Who pays? Not the maid, please

By Facebook page of A Maid’s Eye view of Singapore employers
A young lady from Myanmar working in her mother’s maid agency in Myanmar wrote to the facebook fanpage after she read an article on New Paper, “When maids want out who pays?“. The following story is about herself and her mom who worked as a maid in Singapore.
I work in my mother’s labor agency in Yangon. My mother was a maid in Singapore for more than 12 years ago, and I am 23 years old now. She left to Singapore when she was very young, and helped my education in a good school in Yangon. I am a graduate now, and my entire life up to now, has been shaped by my knowledge that my mother has worked hard every morning, afternoon and night for 12 years to send money back.
My mother sent every dollar she make in Singapore to my father. My father is a good man, he didn’t take another woman when she was away, unlike other Myanmar men who depend on the woman’s income and eat, drink and have sexual relationship with other women, usually neighbours, using the money his maid wife sends back to him.
When I grew up, she came back, and the first thing she wanted to do was to make a maid agency. Why? Because she knew how cruel and greedy maid agencies were, and she wanted to change things. Not change the world, but just change things for all the people she touched.
She sent me to Singapore for 3 years to study, borrowing some money in the beginning, and I’m back in Yangon now. No, I didn’t want to get a job in Singapore. I was inspired by my mother, and I want to change things too.
Yesterday, I read on the web, ‘When maids want out, who pays?’ I actually laughed. I laughed not at the misery, but at the hopelessness of it all. I laughed at a government who makes laws to look good but doesn’t have the people who care enough to do the right thing to enforce these laws. I laugh at the human condition, I laugh at poverty and misery and our inability to solve even a simple thing like the need for money. I laughed at the narrow mindedness of a people so trapped in their games. I laughed at the question of `who pays’.
Perhaps if I shared some stories of how people became maids, you’d laugh too, and hopefully cry for a few of them. Because I laughed, and then cried, I found writing this to the only page in the world who tells pretty much the truth about maid life, knowing that it would be published to thousands of people, the only way for me to gain the solace I needed.
How my mother became a maid
I never knew much about my mother until she came back and slowly told me her stories. I suspect she still hasn’t told me some of the sadder ones.
My mother was a village girl, and she married a farmer. They were happy. My father grew bananas in a small plot of land he could call his own, it was the size of 2 football fields I guess, and in some parts, he had tapiocas, cucumbers, papayas. We had chickens, ducks, dogs with their puppies, a few pigs, and a cow for milk. Our pride was a couple of turkeys, gobble gobble and they were aggressive things, but they guarded the house almost as well as the dogs. And there was the one cat who hung around.
Every meal was what Singaporeans would probably call `cooked from organic raw materials’. Each meal we would have a salad dish, and you wouldn’t believe how delicious jungle plants taste when dipped in fish sauce. We sometimes had meat, which we bought because we could scarcely bear to slaughter our own animals. Our greatest luxury would probably be our peanut oil, which costs now a hundred US dollars, we put it in a clay pot and it lasts us for more than a year. But vegetables and salad cooked in this magical oil is yummy.
My dad would hire a few skinny underfed men for a few Singapore dollars a day, and a meal for their families, and start his toil in the morning, before daybreak, while my mother would be cooking mohingyar (fish sauce beehoon) for breakfast, a crazy big pot of it, as she had to feed working men and their families.
My mom came from a family of 6 – that’s a medium sized family in Myanmar – and one day her brother had an accident. Well, if you have an accident in Myanmar more than a decade ago, you better pray it’s a small one, because anything more than a deep scratch you might die because we don’t have anybody who can do much for big injuries out of Yangon.
My uncle got hit by a truck, breaking some bones and they sawed his foot off. My family doesn’t have the precise account of this, but they paid a lot of money to get him treated – probably 3 lakh which is the equivalent of 3 hundred US dollars today, more in the past. After hanging on for a couple of weeks, he died, and the funeral was about another 2-3 lakh. I’m talking about today’s dollars, the exchange rate has changed greatly.
Something you need to know about Myanmar villagers, we don’t have money, and we don’t need much of it. We feed a family nowadays on one US dollar a day. We don’t need meat every day, vegetables and fish sauce are not expensive and mostly self produced, noodles are bought with cents. So for 600 US dollars worth of medical expenses and funeral, we have to borrow.
This is not our first loan. Farmers usually get slightly into debt and then extinguish the debt when the crops are harvested. Well, crops failed 2 years in a row, all the effort wasted, and the debt grew at a rate of 10% a month – meaning it doubles every year.
We no longer had milk, because we had to sell our cow. That was a tearful thing for us, I remember. We had to sell our chickens and everything else for a pittance too, because when the crops failed, nobody has any money to pay for those. We even sold our oil, and relied on cheap mixed oil for cooking. Half our flavor gone, we ate to survive. No more meat too.
It was worse than selling our souls, almost giving it away for a little bit of money.
When crops fail, other farmers feel the pinch, and those who lent us money asked for it back. We had no way of getting this kind of money, and we owed about 2 thousand dollars now. One of my uncles offered to go to work overseas, in Thailand. To send him there we had to borrow another few hundred dollars, hoping that he’d send back 2 hundred dollars a month.
We sent him to Thailand, he worked for a few months to pay off his agent’s fees, and he fell ill and was sent back. Now we have more thousands of debt.
This went on and on and finally my mom had to go. She steeled herself from being a housewife working for her family, to working for others. The first 5 months she worked, the money was to pay the agents, only after that did her money come to the family. Most of it was used to pay for debts, and we slowly extinguished every cent we owed, completely. Years without much meat, but I went to school.
Later in life, most of the money went towards my tuition expenses, as I went to University away from my village, and had to pay for my food and lodging. There are no scholarships for girls.
What my mum suffered is pretty close to the gruesome stuff you read in this page. I stopped reading some accounts, because for me, it’s my mom there, not only curiosity – reading on how men touch my mom, how your mom gets slighted and scolded and beaten despite her best efforts aren’t exactly great reading material for daughters. Worst of all are those accounts of being seriously sick but not sent to the doctors, the starvation of the maids even worse.
But my mom carried on, nobody to bitch to. Singapore Government doesn’t know doesn’t care that my mom didn’t get paid and we didn’t get to eat much at home. My mom sometimes, at great stress, tried to remind the woman of the house that she should get paid, and she’d get scolded. But eventually she got her pay. We didn’t talk to my mom for a year sometimes, there was no Viber as I have today, and phone calls cost a fortune, and we couldn’t hear much anyway.
On days when my mom arranged via returning maids that she’d call, those were events built up over weeks of anticipation for both my family and my mom. Imagine, so much hope and so much anticipation, sometimes destroyed when the employer could just arbitrarily tell my mom, “Eng (Hlaing) today you don’t go out OK? You go next week, this week suddenly Uncle Chan come to our house, I want you to cook for him” and my mom has to force out “Yes Maam” and her heart implodes inside her. We’d go to the telephone house of the region, an hour away from our house, waiting for her to call but no call came. Just because of this arbitrary last minute change of plans by the employer.
We’d go to that house week after week, waiting the whole morning and afternoon, until my mom called. 2 minutes of talking and we’d put down the phone, and my father sometimes couldn’t hold it in, and he’d sob uncontrollably. Have you seen a small, skinny good man with a daughter and 2 sons in tow, skin burned black from toiling in the fields, his wife working hard in Singapore, cry for half and hour after hearing his wife’s voice for a few seconds? You haven’t. Not in rich Singapore today. But I have seen this many many times. And it’s not pretty, but it does seem to have expanded my viewpoint and strengthened my soul.
My mom was a terrifically strong woman. She spoke patiently to mad old ladies, sexually harassed by employers or their friends, abused by young kids who thought she was an appliance to be used, and vented on by harassed, brittle Singapore wives who were depressed, bitchy and frustrated with their lives chasing whatever image or illusions trendy at that time. She worked through whatever sickness, depression, pain, unreasonable demands, and kept strong. She didn’t come back often, once every 2 or 3 years. She smiled at us back home.
Now, I’ll write about current times. Sorry, I get lost in my mother’s past sometimes.
I take care of the girls and prepare them for Singapore. I teach them English, I tell them what to expect together with my mom, I tell them how to deal with problems, I fill in forms for them, help them make their passports. I help them out during phone interviews. I fix the IT in my mom’s office.
The girls stay with us for weeks, a few of them months. We loan them money to tide their families when they wait for employers to choose them with their own funny considerations and worries. Searching for `Singapore Myanmar Maid’ for the last 24 hours even threw up a well written piece, even though she’s slightly sympathetic but overall she still thinks that the maid is an appliance for the house and worries overly about filling up the maid’s work pipeline to maximize her utility for the money they pay.
Almost NOBODY I know becomes a maid to get more salary. Nobody job hops from Myanmar to Singapore to get more pay unless there’s something extremely pressing which forces them to do it. Men, maybe, but not the girls. We hear all about maid abuse and bad working conditions, we’ve facebook even in the villages now.
If they come to Singapore they’re up to their neck in debt, they’re forced to come. And they WILL stay unless it becomes unbearable. They have to. The first 3-5 months they have to pay back whatever agent fees they incur, and their plane fare. After that, they start sending money back to pay for their family’s debts or to feed their siblings and parents and children.
It’s a big decision to come to Singapore. It usually is made in tears. They will miss their families for at least 2 years, to put themselves in the mercy of strangers. So NOBODY wants to leave their employment. They just pray every day that they find a good employer and have enough to eat and enough sleep to make it through 2 years of arduous labor. They don’t get to have a handphone until 3 months later, they can’t contact their families unless they find that 1% of employers good enough to let them use the house phone to call their families to tell them that they’re alive.
The families miss these girls terribly. They can’t know how they are for months. The fathers of these daughters don’t even know that they’re alive or dead, whether they have been raped, whether the agent has had his way with his precious daughter. Myanmar men love their daughters, their pearls their treasure. We’ve no dowry system here to sell daughters to rich men. Daughters and sons are both equally treasured. The mothers cry and cry after weeks of not knowing what happened to their daughters. They depend on titbits of information from other maids, they get so worried.
And now when someone asks `Who pays?’ I presume that they want the maid to bear the burden. They already do. And most of them have to work for 10 years or more to get themselves out of the debt they’re in. These stories in the New Paper, they ask for more protection for the employers against the already defenceless maids. And all this time the Singapore government is collecting half the amount of money a Singaporean has to spend on a maid, they call it a LEVY. They’re the biggest fat greedy agent, every maid in Singapore they collect their toll of the maid’s blood and the employer’s blood. And still with all the money they collect they don’t protect the maids properly, they make ineffective laws (they weekly day off rule is a bloody stupid joke, nobody cares about it and the idiot who made the law doesn’t care too!)
And so when somebody asks `Who pays?’, after laughing, I hope that everybody realises one of the axiomatic answers should definitely be `Not the maid, please!’
Thank you for reading this wall of text. It has healed me. Because I’ve typed down what I want to tell the employers of the 250,000 maids in Singapore. Please, the women you employ, they’re daughters, sisters and mothers. They’re not a kitchen appliance you can dispose if you choose. Help them, please. I can’t save the world, I need your help.

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