The Plight of the Foreign Domestic Worker in Singapore

by Melissa Dalton-Bradford
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She’s Indonesian, in her thirties, and works in Singapore to sustain her family back at home – her children from a failed marriage, her mother, and her siblings. To keep a thatched roof over everyone’s heads, she works seven-day weeks of 16-hour days, sending most of her monthly 500 SGD (394 USD) back home.

The cover of Melissa Dalton-Bradford's book.

The cover of Melissa Dalton-Bradford's book.

Singapore’s title for those like her is FDW or “Foreign Domestic Worker.” But in her opinion, she is “just a maid.” Statistically speaking, she stands little chance of ever being anything but. Why? Because “maid” is more than a work title. It is a way of life, and a notoriously limiting one at that – where subservience, malaise, and a good dose of fear feed on each other. Let me illustrate something of what life is like for this FDW and for tens of thousands like her. Mostly, I am here to tell her story. Heaven knows she never will.

When I first met Loola (not her real name), she had been working in Singapore for several years. The first employer had hired her through one of the dozens of agencies that speckle Singapore’s map. Because such agencies charge prospective employers placement fees, as well as fees for the paperwork that provides a FDW with minimal benefits like medical insurance coverage, Loola’s employer deducted from her wages to cover those expenses. For nearly a full year she worked without pay – and she worked hard. According to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an organization dedicated to assisting low-waged migrant workers through difficult times, it usually takes an Indonesian worker eight to nine months to pay their placement costs. “Women normally go into debt to pay the various charges levied by their governments and by agents before they begin earning money,” TWC2 reports.

Loola arrived in Singapore with one bag in her hand and speaking only Bahasa, her native tongue. After a short time, however, she had to function in Hokkein (a Chinese dialect) within a three-generation household. The household consisted of two working parents, their newborn, and a pair of grandparents – one who oversaw food preparation, and the other who had had a debilitating stroke. This meant Loola had to be trained to offer demanding daily physical therapy. She also bathed, fed, and changed the diapers of the stroke victim, and was required to be on watch during the nights when that grandparent needed to be turned or repositioned in bed. Everyone shared a cramped cinder block apartment. Everyone shared Loola.

Within a year, she had lost 45 pounds from her 4’3” frame, the result not only of stress, labor, and fatigue, but also of strict food rations. “One fruit per day,” her employer had told her when he suspected her of having eaten an extra apple. “And one slice, not two, of white unbuttered toast with coffee for your breakfast.” Given that she had no income to buy supplementary food, she ate the sparse portions offered her, and kept cinching in her belt until her pants hung loosely from her hipbones.
Loola had no days off, not even for public holidays. During the years with that employer she traveled home only once to see her family for a week. When I quizzed Loola about why she did not leave such a tough situation, she said, “I’m a person of honor. This was a test of character. Besides, all the maids I knew had jobs like this.”

According to TWC2, there are hardly any Foreign Domestic Workers who work eight hours a day. “Much more standard is a working day of over 12 hours, often up to 15 or 16.”

When she learned that her mother had suffered a stroke back home, Loola had no choice but to keep working to send home nearly all of her monthly salary. Her work, no matter how menial, tiring or underpaid, was literally a matter of life and death to her loved ones.

Her second employer was a mother and a father – a transplanted American and an Indian Orthodox Muslim – who had several children, all of whom were being home-schooled in a modest apartment while one parent traveled frequently for business. Because the family was orthodox, they required that Loola behave and dress in like manner. She had to wear the full hijab even when inside the home cleaning showers and toilets. She helped prepare halal meals. She attended all family prayers.

For those prayers, she arose from her “quarters” – a rattan mat on the laundry room floor – at 5 a.m. She then went to work doing laundry, meal preparation, childcare, and cleaning. She could count on never going to sleep before midnight. “Always tired, always afraid,” Loola told me. “But my employer called me lazy.” After a year, the overall emotional turbulence of the household drove Loola to secretly seek a new employer.
That is where our family entered the story. Or, more aptly, that is where Loola entered ours.

Before hiring a FDW, you complete an online Employer’s Orientation Program (EOP). I was taught in the EOP that my FDW needed sleep in a private place, nourishment – not outdated or rotten food or the leftovers from my plate –, a break during the day, and regular payment. Furthermore, I should grant her a weekly day off, and public holidays off would be appreciated. I should not require her to engage in life-threatening activities, like scaling the window ledges of my high-rise apartment building to wash my windows or gather hanging laundry. I should not scream at her, call her names, threaten her with sharp objects, beat her, or tie her to anything as punishment. I should not burn her with an iron.

Loola worked for us for 18 months and became like a member of our family. We paid her fairly, made sure she was physically comfortable, gave her a weekly day off as well as public holidays, and funded her two-week trip to her home country during the summer. Additionally, we sat down with her to plan how she could gain skills and save money so that one day she would no longer be “just a maid.” We gave her a laptop and enrolled her in weekly classes developed for FDWs who want to develop money management and business skills.

We invited many of Loola’s friends into our home and they shared similar stories of their lives as FDWs. One had taken employment as a FDW in Saudi Arabia, but during her two years there, she had been abused both sexually and physically. She fled to Kuala Lumpur, but was mistreated there as well. She went to the embassy for safety then returned to Indonesia, a darkened woman now prone to fits of rage.

Another FDW reported she had worked for a family for ten years without a single free day, public holiday, or pay raise. Another spoke of the quiet indignities her western European expatriate employers imposed on her. She was not to sit down during the day, and was never to eat inside of the home. This meant that she had to sit outside, rain or shine, using separate plates and utensils from those the family used. “They treat their dogs better than they do their maids,” she said. Another FDW was employed by one family, but was required to work in a brother-in-law’s hawker center, an open-air food court that sells a variety of inexpensive food, on what should have been her day off. She did this for years without receiving extra pay.

I observed similar exploitation and maltreatment as close as next door. My neighbors’ FDW was not allowed to eat during her 14-hour workday. When Loola reported this to me after a whispered conversation she and the young woman had had through the fence, we colluded to slip her small packets of food under the gate. She ate them while walking the dog, weeding the garden, or painting – by hand and with a small brush – the entire exterior of the house.

Undervalued? Exploited? Abused? Overworked? Treated worse than house pets? An exaggeration? Not necessarily. To illustrate, one final story:
I recall with vividness what our stylish relocation agent told me as we visited apartments and I wondered aloud about all those small, unlit, prison-like maid cells I peeked into. “Do real human beings fit in here?” I asked, half laughing to hide my alarm. “When you see them you’ll understand,” the agent smiled, scooting her sunglasses onto the top of her dark hair. “They’re small. In fact, they don’t need any more room or even training, really, than a good domesticated dog.”

A Foreign Domesticated Working one, I suppose?

About the Author: Melissa Dalton-Bradford is the author of Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family (Familius, July 2013). She holds a BA in German and an MA in Comparative Literature, both from Brigham Young University. She speaks, reads and writes fluent German, French, and Norwegian, is conversant in Mandarin, and has taught language, humanities, and writing on the university level. Bradford has performed professionally as a soprano soloist and actress in the US, Scandinavia, Central Europe, and South East Asia. She and her husband raised their family of four children in Hong Kong, Vienna, Oslo, Paris, Munich, Singapore, and Geneva, Switzerland. Connect with Melissa here.

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