by Deborah Choo/
As I waited at the reception area of a shelter for domestic workers run by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), a pale and frail looking lady walked in with a companion. Her eyes were slightly swollen, her cheeks were stained with dried tears, and her hands and legs were covered with scars from allergic reactions.
“Be gentle with her, she’s still visibly upset,” said her companion, HOME President Bridget Tan to me as I sat the lady down for my interview.
Managing a faint smile, the lady shakily introduced herself as Eliza (not her real name). She had been brought to the shelter by the police. The police were involved when her employer’s sister, whose apartment she resides at, had lodged a missing person report.
Eliza had run away from her employer less than a week ago because she was overworked from serving two families due to illegal deployment on her employer’s part. She is also suffering from skin allergies that resulted from being forced to hand wash clothing.
Her story is no isolated occurrence in Singapore, where women from poorer nations in the region flock in search of work and increased earnings. HOME says that each year, as many as 360 foreign domestic workers flee from their employers, seeking shelter and help from them.
Four months ago, Eliza set foot in Singapore hoping to land a job that would earn her more money for her son’s education back in the Philippines. Her husband works as a farmer and she was formerly working as a secretary. She only earned 3,600 pesos a month (equivalent to about S$104.50) back home. Her son turns five this May, and will start attending school in June.
Borrowing 5,000 pesos (approximately S$250) from her father to pay the Filipino agent, Eliza came to Singapore and registered with the agency Maid Care. It was the first time she had ever travelled out of the Philippines. Although she was scared and all alone in this foreign land, she sought comfort in the knowledge that her son would be able to have a bright future.
But on the first day of employment, she realized that she was going to be living at her employer Mr Chin's (not his real name) sister’s place, not the address stated on her work permit.
For the next four months, she worked from 5.45 am to 10pm everyday, serving two families. At Mr Chin’s sister’s residence alone, she serves a total of eight people in a four-room flat – Mr Chin’s sister and her husband (whom she addresses as “ma'am” and “sir”), their four children, her father and his sister.
Other than the household chores she did at Ma'am’s house, she was also responsible for caring for Mr Chin’s three-year-old son. “Looking at him reminds me of my son,” she sobbed. “Every time I call home, he asks me to go home. I really miss him.”
Once a week, her employers entertained. There were a few occasions when she was sound asleep at midnight and was woken by her Ma'am to wash the dishes and clean the area after their visitors had left. Until she was done, she was not allowed to sleep.
Upon receiving her first month’s pay of only $10, Eliza was then informed by her agent upon enquiry that the first eight months of her pay had to be paid to the agency to defray the loan costs. She was also told that during the first two years of her employment, she would not be allowed to have a day off at all. Her heart fell, but even then she clung on to the hope that she could start remitting her income back by December. She continued to work hard.
Two months ago, her allergies began to surface because she had to do all the laundry by hand. The family’s washing machine had broken down and her workload had increased. As her skin allergies got worse she asked her Ma'am to see if they could get a new washing machine. Her Ma'am brushed off her request, saying her husband would fix it. After a month, the washing machine still had not been replaced and Eliza’s skin problems spread to her legs as well.
It was then that she tried calling the agency. However, on both occasions she couldn't get through. She then asked her Sir and Ma'am if she could make a trip back to the agency. Permission was denied. “Ma'am told me that once my hands are cured, then I can go back,” Eliza said.
However, laundry duties went on. The family did not buy a new washing machine. Instead, Eliza was given a pair of gloves to wear. She was also brought to the doctor twice and received an injection the first time. Still the allergies showed no signs of improvement.
Unable to bear it any longer, she ran away on March 24, 2011. She immediately went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to seek help. She was then brought by officer “Sir Chris” (as she calls him) to her Filipino agent’s house in Singapore.
The police soon contacted her, as her Sir and Ma'am had made a police report of a missing person. She made a trip down to Ang Mo Kio police station, at the end of which she was given three options: (1) go back to the maid agency, (2) stay at the Philippines embassy (the police had tried contacting the embassy but there was no answer) and (3) stay at the HOME shelter. She chose the third option.
Eliza confessed that at times she regretted coming to Singapore as she had not expected things to turn out this way. Currently, she is in debt, with no personal belongings to speak of other than her handphone, used to call home. When told that she did not have to worry about anything and that the shelter has clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste for her, tears streamed down her cheeks as she thanked Bridget profusely.
When asked about her plans, she said “I don’t know. I’m so confused.” Bridget advised that it was now most important for Eliza to take a good rest and nurse her body back to health.
“We will contact MOM to follow up on her case. She will have to wait here in Singapore until the investigations are over,” said Bridget.
She added that HOME recently set up a fund called the Witness Assistance Scheme for Prosecution (WASP), where funds will go into helping the foreign domestic workers involved in MOM investigations. Money will go towards helping their families get by back in their hometowns while the ladies are here, most of whom are unemployed, some with outstanding loans, like in the case of Eliza.
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