for not cutting vegetables the ‘right’ way. Sometimes, they are beaten on the hand, like a little kid. I find that projecting how one might treat or ‘punish’ a family member on an employed worker to be marginally unacceptable. Other times, I’d notice helpers eating leftovers in a corner facing the wall. I wonder if they were told to blend in with nonexistence. During small talk, the adults gossip about their own helpers, how they fear one might run away with her lover, or another would spit in their coffee. My ex-helper Susanni was a brilliant artist. She drew cartoons and made my imaginary characters come to life. No one ever talked about Susanni’s drawings.

For the past nine years, my family has been blessed with a helper who was here to stay. I called her Candy from the start, for I could not pronounce her real name (it’s long). She carried my school bag when I was younger, lifting the weight off my shoulders. She also let me buy Slurpees after school, and never snitched on my habit of spending coins on toy capsules. Till this day, I cannot imagine my family without Candy. I am learning that it makes a whole lot of difference for those of us fortunate enough to have helpers to view them as our companions, not robots.




By Sonia Wee
Photo by Suresh Nair

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