By Mei Feifei (22A13A) and Noh Sangeun (23S06Q)
A house comes hand-in-hand with family — or not, if you live in a house hundreds of miles from your hometown, with people who speak an alien language, in an unfamiliar city that has little love for you.
This is the predicament faced by many foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore. It is common knowledge that they are often subjected to exploitation by unscrupulous recruiters, compounded by the fact that they are not protected by the Employment Act.
But beyond the kind of blatant abuse that makes the headlines, there often also exists a subtle sense of alienation that arises from the complexities of our relationship with our FDWs.
WHERE IS HOME?
Many FDWs are young women who have crossed borders to earn money for their families, leaving behind parents, husbands, and children barely past infancy. At an age when many of us would still be dreaming about finding our paths in life, these women have already walked away from everything they know in order to earn a living in a completely strange land.
Usually, they can only fly back home once every two years, but with the pandemic, things have gotten worse. Many of them have not reunited with their families since the outbreak of Covid-19. As they care for our homes and families, they remain isolated from their own.
NOT FAMILY, NOT STRANGERS
FDWs live in their employers’ homes — a very intimate and private setting. They witness every birthday party, every reunion meal, every wedding. Our helpers probably know more about our taste in food than our best friends, but do we really know anything about them at all?
In a way, things are worse because we live together. To FDWs, work is inseparable from personal life precisely because both happen in the same space. Their work day is twenty-four hours, not eight; they don’t get to wave goodbye to their bosses when the clock strikes six.
Thus, the house becomes a place not of respite but of unspoken tensions. This becomes infinitely worse for FDWs than for us when you consider the obvious power imbalance that exists between employer and employee.
WHERE IS THE LOVE?
In 2019, 1 in 5 Singaporeans had a FDW working for them. Yet, they remain invisible to many of us, so starkly separated as we are in language, culture, and social standing. This dissonance ultimately makes many of us somewhat detached from their struggles.
Furthermore, many FDWs do not get enough recognition for the work they do. The nature of household work is that it is not directly productive. It doesn’t create technological marvels or boost Singapore’s GDP; rather, it is about upkeep, maintenance, and the kind of background work that keeps the cogs in our society running.
In many Singaporean households, both parents are breadwinners, and so cannot afford as much time for their family. This is probably part of what created demand for FDWs in the first place: the need for someone to take care of our elderly and our children. FDWs fill that gap in our society and enable their employers to devote their time elsewhere.
It is perhaps too easy to forget to thank them, because their work is so understated, one of those things you really only miss once it’s gone.
Therefore, it only seems right that we start giving FDWs their due appreciation.
So, how can we make home feel more like home for FDWs? While there are organisations such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and the FDW Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) that provide essential help in terms of up-skilling and legal assistance, we can also do things in our limited capacity as students.
Maomi Go (22A13A), whose helper, Ate (tagalog for ‘older sister’) Alma, has been living with her family since Maomi was two, sees Ate Alma as a “mother figure in [her] life”. When Maomi’s family moved from the Philippines to Singapore, Ate Alma moved along with them.
“I confide in her a lot — I tell her about my day, and she tells me about hers,” said Maomi. The pair bond regularly: “we like going to Lucky Plaza together to eat, especially at Jollibee, and to walk around the thrift stores,” shared Maomi.
The close bond between Maomi and Ate Alma shows us that something as small as having more conversations with FDWs can go a long way. Then the question arises: what are some ways that we can help our helpers feel like part of the family?
DOVESWARM BY COMMUNITY ADVOCATES
That is the question that Doveswarm, a Student Interest Group (SIG) from Raffles Community Advocates (CA) set out to answer.
‘Doveswarm’ is a portmanteau of ‘a swarm of doves’: like the migrating doves, FDWs too leave their homes and travel across oceans in hopes of a better life for themselves and their families. The students from Doveswarm are thus focused on raising awareness on issues concerning migrant workers and connecting them with the Rafflesian population.
Solving the complex problems confronting FDWs is a daunting idea just to behold, but the students leading Doveswarm believe that we can still make a difference on an individual level.
One small action of ours has the ability to not only impact the people we intend to help, but can also influence those around us to do the same! Imagine the ripple effect [that can come from our actions]. As cliche as it sounds, I think that it all starts with us.Ashley Poh (22S07B)
In line with this vision, Doveswarm will be hosting a pop-up booth in the canteen during T2W8 that features a wide range of activities that students can take part in to show appreciation for FDWs.
In T2W6, Doveswarm invited students to order a bracelet kit so that they can gift their helper a personalised friendship bracelet. The kits will be ready for collection at the pop-up.
In addition to the bracelet kits, there will be a multitude of other activities that you can take part in at Doveswarm’s booth to show some appreciation for your FDW.
Cards and post-its will be available at the booth: you can write a message to your helper on the card and pass it to her, and jot down your favourite memory with an FDW on the post-it and paste it on the memory board which will collate and display these fond recollections.
There will also be a bingo that contains questions and prompts that you can use as a conversation starter to get to know your helper better.
If you want to express your gratitude to your helper but do not know where to start, do drop by Doveswarm’s pop-up for some ideas! While we might not be able to enact structural changes as students, there are still tangible actions that we can take to help our helper feel more at home.
After all, sometimes all it takes is a word of thanks and a heartfelt conversation to make an FDW’s day.