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.
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 (www.aidha.org), 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