From slave to proud mother and independent woman

Sky with clouds and sun

Who are you?

I am 35 years old. I am Indonesian, and I come from Semarang in Central Java. My parents are farmers and I have two younger siblings. I started university, but I left after 6 months because my parents couldn’t afford to pay the fees.

Why did you decide to become a migrant domestic worker?

I got married early against my parents’ wishes and my husband didn’t earn enough money to support our son and myself.

That’s why I came to Singapore in 2001, I was 19 years old at that time and my baby only one year old. However, my husband left me 5 years later and I have been a single mother since then.

How did your financial situation evolve over time?

It took me 6 months to pay back the hiring agency. I’ve been able then to buy land and I have now my own house. My monthly salary is $700 SGD (about $515 USD) and I spend $300 SGD for my son, $100 SGD for my parents, $50 SGD for myself and I save each month about $250 SGD.

Can you tell us about your life as a migrant domestic worker? How difficult was it to adjust to your new life?

At first, I found it very hard. I was hungry all the time because my employers were not giving me enough food. I could only sleep 4 hours a night and I did not have any day off. I was locked in the house and did not know anything about Singapore, had no friends and no phone. I was also missing my baby so much.

One day, my Madam (note: she is referring to her employer) even burnt me purposefully. I was sharing my bedroom with their 15 year old daughter and I could not go to bed before her.

At 1 am I fell asleep in the kitchen and my Madam got angry at me when she saw me sleeping there and threw boiling water at me. They did not want to take me to the doctor because they feared I would denounce them but the next day I could not stop crying because I was in so much pain.

I told the grandmother that if they did not me take me to the doctor I would just jump out of the window. So, they went with me to the doctor and told him that I burnt myself accidentally.

After 2 years, they renewed my contract without telling me and let me go home for 2 weeks but they held 4 months of my salary to make sure I would come back. I finally managed to escape after 5 years because my passport was expired, and they could not renew it without me. So, I told them I wanted to go back to Indonesia for good.

I went back immediately to Singapore and that time I got a very kind employer and I’ve been with them for 12 years. Now, I love to be a foreign domestic worker because I learn a lot and get stronger in many ways. As my parents said “life is just like food, some food is spicy, some is salty, some is sour, some is bitter, and some is sweet. You need to try them all to understand the meaning of life.”

What do you like, don’t like about your employers? Any advice to give to employers in general?

I like that they totally trust me. They treat me like family and are very supportive and open minded.
What I don’t like about them is that they are messy, always rushing me and that they organize a lot of parties at home. The thing I don’t dare ask them is to give me my salary in advance sometimes when I need it and also to increase my salary.

My advice to employers: encourage your helper to plan for her future and improve her personal skills.

What is your favourite activity on a day off?

I love doing volunteer work and hanging out with friends.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud that I am a single mother and still managed to send my son to university. I am also proud to be financially independent.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

That my son finishes his studies and gets a good job.

 Interviewed in October 2017 by Marie Kretz Di Meglio

I am just a mother who wants a better future for her kids

Happy child

Who are you?

I am just a mother who wants a better future for her kids. I am 53 years old, Filipina, married with 3 children who are all grown-ups now. I only completed my secondary education because my parents could not afford to send me to school after that, but I love learning new skills! My father was a carpenter making furniture and my mother looked after my 6 siblings and myself.

Why did you decide to become a migrant domestic worker?

I deeply wanted to give my children a better future. My husband was working as a janitor and his pay was not enough to support our family. I had enrolled myself  in a Hotel and Catering program and after graduating I found a job in an Indian restaurant in the Philippines. The pay was very low, but one of the owners of this restaurant had his own surgery clinic, so I accepted his offer to work in his clinic from 9 to 5 pm and then in the restaurant from 9 pm to 12 pm. However, I was still not making enough money even though I also had my own small business selling ready to wear clothes and cosmetics.

So, I had no choice I decided to work abroad against my father’s will. But it was not an easy decision to take and the day before my flight, my mind was still 50/50 because of my youngest son. He was only 10 years old at that time and did not want me to know that he was crying but I could feel it. My heart was bursting, and I wanted to cry but I controlled myself in order not to make the situation worse for him.

I left the Philippines in January 2000 to work in Singapore, worried and nervous about what may to happen to me in a foreign land. I thank God that the employer I got was good.

How did your financial situation evolve over time?

During the first 6 months after my arrival, I received only 20 $SGD per month (about 15 $USD) because the rest went to the hiring agency (placement fee). But my employers paid for my personal things and sometimes clothes.

After these first 6 months I still had to repay the money I borrowed from a friend who helped me to go abroad. I had borrowed 10 000 PHP (about 200 $USD) and returned about 20 000 PHP because of the interests.

After that, I managed over the years to rebuild my house, pay for my children’s studies and create my own small business. Now I feel relaxed because all my children finished their studies. I am saving money every month for my new business that I plan to open in 2018.

Can you tell us about your life as a migrant domestic worker? How difficult was it to adjust to your new life?

At the beginning it was really hard. When I was playing with my employers’ children, it reminded me of mine and I was often rushing to the toilets to cry. When I felt better I would think “I can do this, I don’t want to give up for the sake of my kids.”

With my first employers, I had only one Sunday off per month (note: since 2013 domestic workers in Singapore are now entitled to a weekly rest day, however they can agree to work that day and be compensated with one-day salary). The other Sundays I went with them to church and after the mass I had only 2 or 3 hours for myself before going back home.

Just before my contract ended up with them, I had a misunderstanding with my “Ma’am” (note: domestic workers often call their employers Ma’am (Madam) and Sir) because of my plane ticket to the Philippines. Employers are supposed to pay for a plane ticket home every 2 years (at the end of each contract). My “Ma’am” said that the plane ticket was too expensive in December. I would have agreed to go home in January or February, but she didn’t offer it and didn’t talk nicely to me, so I told her that if she was not happy with me she could just give me my release paper.
Then I found a new employer and I am so happy to still be working for her today. She is Chinese Malaysian with one daughter. Since the beginning, she gave me all my Sundays off and she paid all the agency placement fees by herself without asking me to repay her.

After I finished my first 2 years contract with her, I finally went back home for the first time in 4 years. I was very excited when my plane landed in Iloilo airport and my eyes were full of tears when I saw my family waiting for me. However only my eldest son and husband hugged me, my youngest son and daughter just looked at me without coming close to me as if they did not recognize me.

After 3 days at home I asked them why and they said they felt shy. However slowly they became comfortable with me again. Then after one month it was time to go back to Singapore and it was actually even worse to leave them the second time than the first. Thinking about it, I can’t control my tears even though it was more than 10 years ago.

My employer had asked me to take a picture of my house and at that time my house was in poor condition and full of water as soon as it rained. When I showed it to my employer she asked me what it was and I joked saying it was a swimming pool inside my house!

After that she lent me money to rebuild my house and I paid her back at the end of each month. She also paid for my plane tickets home every year and would give me my salary in advance when I had big expenses like when my children had exams.

What did you like or not like about your employers? Any advice to give to employers in general?

What I liked about my previous employers is that they were generally speaking good people, that they trusted me and were not angry with me if I scolded their son when he was misbehaving. What I did not like is that they would not do anything for themselves. For example, my “Ma’am” would pass tissues to me to put in the trash even when the rubbish bin was close to her.

I also secretly disagreed with the way they treated their son: they would scold him but later on they would will pamper him, so he knew he could misbehave with no consequence.

What I like about my present employer is that she trusts me for everything, doesn’t treat me as “just a maid” and that we are open to each other. What I don’t like about her is that she can’t say no to friends and she trusts people too easily. I don’t dare ask her not to invite people she doesn’t know to stay home. If anything happens I have no idea what to do.

 My advice to employers is to have good communication with your maid, because even a maid has the right to talk. If there’s a problem, don’t just jump to your maid, try to understand what happened first.

What is your favourite activity on a day off?

My favourite activity is learning and improving myself. I also enjoy meeting with my close friends on their birthdays.

Happiness is…

For me happiness is all about what I am doing now, helping people and fulfilling my dreams. I am so happy with my kids because even with me being far away, they still carried on with their studies.

My daughter did not finish her college studies because she got married but she is helping me with my small business and she has also her own small convenience store. My eldest son finished a cruising program and he is now working in Malaysia at my employer brother’s hotel in Penang. My youngest son finished his I.T. major in Graphics Design. He is now working in a call centre but he still trying to find a job as a web designer.

I fulfilled my dreams to give a good education to my children, to build a house and to have savings. Now I am planning to open my travel & pay centre in the Philippines offering services to domestic workers like flight and hotel booking, bill payments, remittances management, insurance…

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of what I have done in Singapore, continuously upgrading myself and learning new skills. From the moment I arrived in Singapore, I didn’t want to do nothing with my free time. I wanted to learn new skills and I enrolled in many courses for migrant workers like computer skills, international cuisine, reflexology and nursing.

My employer also supported me in my studies from the beginning. She encouraged me to study in a non-profit organization called Aidha (, a micro business school for domestic workers. I joined this organization in 2014 and I found there all I could dream of learning: self-confidence and communication skills, how to build good relationships with others and develop leadership skills, time management, advanced computer skills, budgeting and most importantly how to save money and open your own business.

I graduated from Aidha in 2008 and I have been a volunteer there since. In November 2014, Aidha chose me to become Deputy Campus Manager and I now help to run the campus operations on Sundays. I was a bit worried at first as this is a big responsibility but with the help of the staff I overcame my fears. I am happy I have been able to continuously learn new things as a volunteer as well. And all I’ve learnt from life, I’ve passed onto my daughter.

 Interviewed in October 2017 and edited by Marie Kretz Di Meglio

My first name means water, I am like the water that brings life to others

I am like water that brings life to others

Who are you?

I am a 38 years old Indonesian woman. My first name means water in my language and according to my father ‘I am like the water that brings life to others’.

 I have three brothers and three sisters, no children. But I love children so much!  My parents both passed away a long time ago. They were teachers and also had a small business.

Why did you decide to become a migrant domestic worker?

I moved to Singapore 17 years ago to work as a domestic worker because of my ex-husband. He turned my life totally upside down as he contracted of lot of debts on my behalf. I am a trustworthy person, so friends and family members lent him money easily only to realize later that I had no idea about it! We are now officially divorced but he doesn’t recognize it so it’s very difficult for me to go back home.

How did your financial situation evolve over time?

I did all the paperwork by myself in Indonesia to come to work in Singapore, but my employers hired me through an agency so the first 6 months after my arrival I had to repay them the placement fee and I got only 30 $SGD per month (about 22 $USD).

Then I had to repay my debts and after that I have been supporting 4 families. Two of them are my sisters’ families and the other ones are my friends.

My biggest investment was a fish farm in Indonesia that I started with a friend, but he cheated me and kept all for himself (my name had been misspelled on the official property document and he replaced it with his name). There is a lot of corruption in Indonesia so there is no point in trying to sue him.

I’ve also been helping other friends. One of my friends in Indonesia was half way through her studies but her father fell sick and could not support her anymore. I knew her father had sold everything he had for her, so I really pitied her and helped her finish her studies. She promised she would return the money, but she didn’t yet even though I heard she has a good job now in Singapore.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to save money. Many of my friends are in need. One of my nephews has a good job now so I have one less family to support and I will try to save more.

Can you tell us about your life as a migrant domestic worker? What do you like/ don’t like about your employers?

 What I like the most is taking care of babies and watching them growing up.
What I don’t like is hanging clothes outside with bamboo sticks, it’s very heavy sometimes.

My employers are very kind that’s why I stayed with them for the entire 17 years. I am grateful that they give me time to pray during the day because my religion is important to me and I feel peaceful after praying. I like that they treat me as a family member, talk to me politely and also that I am free to go where I want once my job is done. I appreciate their trust.

 My boss and I enjoy cooking but I don’t dare tell her that hosting 150 people for dinner twice a month is too much  work for the two of us. It’s hard to clean all the kitchen pots and dishes because they are very heavy. She tells me to rest but how can you rest when your boss is working?

What is your favourite activity on a day off?

My favourite activity on Sunday is community volunteer work.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of myself when someone I help manages to change their life.

Happiness is…

Happiness is when I can help desperate people and bring smiles into their lives.

What are you dreams and hopes for the future?

My dream now is to buy land and start a business. A place where people can spend time together fishing.

 Interviewed in October 2017 and edited by Marie Kretz Di Meglio

An ordinary girl dreaming of the extraordinary

Blue flower representing dreaming of the extraordinary

Who are you?

I think of myself as an ordinary girl dreaming of the extraordinary. I am 30 years old, single and I come from the Philippines, the south-eastern part of Davao.

Why did you decide to become a migrant domestic worker?

I started working in Hong Kong 4 years ago because life in my country is too hard. Even with a nice job and good education, the salary is not high enough in the Philippines.

I graduated with a bachelor degree in finance management that took me 4 years to complete. I realized soon that my salary would never be enough to pay off the debts my parents contracted to send me to university and make a better living for all of us.

I’ve decided to work abroad not for my own sake but for my family’s as my parents are not financially stable. Since then I’ve been dreaming of how I can uplift my family from poverty.

How did your financial situation evolve over time?

Before I left, my father provided the money for our daily basic needs while my mother supported us in our studies. My father was only a tricycle driver so sometimes his income was not enough so my mother would help. My mother is a franchise dealer and it was hard for her to send us to university. She was struggling a lot to support us and ended up with debts. After I graduated I didn’t even try to find a job in my country because of the extremely low minimum wage and I arrived in Hong Kong four months later (and having contracted even more debts to come here).
It took almost one year for me to pay off all the debts we had and the agency placement fee.

My father got sick one year after my departure to Hong Kong and had to undergo two operations (because of his intestines/kidney). I didn’t know where to look for money. In order to save my father’s life, I had no other option but to borrow money from a “bank” (note: a lending agency for migrant workers).

I borrowed 25 000 HKD (about 3200 $USD) and paid back 3700 $HKD (about 475 $USD) for 8 months (note: total payment is almost 30 000 $HKD / interest rate: 20%).  My salary at that time was 4110 $HKD per month so I could not save any money as well.

So far, the operations were successful and after two years in Hong Kong I had managed to repay my debts and my father was alive so I didn’t care that I had no savings.

After that I was able to financially support my youngest sister in her studies.
Now that she has graduated, I spend some of my salary on myself and the rest I send to my family as we are building a house together.
I have no savings or investments except for the house.

Can you tell us about your life as a migrant domestic worker?

Currently I start work at 7.30 am. I clean up dishes from the previous day’s dinner and then I take my employer’s baby to play with friends at the playground. During his nap in the morning I do all the daily house chores including cooking baby food. In the afternoon we often go to buy groceries and on the way back we stop at the playground. The rest of the afternoon, I iron clothes and I prepare my employer’s dinner. At 7.00 pm, I give dinner to the baby, 7.30 pm bath and at 8.00 pm my day is finished.

What did you like or not like about your employers?

What I like about my present employers is that they are kind and they treat me like I am part of their family. They are not selfish.  And this may not seem much, but this is really important to me that they always give me my salary on time.

I don’t dare ask them that I would like to start my day 30 minutes later or finish 30 minutes earlier.

What I didn’t like about my previous employer is when they talked badly about their previous helpers and warned me not to do the same as they did. Of course, I understood but I would have liked them to trust me and not always believe I will misbehave.

I also didn’t like that I was not allowed to turn on A/C when they were not home even when I was doing house chores.

What is your favourite activity on a day off?

Hanging out with friends and keeping them motivated when they are down. Sometimes when I’m too tired I love to sleep to revive my energy. I like shopping as well when I still have enough money to reward myself.

For you, happiness is…

Nothing makes me happier than seeing my loved ones and friends happy and succeeding in life.

What are you most proud of?

I can now help people without expecting anything in return. I make my parents happy. In a few words: ” I became a better person than I was yesterday”.

What are your dreams and hopes for the future?

To uplift my family from poverty and no longer live abroad away from my family.

To have my own family and business and live a happy life in the Philippines.

 Interviewed in October 2017 and edited by Marie Kretz Di Meglio