One domestic worker’s story

// 20 July 2010

In February I wrote about the gross maltreatment and dehumanisation of domestic workers in Singapore. It’s received a comment from MaidinSing, one such worker who blogs to raise awareness of the way in which migrant labour is exploited in Singapore. She writes anonymously because she does not want to jeopardise future employment or her immigration status.

I strongly recommend reading her website and especially her account of her own experiences in employment (emphases in the original):

My employers would give me an allowance and deposit the rest of my money in my (joint) bank account. They said they wouldn’t give me access to my own money as they were doing it for my own good, so that I would have savings. I would need to buy my own personal items out of my allowance. As with most employers they kept my passport and Work Permit so that I could not leave should I wish.

Almost a year after I had started working there I developed an excruciating tooth ache. I couldn’t talk or eat. A visit to the dentist resulted in the extraction of my wisdom teeth. The $500 cost was deducted from my salary.

After working for more than I year I begged and begged to be able to see my sister who was also working in Singapore. I was just so desperate to see her, to see anyone. I told them I needed to get some urgent family documents from her and they finally relented. I met my sister for 30mins at the MRT station close by. In 14 months those 30 minutes were the only time I interacted with anyone outside of the household and was the only time I was ever out of the house unaccompanied.

Finally after 14 months my male employer was to be relocated by his company. I cannot tell you the joy I felt. In order for my employers to allow me to transfer I needed to pay the transfer costs out of my own savings. I didn’t care I was so happy to leave. In all the time I had been with them I had paid off a total of P87,600 pesos debt (agency fees) I incurred by coming to Singapore. Further I paid my dental bill, bought my own personal items, paid the transfers fees, plus I incurred an additional months debt from the agency for the transfer. I had worked 17 hours a day 7 days a week for 14 months for virtually nothing . I no longer had savings and I’d only sent a pittance home to my family. My dreams were well and truly shattered.

Comments From You

MaidInSing // Posted 21 July 2010 at 3:30 am

many thanks for posting about my website I really really appreciate it.

Juliet // Posted 21 July 2010 at 12:37 pm

This is TERRIBLE! I think even ‘servants’ in early Victorian England got one half day off a month – and they could at least keep whatever crap wage they were paid.

I have been in Singapore a few times (for work) and hated it. I thought the whole place just had a horrible atmosphere. Human rights is a big issue there for everyone, and I suppose domestic foreign workers are considered to be at the bottom of the heap.

MaidInSing, my heart goes out to you and all other women in your situation. I hope somehow, some day you can get a better life.

MaidInSing // Posted 21 July 2010 at 1:38 pm

Thanks Juliet for your comments. I do have a good life now. I have a good employer with a good salary to send home to my family which is my main priority. i have internet access, plenty of free time and the chance to take some courses to try to learn different things.

I am in a much better place than i was a few years ago and it feels good to try to help others in my situation by letting people know what life can be like as a maid.

thank you for your support.

Jolene Tan // Posted 21 July 2010 at 2:45 pm

@MaidInSing On the contrary, thank you for sharing your important story. I am very glad that you have now found happier circumstances.

soojenn // Posted 21 July 2010 at 5:26 pm

You appear to be publishing one side of the story… I have heard from many people i know “horror” stories about what their maids do or not do.

Some employers do go to the extreme of how they treat their maids which I do not condone.

However there are also maids who are plain lazy, if they get a chance to go out (not that I condone that they should not be able to), potentially sc..w, or get pregnant (blame the Sg government for imposing the penalty if the maid gets pregnant), sit around for hours downstairs, below the HDB, chatting away with other maids… and a whole list of other things.

Perhaps you should also solicit views from employers, the ones who get such maids.. to put things in perspective.

We should work for rights of everyone, employers included.

Jolene Tan // Posted 21 July 2010 at 5:55 pm

@soojenn

There are lazy workers of every kind. The issue is that maids are in an especially and in some ways uniquely vulnerable position in relation to their employers, and there is a systemic culture of discrimination against them and failure to give redress. Overblown fears of “lazy” maids are resulting in restrictions on their lives that we would regard as intolerable for most Singaporean workers.

On the other hand, if an employer has a genuine grievance against their maid, they could fire them and hire someone more suitable. And perhaps instead of hiring completely ill-qualified and untrained maids at a pittance, they could better do their homework to find a worker they are compatible with and/or pay better and/or provide training – just like any other employer of any other worker. The point is, the employer has the overwhelming majority of the power and choice here – the employer is not making this choice for a livelihood, or doing it to reduce heavy debts.

By the way, I also see no reason whatsoever why maids who want to have sex with willing partners shouldn’t do so, and moreover, be empowered to do so safely with appropriate information about contraception and access to healthcare. Your statement seems to me to be of a piece with the common Singaporean (and especially Chinese Singaporean) paranoid hypersexualisation of maids, which I have discussed here: /blog/2010/02/a_false_necessi

soojenn // Posted 21 July 2010 at 6:59 pm

“On the other hand, if an employer has a genuine grievance against their maid, they could fire them and hire someone more suitable.” – probably easier said than done, as you have already noted that most of the maids are ill-qualified and untrained, and surpriing allowed to work here by the Singapore government.

“And perhaps instead of hiring completely ill-qualified and untrained maids at a pittance, they could better do their homework to find a worker they are compatible with and/or pay better” – you seem to be barking up the wrong tree. The maids in Singapore are not paid pittance. Their salaries are equivalent to their counterparts in HK. The only difference is that hlaf of their salaries go to the Singapore government.

“By the way, I also see no reason whatsoever why maids who want to have sex with willing partners shouldn’t do so, and moreover, be empowered to do so safely with appropriate information about contraception and access to healthcare.”

I have no issue with maids willing to have sex with any willing partners, PROVIDED they don’t get themselves PREGNANT which under the Singapore law is the responsibility of the employers. Perhaps you should redress this issue with the Singapore government.

“Your statement seems to me to be of a piece with the common Singaporean (and especially Chinese Singaporean) paranoid hypersexualisation of maids”… a very interesting catgorizing..”common Singaporean”. My dear Jolene, I know of examples and specific cases of maids overstepping their boundaries and trust of their employers (unfortunately the good ones who give them the benefit of the doubt) and engage in sexual activities when their employers are not in, and who are eventually found out.

I am only asking that you put the issue in perspective and not solely on one side. The current sorry state of the maids in Singapore lies mainly with the Singapore government. If even Singaporeans have no rights to voice out issues that affect them, what more about maids.

Jolene Tan // Posted 22 July 2010 at 1:22 am

@Soojenn

… a very interesting catgorizing..”common Singaporean”. My dear Jolene, I know of examples and specific cases of maids overstepping their boundaries and trust of their employers (unfortunately the good ones who give them the benefit of the doubt) and engage in sexual activities when their employers are not in, and who are eventually found out. I am only asking that you put the issue in perspective and not solely on one side.

I don’t see what’s so ‘interesting catgorizing’ (whatever that means) about it…? It is indeed common, i.e. prevalent, for Singaporeans to be obsessively paranoid about the possibility of maids having sex, a potentially entirely innocuous phenomenon if proper attention were given to distributing information about contraception and health instead of acting like sex is The End of the World. The fact that you feel the need to patronisingly inform me (I’m not ‘your dear Jolene’) that “maids do have sex, they really do!!!”, when my entire point is that undue emphasis is given to this possibility, is illustrative of what I’m saying.

The current sorry state of the maids in Singapore lies mainly with the Singapore government. If even Singaporeans have no rights to voice out issues that affect them, what more about maids.

Yes, my criticism is of both the Singapore government’s failure to regulate the market adequately or prevent exploitation by agents and employers as well as of the agents and employers who behave abusively and dehumanisingly. It’s both/and not either/or.

Jolene Tan // Posted 22 July 2010 at 1:39 am

@Soojenn

Let me repeat this for emphasis: of course some domestic workers shirk work or won’t be reasonable in their behaviour. The point is that this is true of every single other kind of worker – there is no reason to believe this to be more the case for domestic workers than for others – but the domestic worker is frequently in an especial position of vulnerability due both to structural factors relating to the inherent nature of the employment of foreign domestic workers (foreigner; frequently seeking to escape poverty; may not speak the local language well; often young, faces gender discrimination; lives as a dependent in someone else’s household) as well as in the particular (though obviously not unique) conditions prevailing in Singapore (problematic government policies; widespread misogyny, racism and xenophobia towards often darker-skinned women from foreign countries; deeply classist ideas about the ‘proper’ status of ‘maids’).

What employers suffer, or imagine they suffer, due to the behaviour of their domestic workers, typically cannot even begin to compare in severity to (for example, if you read either MaidInSing’s story or my February post) the withholding of wages for years of work, never ever being given a day off in circumstances where you live in your employer’s home, or being forced to endure your employer non-consensually masturbating at you in close quarters every day. Employers’ stories are regularly canvassed at length in – for example – the Straits Times forum, and sometimes they amount to nothing more than “How dare she look for a better job” or “I found a notebook with men’s phone numbers in her room!” You’ll pardon me, I hope, for thinking that isn’t quite as significant as what domestic workers go through.

Joie // Posted 22 July 2010 at 5:11 am

soojenn:

Are you trying to say that there are behaviours that employees display that qualify them for human rights abuses? Because it sure sounds like it.

From what I understand, you are trying to make the argument that because employers of maids in Singapore are displeased with certain aspects of their employee’s work performance and personal lives (emphasis there on *personal*) that poor wages, atrocious working hours and social isolation can be justified for this particular work force?

That’s quite an ugly attitude to hold. Certainly one that doesn’t view maids as human beings. I hope you can see the absurd nature of your comments here.

MaidInSing // Posted 22 July 2010 at 5:16 am

@soojenn

Yes I am publishing one side of the story because it is my blog and I’m a maid and feel underrepresented. Employers have many avenues to discuss or publish their own opinions. I try to be balanced as I know there are many maids and employers who are very happy. I also know there are a number of maids unsuitable for the job. You have to realise there is no real selection process you just have to be poor and want to work. Despite what an agent might tell you there is virtually no training. Agents don’t care it’s actually in their interest for you to transfer a maid after a few months as they make more money from the maid and from you. They look out for themselves not the employer or the maid. When your criteria for choosing a maid is that she is Indonesian (cheaper) and a first time maid (so that she won’t be troublesome) you can’t expect a superwoman to come into your house and take over all the chores effortlessly.

You have to understand the complete isolation felt when coming to work to Singapore for the first time and the lifestyle difference here. When you come from a small village to be cut off from friends or family, to be not allowed to speak to anyone, to be in a different culture, to not understand the language and to have to work such long hours it takes a long time to get used to. It really has a big psychological effect. I can’t even describe in words how it feels. A troublesome or problem maid might just be trying to cope and hold it together.

Talking about horror stories these usually are not one sided. Recently I wrote about on my blog about the maid that threatened to kill her employer’s child unless she was sent back home. What she did was wrong but looking behind the headline she tried to go back home three times but was prevented from doing so by her employer. She had no choice in the matter of being able to quit her job and go home, even after she had paid off her debt. Employers and maids should work together to make life better for everyone and i want to start discussing such things not just laying blame. Here is a quote from the post I wrote:

“It was a desperate act by a desperate women that felt she had no other choice. But let’s look a little closer to try to prevent this situation happening again, to make life safer and fairer for employers and maids alike.”

Here is a throw away comment i came across yesterday on an online forum in response to the maid that inherited $6m

“No wonder nowadays i see ad in cold storage. The maid looking for employer will state expats only. Lol. Even they wanna choose. “ (http://forums.hardwarezone.com.sg/showthread.php?t=2843228)

Even they want to choose… it speaks for itself. We as maids are not expected to have or be able to exercise free choice and to want decent working conditions or aspire to better things, higher salaries.

You write:

“I have heard from many people i know “horror” stories about what their maids do or not do.

However there are also maids who are plain lazy, if they get a chance to go out (not that I condone that they should not be able to), potentially sc..w, or get pregnant (blame the Sg government for imposing the penalty if the maid gets pregnant), sit around for hours downstairs, below the HDB, chatting away with other maids… and a whole list of other things.”

There is an incredible paranoia in Singapore about maids having sex or getting pregnant. THERE IS NO PENALTY IF YOUR MAID GETS PREGNANT. She can have an abortion or be sent home ($200 air ticket), you will not lose your bond. You can always buy insurance so you never have to forfeit your bond if you are that worried. If you are worried you can talk openly as an adult to your maid about such things not just accuse and scold but I know it is harder culturally here to talk about sex and such.

Does lazy mean that we would rather work 70hrs a week than over 110hrs?. Are you sure we are lazy or not just tired from lack of adequate rest? Lazy because we are used to slow pace of village life and we are coming to a completely foreign city and pace of life? Lazy or unmotivated from being talked down to and scolded all the time? Swap places with me. Go to my village, live there, plant rice, raise crops, walk to market, take care of water buffalo then we will see who is lazy. Is chatting with other maids such a big problem? As long as work is done, is it so painful to see maids have free time and talk? So many employers are insecure about their maids. We are not promiscuous just because we want to dress nicely when we go out. Just because we are from a different culture and can talk more openly about some things doesn’t mean all we want to do is have sex with random men we pick up on the street.

I am writing a post on such issues. Here is a quote from an article I found:

Maids tell stories of men coming on to them everywhere, from clubs to shopping centres. Some are even hit on in cabs.

Said 23-year-old shop assistant Ane Alfaro: “Sometimes in a cab, the driver will ask if I am from the Philippines, and then they’ll ask if I want to get some coffee before going to my destination. It’s happened to me a few times.”

This is my experience also. I was a virgin when I married in my early twenties I’m not promiscuous by any means and hope I don’t give that impression yet I see the way men look me and experience how they treat me here. Of course men are men everywhere but men aren’t so afraid of approaching us here as they are of a local girl.

Soon I will be posting more stories of the experiences of other maids here in Singapore. Hiring and having a live in maid is not so simple and requires work form both parties to make the situation work. Being a maid is an honourable and professional job the whole area of maid selection, agency fees, debts, govt bond, working hours, training and more needs to be addressed for both sides to benefit. It is in all of our interests to change the system. Not just for the maids but employers too. It should be win-win but currently it is unequal.

polly // Posted 22 July 2010 at 8:12 am

You can’t get the staff eh Soojen? Perhaps people could consider not having maids at all if it’s so difficult, since I manage without one and I know plenty of other people who do.

Have you thought about the morality of treating another person a way I doubt you would want to be treated yourself?

FeminaErecta // Posted 22 July 2010 at 10:48 am

@soojenn maybe you should start your own blog about how oppressed masters/those who pay other people a pittance for working 70 hour weeks are. I’m sure it would be incredibly popular.

If you look at MaidinSing’s blog, there are comments on the (excellent) pieces from employers and maids, its not ‘looking at one side of the arguement’, its addressing an issue that clearly affects a great number of women-hence its inclusion on this feminist blog.

The f-word, thanks for this link. I had no idea about this until now, and I am glad that you continue to highlight women’s issues from around the world.

Juliet // Posted 22 July 2010 at 11:05 am

soojenn, people with your kind of hostile, throwback attitudes and outlook were just one of the reasons I hated being in Singapore.

Un-be-lievable!

B // Posted 22 July 2010 at 11:16 am

@Soojen

I’m an expat living in Singapore. My criteria for hiring a helper were;

– prior experience

– skilled at her work

– takes pride in domestic work

– genuinely loves children and pets

– honest and trustworthy

– will communicate openly with us

My Singaporean acquaintance hiring at the same time as me,

– Young and new to domestic work overseas

– From Indonesia only (Filipinas are too pushy about their right to one day off a week and want too high a salary)

– Cheap salary

– Will accept all her working conditions

– Must be obedient

I looked to hire the best person to do a job that I respect, while my Singaporean acquaintance looked for the cheapest and least experienced person she could hire so that she could dominate them and take advantage of them.

The result? I have only had 1 helper ever, and she is wonderful. We treat her well, and she treats our family well and does a fantastic job. My acquaintance is now on her 3rd helper in 2.5 years and is complaining about how it is hard to find a good maid.

Many Singaporeans simply feel that helpers are a separate class of humans that come from nothing so they should expect nothing. They feel superior and that they deserve to be served and obeyed. That attitude must change.

It is especially shocking for me to see women subjugating other women.

Kristin // Posted 22 July 2010 at 11:53 am

Well, if MaidInSing needed any more credibility, soojenn is giving it to her in spades.

MaidInSing, I’m so glad things are better for you now. I wonder if you had thought of writing a book about your experiences…?

Anna // Posted 22 July 2010 at 12:11 pm

I don’t know, these maids! Wanting a decent salary, time to themselves and other things that most people would regard as basic human rights. Who the hell do they think they are!

So depressing to think that in 2010 the fact that people apart from themselves have rights continue to be wilfully ignored by the likes of soojenn, who even seems to regard herself as a victim. As someone commented above, maids in Victorian England had more rights than they do in Singapore in 2010.

soojenn, I won’t say you should be ashamed of yourself, because I doubt you are capable of feeling shame.

B // Posted 23 July 2010 at 5:52 am

FeminaErecta, actually, there is such a blog.

http://singaporemaid.blogspot.com/

Read with a vomit bag handy.

MaidInSing // Posted 23 July 2010 at 9:23 am

@B yes. site makes me very angry when I read it but is good source of material for me. Here are a small selection of comments from the site, the top comment is to the site creator no doubt from a “victimised” employer:

Tamarind,You are doing wonderful work to enlighten employers of the maid situation here in singapore as well as in the neighbouring countries.

I do advise employers to keep one eye close if the maid only breaks things once in a while. If the maid is very careless and keeps breaking things, then it makes sense to make her pay for the things that she damaged, so that she can learn to be more careful. We are already paying the maid our hard earned money to work for us, it is unfair for us to pay for everything that she breaks due to carelessness.

My advise is to take photos of the damaged items, and ask the maid to write in black and white that she damaged the items. Then deduct $50 every month from her salary until the cost of the damaged item is recovered. If she does not feel that pain, she will continue to be careless.

She chipped 2 more glass plates. She lost one spoon out of a set of 6 and admitted to throwing the peeler into the chute with the peels, by mistake!!She constantly peeled the paint off the doorway frames by hitting chairs and stools while carrying them through. Last she broke a sentimentally precious Australian fridge magnet by banging the fridge door. She once left the freezer compartment slightly open at night and we found the ice melted in the morning(not to mention the electricity bills!).She wanted to go back to indonesia at her own request. Inspite of all this I did not penalise her(though I kept threatening to do so).

I make an excel sheet out after 6mth, one column with mistake, another side with date and signature.

Once she repeat the same mistake she need to sign the write tht day date. If the same mistake repeat every 3 times, i ll deduct $10 from her salary.

I did a similar “work correction” with one of my ex-maids. It also SEEMED to work . BUT she ran away to the embassy the very next day after she had cleared her loan. So please be aware that your maid might just do that. Unless, of course, she is very timid (mine appeared to be so)

They don’t come here to work. They come here for a yakking marathon on their HP. How to save, u’tell me???

Note that a maid in the Philippines only earns 3000 to 5000 pesos (SGD 93 to SGD 155) monthly in her home country. A salary of SGD 350 a month in Singapore is already over 200% more…. They have no right to complain about the salary they are getting in Singapore.

With the current rules in place, thank goodness for the 8-9 months loan. Otherwise, the maid would not even be obliged to work for an hour before she decides to call it quits at her fancy and looking forward to a paid airfare back to her home after the paid sightseeing holiday!

Just to be fair, she can clean the house very well if she wanted to. Except house cleaning, she’s every inch a lair and pretty much a cheap WHR. She’s married with 2 kids but she enjoy meeting her multiple adulterers on her day off. She’s a very cheap target for “Digo” (piggish) Men. Most of her men are cheapskate. Her Digo who would offer her a KFC meal and a phone card to top-up. She would stay with him all day on her day off. She can say very stupid/retard lies in front of you because she thought you’re as retard as her, so you can’t find out she’s lying.

Just employed a young/married Filipino maid. Before me, she worked 3 months for her first employer. The agency said because Ah gon touched her breasts 2 times and she’s crying to go back to agency. She doesn’t have much experiences and it’s her first time going overseas. Her salary only $350. She’s like a piece of white paper waiting to be panted. She’s less stubborn and much easier to teach. Now I understand why new maids can be better than experienced one in some way. Maids with experiences are less obedient but more stubborn as they think they can do better than employers. They can’t survive without hand phone to make Indian boyfriends. They’re more expensive but more problematic.

MOM really need to re-look at the laws protecting the FDWs and implement some rules/regulations to protect us as employers!

The maids come into my home, cried like I have kidnapped her from home, behaved like she was being sold into slavery (mind you, she is drawing a salary!), expected to be fed all expensive food we eat. DO WE GET TO, OR EXPECT TO, EAT WHATEVER THE CEO IS EATING WHEN HE HAS HIS MEETINGS WITH CLIENTS? Arent we expected to earn our salary, save money, and buy what we like to eat or want?

No doubt there are good maids. But by few. The rest are so good at pretence that you think you have a good maid. Have you heard what they say behind your backs?

to anonymous who had one bad maid after another: try not to let these maids affect you too much.It will only make you feel worse.We just have to keep on trying to get a good maid.Eventually, we will find one.

Maids 10 years ago were a better lot,hardly give us such problems. It’s only recent years that we see an influx of “smarter” maids who come to spore with a different agenda.

…anyhow, there is no pt arguing abt gd or lousy maid. the quality of maids have declined trememdously in recent yrs.

Yes, agreed, the 8-9 months’ loan is a good deterrent for the maid to work properly in spore and not to give problems.

Stop complaining about how lousy they are. They won’t change a bit for you. Ban them completely and sooner they will know they are not on demands. Time for for them to wake up. Their countries count on their salary to flourish!

These maids are just sheer greedy, they want everything in your life including YOUR HUSBAND without putting any hard work. The only thing they put effort in is in scheming how to take over the household and if that is not possible, how to jump to another home to do that.

CAN SOMEONE AT MOM raeding this do something?????? VICTIMISED EMPLOYERS HAVE THEIR FAMILY GRAVELY DISRUPTED ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY HAVE LITTLE CHILDREN…… I”M REALLY NOT SURE HOW CAN ALL OF US ON THIS WEBSITE COME TOGETHER TO DO SOMETHING & GET SOMEONE AT MOM ETC TO DO SOMETHING USEFUL BEFORE THESE MATTERS GET OUT OF HANDS ARE TRUST ARE LOST……& EMPLOYERS ARE AT THE MERCY OF MAIDS NOT SERIOUS ABOUT WORKING & BE RESPONSIBLE….

I think sharing views on errant maids via the net is a great idea. Prospective employers both in Singapore and abroad will get a feel of how bad these maids are… Employers in Singapore have suffered enough.

What about the ones who are stuck to their mobile phones all day talking to their Bangla boyfriends? If these lazy and incompetent maids are still “allowed” back into the system then we as GOOD CITIZENS should warn prospective employers about the maids we have rejected. I see it as a SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.

I’ve never trusted transfer maids ever since. Better to have an untarnished one that I would train on my own properly from scratch.

I believe that there are far more babies/kids/elderly being abused by the maids, as compared to employers abusing maids.

If you read about the Filipino maid talking about treating her fellow mates as human in today ST newspaper, I would like to ask these maids to come up to talk about the goodness of what being given and offered to them by their employers. It’s so easy for them to talk about human rights, what about employers’ rights?

Sarah // Posted 23 July 2010 at 8:47 pm

This whole issue is just so upsetting in a way. Especially the argument about the wages. They might get paid more to work in Singapore than at home, but do these employers not factor in the cost of living in Singapore!? It is more expensive than at home

twasher // Posted 30 July 2010 at 5:59 am

Sarah,

The employer provides room and board for the maid, so living costs do not come out of her salary.

B,

Thank you for that incisive summary of what many Singaporean employers look for in their maids. I grew up in a household where my mother had the exact same demands. By far the most competent maid we had was Filipino, but my mother became very suspicious and annoyed by the fact that she had a social life with the maids of our neighbours, and that she was intelligent. After she left, my mother looked only for Indonesian maids with little or no experience, and she would monitor them closely to make sure that they did not make friends. Unsurprisingly, the turnover rates for these maids were high as they were much less competent than the Filipino maid we had. For a decade when we went through several such maids, nearly every night would contain a tirade from my mother at the maid. The house was made unliveable even for me, who was not at the receiving end of the tirade (unless I tried to criticise my mother for making a tirade, then I would get it as well). Somehow my mother found the stress and hassle a worthwhile trade off for the lower pay and supposedly greater control she had over these ‘innocent’ but ‘stupid’ maids. We could certainly have afforded to pay for a competent maid; she just did not want to. But that did not stop her from making the ‘stupidity’ of the maids she hired a common conversational topic.

Helen // Posted 3 August 2010 at 11:31 am

Found a very interesting interview with another activist, Marissa Begonia, of http://www.kalayaan.org.uk, an organisation supporting domestic workers:

Spotlight on Marissa Begonia (J4DW/Unite/TUC – United Kingdom)

Domestic work: “The worst torture is not seeing your own children”

Brussels, 2 August 2010 (ITUC OnLine):The adoption of an international Convention on Domestic Work and accompanying recommendation was approved in principle at the last International Labour Conference. This is a welcome step forward for the many trade unions fighting to defend this particularly vulnerable group of workers. One of these unions is “Unite the union” (1) in the United Kingdom, which supports the group “Justice for Domestic Workers”. Marissa Begonia, a member of the group, describes its activities and the reality of life as a migrant domestic worker.

How do you define “Justice for Domestic Workers”?

“Justice for Domestic Workers” (J4DW) is a self-help group for migrant domestic workers. It is part of the hotel, restaurant and catering branch of the Unite the union, which in turn is a member of the TUC (Trades Union Congress). We campaign and defend our rights, particularly following the changes to the immigration laws. It is important that we, as domestic workers, speak up for ourselves and our rights, rather than having someone else do it for us. Any action becomes more alive, more visible, more effective when domestic workers campaign for themselves, although of course the support of other trade unions and NGOs is very important. Unite helps us a lot in campaigning, and developing our skills through education and training.

What services do you offer your members?

We have a monthly membership collection of £1.00 (1.5 US $) only, and through this we help fellow domestic workers who have escaped from abusive employers by providing the workers with items to meet basic needs – clothes, food, shelter and a travelling allowance to find a new job. J4DW helps, supports, saves and rebuilds the lives of domestic workers through the little money from our own small salaries. Unite sometimes does fundraising for us as well. We also provide English and IT classes through Unite, as most of the domestic workers don’t have English as their first language. This also helps them to fill the requirements of the immigration procedure.

Unite also provides us some union courses, training and awareness-raising that gives us the knowledge to fight for our rights. This education and training help us to develop and improve our skills so that we can be confident when speaking in public, when speaking in the parliament, at government meetings, national and international conferences and mobilisations. This is one of the best ways to organise domestic workers, as most of them come to us not just to ask for help but also to learn. We help them understand that by joining the union, they have access to education, training, benefits, and we make them aware of the importance of campaigning. The advice regarding the immigration procedure (to renew a visa and to apply for ILR – Indefinite Leave to Remain) is provided by Kalayaan (2), an NGO providing services and campaigning for the rights of migrant domestic workers.

How many members do you have, and how do you recruit them?

This is the most difficult occupational group to organise. There are no workers’ meetings we can address; these are individuals and isolated working in private homes. Reaching each domestic worker is very difficult. J4DW has been in existence since 15 March 2009, and in that time we have recruited 300 members. The first contact we have with most of our members is when they need support. Most of our members have run away from the homes of abusive employers. Some are brought to us by people they met when they were being exploited. Apart from the cases of abuse, the best form of contact is by word of mouth. I can speak to the women sitting next to me on a training course, get them more interested by explaining that they can learn more about their rights, We also distribute leaflets.

One year on after the creation of your self-help group – have you already seen results ?

We have improved the lives of many domestic workers who were over-exploited by their employers. We already have links at the international level. We took part in the ILO’s last International Labour Conference for example. And we are very pleased to see that major trade unions such as the TUC and Unite are putting the protection of domestic work higher up their agendas.

How can more people be persuaded to defend migrant domestic workers?

It is about time that the world recognises domestic workers as one of the major contributors to the economy of the world. Both the sending and the receiving countries are benefiting from the migrant domestic workers’ contributions as carers to children, as carers to the elderly and as those in charge of the household work; we care for the family, which is the building block of every nation. How can all these people go to work without a domestic worker to look after their family? In the Philippines, the economy collapses if we stop sending money for three days. That’s why they call us “modern heroes”, but where is the protection and support we need most if we are heroes? We have big responsibilities, and it is surprising to see that so far we are not properly appreciated and recognised as workers. It is very disappointing, because the more vulnerable a worker is, the more she needs protection.

Are you a domestic worker?

Yes, I am a domestic worker and have been for 16 years now. Through this job, I have been raising, educating and giving my three children the decent living they deserve. I first worked as a domestic worker in Singapore, but the salary was very low, and so I decided to work in Hong Kong. My last employer in Hong Kong brought me to London. I didn’t know my rights at that time, but when I started to have my days off, my fellow domestic workers told me that I have the right to change employer. I changed because my salary was very low. I now have a very good and supportive employer. I have been with this loving family for six years now. They understand the work I do in J4DW. My first daughter joined me here in 2008, but I am still having a problem bringing in my two other children. As a mother, this is all I dream of in my life: to have all my children by my side. I can still feel the pain up to this day from when I was forced to leave them. I preferred to go away rather than see them slowly die of starvation. I don’t wish them to go through the life I’ve been through. My children are my whole life, the very reason why I have sacrificed the most I can, and they are the future.

Do you have enough time for trade union activities?

Time is the most difficult question for a domestic worker. What time do we have? We work very long hours. After my domestic work, I manage to do the work for J4DW. I will go to sleep at 2.00 a.m. if needed, and if I am not done, I will wake up at 5.00 a.m. to go on. During my work as a domestic worker, I check my e-mails. If it’s not urgent, I will answer at night but if it’s urgent, I answer quickly and also respond to the urgent needs of my fellow domestic workers. If I need to go to a meeting, I will ask my employer. As long as it is in the morning, I can go, but in the afternoon it is difficult because I need to pick up the child I am looking after. Sunday is the day we do our classes, meetings and other union activities. It’s never easy, but very challenging. J4DW members are very responsible. We put together our little time, and out of that we can do so much. It’s difficult, but we know that each of us has a responsibility to help, support and campaign for one another.

What are the worst things about being a migrant domestic worker?

Physically, the long working hours are hard, but those who suffer the worst are the ones who are beaten or sexually abused, their life is a nightmare. A lot of women are in that situation. It is really sad: they work within a family, they should feel safe and happy there, but the opposite is true. Private homes can be a dangerous place for a domestic worker. The work situation is particularly bad for the domestic workers of diplomats. If the workers escape, they end up being illegals. A visa is our life, and being illegal is the worst that can happen because domestic workers become more invisible, more isolated, and employers abuse them more.

Emotionally, the worst torture is not being able to see your own children. I left the Philippines for the first time when I was 24 years old, when my youngest daughter was one year old. When I went back two years later, the saddest thing was that she didn’t recognise me. My children are my flesh and blood; they are the reason I work so hard, but we must not forget that our children are also making a sacrifice because it is hard to grow up without your parents at your side. When they are ill, you want to be there with them, but you can only send money to pay the hospital bills.

And then, in many cases, when you do go home, you don’t have a husband any more. A broken family is one of the high costs of migration. We have to sacrifice our own wishes, and accept that we don’t know what will happen to our children. They might turn into drug addicts, or prostitutes, because no one is there to guide them. There are a lot of teenage pregnancies among the children of migrant workers. The father of my children didn’t look after them, but I am lucky because my sister takes good care of them and treats them like her own her children.

Have you tried to go back to the Philippines to live with your children?

In Hong Kong, I have been the victim of many abusive employers, so I decided to go back to the Philippines. I tried to stay there with my children. I began to sell food during the day; I got up at 4.00 a.m. every day, but it wasn’t enough to meet our needs, so I had to work until midnight in the office of a pub as bookkeeper. Working those hours, I never got to see my kids, and I couldn’t save any money either. When they were ill, I didn’t have the money to pay for their treatment. So I had no choice but to leave them again and find another job abroad to give them a decent life. That is how I ended up going back to Hong Kong, where my employers offered to take me to London with them where they were going to live.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

(1) Unite (http://www.unitetheunion.com/), a member of the TUC (http://www.tuc.org.uk/)

(2) Kalayaan is an NGO that helps domestic migrant workers in the United Kingdom (http://www.kalayaan.org.uk/)

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