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click to read more “Very very tough,” Melanie says over and over again as she describes the past several years. Across the table from me and 1,500 miles away from her home in the Philippines, the 48 year-old woman wears a black, short-sleeved cardigan over a polka-dotted tank top. A butterfly charm hangs from a silver chain around her neck. We’re sitting amongst a cluster of Southeast Asian food stalls tucked away in the basement of Lucky Plaza. Familiar turf. After all, the six-story shopping complex, where leggings sell at two pairs for $10, is a favorite weekend haunt for Singapore’s Filipina foreign domestic worker (FDW) population.
Six year ago, Melanie emigrated to Singapore from the Philippines, one of the 12 approved source countries for FDWs. Life there, she says, was extremely difficult. One sack of rice cost more than P2,000 (US$45), and even then it wasn’t enough for one month. But the alternative hasn’t exactly been easy either.
In 2009, Melanie approached an employment agency in Manila with her resume and passport. Working with a partner agency in Singapore, the organization matched her with an employer: a Singaporean-Chinese family with a five-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy. In addition to coordinating Melanie’s air ticket, the agency also applied for her Work Permit. Valid for up to two years, this is a mandatory visa for what Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) calls unskilled or semi-skilled foreigners—most commonly applying to construction workers, followed by FDWs. These two groups together make up 15 percent of Singapore’s 3.53 million-person workforce, with one in five households employing a FDW as of 2011.
On the Singaporean end of the operation, the MOM recognizes 1,139 licensed agencies that handle FDWs. These, according to the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), help employers “find the FDW with the right skills and personality to match their declared job requirements.” But for Melanie, this system meant paying S$2,100 to leave behind her husband and 15-year-old son, whom she’d already left for six years in order to be a domestic helper in Hong Kong.
Both the Filipino and Singaporean agencies charged Melanie, despite the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) having outlawed placement fees for Filipina domestic workers in 2006. And while the employing family initially covered these expenses, this money was later taken out of Melanie’s monthly S$350 salary. So for the next six months it took to pay back the debt, she didn’t have a salary at all.
“It’s easy money [for the agencies] because we don’t have any choice,” Melanie says. She has a habit of twisting her hands when she talks.
So began the process of learning to say “yes” when she wanted to say “no.” This woman who barely reached the height of my shoulders woke up every day at 5:30 am. After showering, Melanie prepared breakfast for the two children, who had to leave for school by 6:30. Then it was cleaning, cooking lunch, and doing household work for the wife’s parents at their residence. This last part was illegal—FDWs cannot work anywhere but the registered place of employment. But when one day, Melanie protested the extra work, the employer threatened to send her back to the Philippines. So the 16-hour work days continued, even when Melanie felt ill or had heavy menstrual cramps. She finished each day at 9:30 pm, exhausted.
The Employment Act, which would have otherwise barred Melanie from clocking more than 12 hours each day, explicitly excludes domestic workers. In its place, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act leaves room for interpreting what it means to grant FDWs “adequate rest daily.”
“The adjustment, the placement fees, the six months where I didn’t have a salary at all … My first few years, I almost gave up,” Melanie remembers. Still, the money she earned after those initial months made coming to Singapore worth it. It was S$350 per month—a full S$180 less than what the POEA set as the minimum salary for Filipina domestic workers in 2006. Perhaps the lowered salary was due to financial pressure on the employer: the government mandates buying a S$5,000 security bond in addition to paying a monthly S$265 levy. But in any case, the money was something to send back once a month to her husband and son in Manila.
Things improved for her in 2013, when the MOM began requiring a weekly rest day for FDWs. Now instead of having one rest day per month—or zero, as was the case during her six-month salary deduction period—Melanie was free every Sunday. This sometimes still wasn’t enough, but she used the time to attend Christian church services and play ball games at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Then as Melanie grew more involved with the Christian community, she began spending her Sunday afternoons passing out church bulletins and evangelizing. The possibilities presented by a free day, however, were an issue with Melanie’s employer. He always asked what she did on Sundays and where she went; eventually, he called the church’s pastor to check Melanie’s story. Only after the pastor confirmed her weekly service attendance did the employer begin to trust her.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum were Melanie’s friends working in expatriate households. These women received higher salaries and more frequent vacations, not to mention whatever downgraded cell phones the family didn’t want anymore. Melanie says, eyes wide, that her cousin’s expatriate employer even bought a WiFi unit for the FDW’s room. Melanie never had access to WiFi in the home. As she says, these other employers “treated their maids as members of the family. They didn’t treat them as slaves.” After four years of the same routine, this woman was drained. Melanie knew she had to go, and that if she wanted to change her life, it was up to her to change the circumstances. This transition came in the form of Usana Health Sciences. She’d heard about the company through a friend; since then, she’s been marketing Usana’s nutritional supplements for two years. One of the best things about the job is the number of people she meets, or more precisely, the freedom of not being confined to one house.
And yet, she still sees her four years of domestic work as being worth it. What she regrets is never getting the chance to bond with her son. Melanie, like all FDWs, was allowed one month of paid leave for every two years of employment. The two Christmas seasons during which she went home just weren’t enough, though. Eventually, the extended physical separation meant that she didn’t have a close relationship with the very person to whom she was sending money. “It’s very hard to be far from our loved ones,” says Melanie, “so we have to treasure them.” Her son is now 21.
These days, life is better. Melanie enjoys going to the beach and swimming at Sentosa. She’s become health conscious since working for Usana, so she focuses on eating fruits and vegetables, and taking the right nutritional supplements. And when she’s not attending some church activity, she has time to watch the Tom Cruise movies she likes so much, especially Top Gun. For the other 222,500 Filipina domestic workers in Singapore, though, they’re still part of the same collective story. Throngs of them still come to Lucky Plaza every Sunday, waiting and crowding everywhere amidst “NO WAITING, NO CROWDING” signs posted every few meters. Across the street from Orchard’s luxury stores—Gucci, Prada, Chanel—they spend their weekly rest day flocking to stores that promise brand new blouses for S$4. Amidst crowds that rival those of an American mall on Black Friday, they queue for two hours every month at one of the complex’s 13 remittance centers.
But they’re grateful, many of them. Standing in one of 12 busy service lanes to wire money back to the Philippines, one woman counts crumpled 50 and 10 dollar bills with her sister and three cousins. Once one woman came for domestic work, they all followed. Now, they queue every month at the same second-floor remittance center because it’s reliable. To them, Singapore is a “no corrupt country.”
Illustration – Natalie Tan