For the past 10 years that I’ve been living in Singapore, I’ve heard many very emotional stories about domestic helpers: some that make you cry, some that make you shout and willing to rebel against the system, some about appalling living and working conditions, some about frightening behaviors and many more. All these stories have one thing in common: after I’ve listened to them, I have the same question : WHY? And none of these “WHYs” has an answer yet.
So I’ve decided to tell one of these stories, without any personal judgement, just as it was told to me: facts . Maybe you can answer some “WHYs”? Let me know.
Carlotta is a 31 year old Filipino lady who has been working as a domestic helper in Singapore for 8 years now. Her story deeply touched an audience gathered at aidha’s graduation ceremony that my own helper was attending [aidha is a charity in Singapore who is dedicated to empowering women through financial education]. Carlotta wanted to share her story with her peers to warn them “know better what may await you in Singapore” and also with employers “Be aware that we are human beings and as such we do have feelings too; no more “locked and isolated” inflicted, ever, to anyone“. I interviewed Carlotta in December 2012 to get a better understanding of what happened to her, of what conclusions she draw and what messages she’d like to send to her peers based on her experience.
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Carlotta was 23 years old when she first came to Singapore to work as a domestic helper. She had no idea of what her future was; but she had one dream: earning enough money to save her mother. Her Mum had just been diagnosed with cervix cancer…
She arrived a day of October 2004. It was her first time overseas. Singapore was totally unknown to her. Her English was very fair, with poor understanding and speaking: “I could just say Yes and No” recalls Carlotta. She had no friends, no relatives, no one to talk to or to ask questions to. Carlotta was entirely alone, alone to face her questions, her doubts, her sadness, her loneliness. From a phone interview when she was still in Manilla, she knew that her employer was Chinese and that the household had one elderly and one handicapped person. She spent the first three days in the Lion city going from medical exam to training sessions before she could meet her employer, a 48 year old lady. “When I entered the house, my mind was totally blank: I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to great the grand Ma. They were all speaking in Hokkien. I was very nervous, always wondering what was to come next“. Surprisingly, she says that she was not sad or anxious: just worried to behave appropriatedly.
It was 5 PM when she arrived there. Her employer showed her to her room and asked her to unpack and get some rest first. At 6 PM, the employer started a tour of the house and introduce her to the handicapped person. Actually, Carlotta’s surprises and fears didn’t arise from the load of work represented by the elderly and the disabled. No at all. Carlotta was shocked by the number of electrical appliances “I was terrified at the idea of using it!“. Another surprise came up at dinner time: the chopsticks and ceramics. She had never used it before! She was afraid of showing clumsy manners or an awkward attitude. She was afraid of leaving a bad impression to her employer, afraid of being seen as impolite and disrespectful. The first hours were definitely terrible, maybe the worse in her life. The next morning, her new life started with strict rules: a 320 SGD monthly salary but only 20 SGD in cash per month and the remaining 300 SGD were for the loan contracted to pay the agency fee (that was for the first 6 months), no day off, no phone, no mail, no email, no contact with family, friends or relatives. The employer wanted Carlotta to be strong, explaining that any contact would weaken her mind and make her too emotional. So Carlotta worked hard, never complained, never expressed anything: she felt that good money for her mother was so much better than work harrassment!
After 6 months (April 2005) of harrassing work, very long days and no day off, Carlotta was rewarded: the loan was fully reimbursed and it was only 4 weeks away from the first 300 SGD she could send to her family! At last! And then a few days later, another reward came as a surprise to her: the employer handed over a sheet of paper and a pen, thus giving permission (or instruction?) to write a letter to her family. Carlotta was delighted: at last she could give some news and maybe receive some too. She was so much worried about her mother’s condition: did she get better or worse? Was she able to walk? What about her speaking? It was now six months since the last contact with her sister and almost one and a half year since she had hug her mother for the last time! One sheet of paper is short but more than enough to say: “Don’t worry, I’m alright here in Singapore. I’m well treated. Everything is fine. But what about you? How are you doing? How is Mummy doing?”. Carlotta didn’t want to alarm her family, she didn’t want to tell the truth about how hard it had been here for the past 6 months. She knew that any negative information would make her mother worried about her daughter thus making her weaker to fight the disease. Carlotta had to keep mum…
Carlotta comes from a small village in a northern province of the Philippines. Her family lives there in a simple bamboo house : her mother, her father who is a farmer, one brother and one sister. The village sits beside a highway, not far from the city, but still, it’s a village which means that daily life ins’t easy and money is scarce. However, life was rather peaceful. To make a living, Carlotta was working has a helper in Manilla. But a clap of thunder broke in the sky of the whole family’s life in 2003 when the mother was diagnosed with a cervix cancer at the age of 49. Then they had to travel all the way to Manilla to seek medical treatment and Carlotta had to stop working to provide help and assistance to her mother in hospital. Yes, in the Philippines, in public hospital, there are not enough nurses to take care of patients: so families need to be present to change the bedsheets, to help the sick person to go to the bathroom and even to go out purchase medicines when the hospital has no stock anymore! But no work for Carlotta meant no more income. And the treatments were very expensive: one bottle of chemotheray was 3000 pesos [100 SGD – A school teacher’s monthly salary in the Philippines is about 400 SGD]. After three courses of chemotherapy, the family ran out of money. They seeked help from the government but failed to get subsidised. So despite the doctor’s recommendations to complete up to 7 courses of chemo, the family had to take the painful decision to interrupt the treatment. Meanwhile the mother’s health was getting worse after each course of chemo: vomiting, loosing a lot of weight, unable to eat and walk, intense pain and moreover, worried about money… Was it worth spending these hefty costs? What for?
December 2003 was coming to an end and Carlotta’s mother wanted to go back to her home. She was frightened by hospital, the view of other sick people, this dying lady in the bed next to hers, the terrifying presence of death and the strong feeling that the place and treatments made her worse than she was before. Christmas was around and she felt that a family gathering would have a better impact on her health than all those painful and costly treatments…indeed it was time to head back to the village.
Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and hope. But for Carlotta and her family, it was a time of thinking: what can we do ? How can we find money for more treatment? One of Carlotta’s aunt made a suggestion that had never come to the mind of any one: “Why don’t you go to Singapore Carlotta, and work there as a domestic helper?“. There was no lapse of time before Carlotta gave an answer: “On the spot, I said yes“. Carlotta wanted so much to help her mother! And money had healing properties, she had no doubt about it! So she rushed into the preparation of her departure. No question, no doubt, no hesitation: she had to go!
It took a full year before Carlotta could reach Singapore. She had no passport, neither proper documents and the entire process to get permission to exit the Philippines and to find an employer in Singapore required more than several weeks [up to 2 months today]. Meanwhile, because she needed money for the employment agency and for her mother’s outpatient treatment, she left her village again, her beloved mother, her father and sibblings and went back to Manila to work. That was in early 2004. She didn’t know that she would never see her mother again…The transport between Manilla and her village was too costly : she never had the opportunity to visit her mother during her stay in Manilla. But her efforts were not vain: her mother recovered a little bit, she could talk again, she could walk, she never complained about pain “my Mom was a strong lady” explains Carlotta with a note of admiration. And in October 2004, when the agent called her one morning to say that everything was ready to leave for Singapore, Carlotta had still no doubt: she had to go. But unfortunately, no time for farewell and no details about her destination: listening to the agent, the departure was an emergency: the flight was booked for the same day. About the address and contact details in Singapore? No information. Only after arrival in Singapore. Carlotta had no choice, no time and no money to go back and say goodbye to her family: she could only give a call to inform them of her immediate departure. She managed to reach her younger sister over the phone. But not her mother; she was not at home at the time of the call…And very saddly, Carlotta didn’t hear her mother’s voice before leaving her homeland. She couldn’t tell what was deep in her heart: “Don’t worry for me. I’ll be back soon. Take care of yourself, I’ll get money for your treatment and I’ll save you. I’ll give you a better life”.
After 6 months in Singapore, on the day when Carlotta was writing her first letter, this silent promise was still vibrating intensely in her heart : “Don’t worry for me. I’ll be back soon. Take care of yourself, I’ll get money for your treatment and I’ll save you. I’ll give you a better life”. The employer dropped the letter in a mailbox – Carlotta was still not allowed to go out of the house alone. And daily life resumed as usual with its heavy load of work, its extenuating tasks, its neverending days and its short nights. Carlotta was constantly thinking of her mother, but she had no fear about life or death: she knew her mother was there, in the village, still waiting, patiently waiting for a better life. Maybe her health was worse? Or better? Or the same? Carlotta was wondering…One month later, the great news arrived in the form a letter from her sister. Carlotta was so excited to read her! “How are you Sis? We were so much worried. Why you gave no news? So long! “. Carlotta was feeling so sorry that she made her family worry about her. She was suffering hiya*. But what to do? What else could she have done? The second part of the letter relieved her, confirming her thoughts: “Don’t worry about Mum. We manage“. Her mother was alive and well! That was indeed the best news ! Her mother was alive and well! And Carlotta was thinking that her next salary (end of May) would be the first one for her family, the one that could change her mother’s life! Carlotta was happy!
A couple of days later, an additional unexpected event enlightened her day: the employer came to her with a prepaid phone card, allowing Carlotta to give a call to her family: with a credit of 3 minutes, she had to make short sentences. But that was not an issue! She wanted so much to hear her mother’s voice again! She managed to reach her beloved ones! First her sister telling Carlotta that everything was fine, that she should not worry. And then very shortly her mother “How are you Mum? Please take care! I’m very worried you know that I’m not there with you to look after you. But hold on! I’m going to give you a better life!”. Carlotta could hear her mother saying “I’m alright. Don’t worry for me. Evreything is fine here. Do take care”. Love and happiness must make you blind, or deaf…Carlotta didn’t notice that her mother’s voice was so weak. She only heard that her mother was happy, very happy to talk to her beloved daughter and relieved to know she was doing well. Making our mother happy: isn’t it the most important to any of us?
And yes, Carlotta’s mother was happy. Hearing her daughter’s voice was such a blessing: she waited for so long! She put all her energy in this long waiting time. Now she could take some rest. She could let life made decisions for her. She had overcome the disease against all odds. She could stop fighting now. She was relieved and happy.
The day following the phone call, Carlotta was doing her chores when “suddenly, a cold wind wrapped me“. She immediatley feared that something wrong was going on. So she asked the Grand Ma “Grand Ma, are you cold?“. And the answer slapped her in the face: “No!”. Carlotta instantly understood what had happened, what the cold wind was: a dear loving soul had just wrapped her. Her mother had passed away, peacefully, the day after she could talk to her daughter.
The terrible feeling became a devastating news the next day: Carlotta’s sister called the employer to inform about her mother’s death. It was actually after many difficulties that she managed to get the employer’s phone number. The agent refused to give any contact details. Why? Privacy? Employer’s instruction? The family had to force the agency who eventually answered their request. Carlotta talked a few minutes over the phone with her sister, just to hear what she had guessed the day before. “Mother has died yesterday“. After hanging down, Carlotta recalls “I was so emotional, I wasn’t able to speak. The only way I could communicate with my employer was in writing. So I wrote a letter and I put it on her desk. In this letter, I was asking permission to go back home for the burial, promising to come back and even to extend the contract**“.
The relationship with her employer was good explains Carlotta. However good, the communication was poor, partly because of language issues (they were speaking in their Chinese dialect and Carlotta’s English was still fair). So the employer’s decision to her request was totally unexpected : “You better send money than go back” handing over to Carlotta an envelopp with 600 SGD in cash. But don’t be mistaken, that was not a gift; it was only a cash advance to pay for the burial. Carlotta was devastated. She asked a mediation from her agent. There again, the reply was appaling: “Don’t cry. If your employer sees you crying, he doesn’t like it and he will send you back home***“. Repatriated and loosing her job? No way! “I couldn’t go back home because I had to earn my money to send to my family” Carlotta gasps. What could she do? Crying, crying alone, crying in her room. And working, working hard without a single tear that would have upset the employer, thus making sure that she was securing her job. The 600 SGD were sent to her family. This money, the fruit of her hard work, the first that she could remit since she left the Philippines almost 8 months ago, was the only tiny flickering light in the darkness of her thoughts: “We didn’t have to beg our relatives for a loan. With my money, I paid for a decent burial“.
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At the end of the interview, I asked Carlotta a few more questions:
What are your thoughts today about your employer’s attitude?
“I understand her”. And she clarifies: “her decision was good and bad. Good because I could pay for a decent burial. Bad because I never had the chance to see my mother again, even on her death bed. I’m still sad today and I’ll always be”.
What advice would you give to employers in a similar situation?
“Give rest to your helper. Allow her to meet friends. Allow her to talk to friends and relatives. We shouldn’t be left alone when we mourn a loved one”.
What advice would you give to a newcoming helper?
“She must know her rights because sometimes employers take advantage of the situation “.
Today, at the age of 31, Carlotta has decided to go back for good to the Philippines in 2013. She has built up a project for a future: she will open her own restaurant “my own eatery” as she calls it. She has been trained at aidha, the world micro business school in Singapore; her business plan is ready. She will never ever leave her family alone again.
Some clarifications for Westerners not used to local wording and behavior:
*Hiya: it’s a very Philipino feeling that is quite hard to explain to Westerners. It’s a sense of pain, of shame which controls all behaviors in Philipino society. Imagine that it’s a sort of internal balloon that every Philipino must have and which inflates with shame. A Philipino may suffer hiya (his / her balloon gets bigger). He/ she will also fear making someone else hiya (making someone else’s balloon bigger) through a bad word or wrong behavior: that is considered the most unacceptable attitude. But don’t think they can live without a hiya! Having no hiya is considered a sin!
** “Promising to come back“: a helper’s life is so hard in Singapore that it’s not uncommon (but not so frequent though) that she doesn’t come back to Singapore after a trip or holiday to her homeland, hence breaching the contract and loosing her job. It’s not a matter of cowardice. It’s just that some can’t find the strength to say good by again. In some cases, going back is like stepping out of heaven to enter hell. Some helpers are denied the possibility to go back home because their employer fear that she won’t come back.
***“He will send you back home”: it means that the contract is stopped, work permit cancelled and the helper repatriated to her country, thus loosing her job.