The foreign workers in Singapore are divided by gender into two tasks and two entirely different ways of life. I talked below about the men, who do mainly construction, but also work on the oil refineries off the south coast. Women who are guest workers almost all work as domestic helpers, who live with the family for whom they work, and do a variety of tasks: cleaning house, cooking, taking care of children, taking care of elderly or disabled family members, washing cars, shopping at the wet market for fresh food like fish and tofu and eggs and fruit and vegetables, shopping at the grocery store for rice and noodles and frozen chapati and Marshmallow Fluff, etc. etc. Most are from the Philippines, but many are from Indonesia and some from Myanmar or Thailand—some must be from mainland China but I feel I never hear of them. Expats like me would hire them if they were from Beijing and spoke even rudimentary English, because then they could help our children better their Mandarin. Women from the Philippines are paid more, because they are likelier to speak better English and be better educated (not so uncommonly with a post high-school degree, like our first helper, who worked for us for nine years.) They are also paid more because the government of the Philippines has negotiated a minimum wage for them, as I understand it. Indonesian helpers are sometimes 18-year-old girls who have literally come straight from a village where they lived in a house with a packed earth floor, and then they are screamed at because they didn’t use the right setting on the washing machine. They go through training courses paid for by the maid agency, allegedly. I think this is more a spurious reason for the agency to make the fee paid by the workers higher (as in many places, the women often pay a multiple of their eventual monthly salary to the Indonesian agency that gets them a job in Singapore.) The government of Singapore requires employers of helpers to pay a levy of—mmm—$380? (One of those convenient internet banking things). Domestic helpers are now guaranteed one day off a week but only if contracts were signed in 2013; previously Filipina workers were guaranteed one day off a month—oooh, lavish innit—and workers from Indonesia and Myanmar…none.
The challenges these guest workers face are different. Domestic helpers may be lonely because they have no one to speak to in Tagalog (or whatever their native language is), or even anyone to speak to at all. In bad cases they may be physically abused or forced to do unreasonable amounts of work, or not be given enough to eat. The danger is nowhere near so great as in the Gulf States, though, simply because there are so many people around in Singapore, and they are kaypoh anyway (sticking their nose in). If you are in a flat on the 10th floor you can scream out the window, or throw things. There are other flats next to you. Older women counsel younger ones not to go work in the Gulf States, even if they’ve gotten an offer that pays well. There you may end up truly, physically isolated from anyone else, and if you are being abused, you really have no recourse at all. Your employers—I seriously almost typed owners there—can take away your phone and passport, and withhold your wages, and there is no way for your family in Indonesia to come find you. If they were rich enough to do that, you wouldn’t be taking this job in the first place.
Domestic helpers do in the usual course of things go outside and talk to people. They go to the grocery store or hawker centre, or just generally do varying tasks out and about. I think it is a more variegated manner of work and more connected to other human activities. On Sundays they mostly congregate at Lucky Plaza or an adjacent mall on Orchard Road, the main shopping street in Singapore, and meet up with friends. There used to be a grassy place for them too, at the corner of Scotts Road and Orchard Road. They would buy food from Lucky Plaza and go eat it there. Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf won’t let maids sit there with their friends and chat. They have to buy more coffee than an expat would in order to linger by the plugs at Starbucks, to charge the computers they don’t have. But it was a ridiculous piece of land to stand empty, we all knew something would come. They worked round the clock, day and night shifts to build The Ion, mall and attached condos. It was completed in a year, I swear. It has video on the side just like in Bladerunner. “Come, to the offworld colonies. A chance to begin again. A golden land of opportunity and adventure…” The women also send money home using special remittance services, and sometimes meet up with boyfriends, or go get bought drinks by a sketch expat guy in Orchard Towers (sorry expat guy, even you know you’re sketch). Chinese employers are dead set against maids having boyfriends for some reason. Well, the women have to get a medical check-up four times a year, and if they are pregnant, they are kicked out of the country. Abortion is legal in Singapore, so that is an option, but only if you take care of it prior to the test.
I am going to sleep now, so I can’t answer your questions till my morning. We still hire a helper now, our second. She is from the same town as our first helper, Tena Z. [I’ll redact her name in case she’d prefer that]. On re-read I’ve only told you all about Tena. Nevermind whatever.Tena owned some land next to her mother’s house (and a plot in town, but entangled with her husband, whom she was divorcing Catholic-style: annulment after 14 years and two children. I helped her arrange the legal bullshit which involved not seeing his face for 7 years, so she had to do things carefully so that he didn’t sabotage.) She was older than me, and had been working as a maid for all her children’s lives, sacrificing her time with them for money to them, for school, for a good place to live. And god how heartbreaking was it when she went back and they were 18 and 16 and they didn’t care about her. They had only ever felt betrayed. We wanted our family to be the last one she worked for, so we paid for a house to be built on her land, next to her mother’s place and her older sister’s—her father had left the plot in three pieces to them when he died. Her younger sister was working here in Singapore also when she was stricken with cancer (I want to say brain? Lymph nodes on her neck somehow?). Her employers paid for her surgery and chemotherapy, but they had a three-week-old child when the shit hit the fan, so they had to hire someone else also. So Tena’s sister came and lived with us while she was having chemo. She was more cheerful and pleasant to John than Tena, even when she was suffering! Tena was awful to John, really, and we finally blew up and had a fight about it, and parted on bad terms. But I still talk to her via our current helper Malou, and via my mother-in-law, who has kept in contact with her all this while. I went to her place in Pangasinan province, and it reminded me a lot of South Carolina. Flat, beautiful marshes of pewter and acid green; yellow soft sand on the big old beaches; rice paddies but still working, of course. And a man who came around after low tide to say “cockles, fresh cockles, alive alive-o.” Except in her dialect. The cats behind our house spoke her dialect also. She didn’t like to eat near us and she had a table set up at the back of the paved side yard, where the wire mesh fence gave way to a little canal between the back of our house and the backs of the houses on the other street. One house had people playing mah jong almost every night till two or three in the morning! You could hear the clicking of the tiles like anything, like rain on a tin roof. But it was only loud in the kitchen, which was open to the air in places. It was a funny old house. So Tena had a round outdoor table and chairs set up outside the back door and she would sit there after she put out half a damn bag of cat food and talk to all the stray cats. I came out once and heard her. “Do they all speak that?” that is, the dialect of her town, Mangaldan, Pangasinan, on Luzon. “Yes,” she said, as ten or eleven cats ranging from kittens to the ragged-eared marmalade tom who ruled the park fought over the food. “All of them.”