In 2010, there were 201,000 foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore as reported by the Ministry of Manpower. That made it about one for every five households in the country. And this number is steadily increasing with many Singaporeans in the sandwich generation having to care for elderly parents and young children.
FDWs play a very significant helping role in our society, enabling many mothers to remain in the workforce. Despite their significant numbers, however, FDWs form a vulnerable group of women in Singapore. Leaving their own families back in their home countries to make a living here, their day-to-day well-being is dependent on the kindness of their employers.
Unfortunately, employers may not always have the FDWs’ best interests in mind. Some have exploited them by overworking them, even leading to abuse. There were 26 cases of maid abuse that went to court in Singapore in 2014, and about 10 cases each in 2015 and 2016. NGOs that provide assistance to FDWs will tell you that there are many more cases which do not make it to court for various reasons, and there are probably others that never get reported at all. These are saddening statistics that have made me question the state of our humanity. How can we possibly treat another human being in this way? How can we not have empathy when we recall that many of our ancestors were here to make a living like they do?
Over the years, groups such as Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (H.O.M.E), Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) have been advocating and providing support for FDWs. However, it is not just up to them to ensure FDWs have a safe and comfortable place to live and work. It is each employer’s responsibility to do so.
Treating FDWs as part of the family and dignifying their work by providing for them adequately without discrimination will help to foster a productive and harmonious working relationship. Here are 5 ways how employers can be kinder to domestic helpers, to help them adapt better to living and working in Singapore.
Ensure good health and safety
It goes without saying that employers need to give their domestic helpers enough food and nutrition to eat, and proper accommodation while they are staying in our homes. If possible, provide a room for privacy. Let them read books or watch local news and other television programmes during their rest breaks. We should also ensure that they do not endanger themselves in tasks such as cleaning of windows from high floors.
Give praise for a job well done
Whether it’s a simple “thank you” or a commendation for a job well done, we all like to be appreciated for the work that we do. It does not require much effort on our part to say thank you, or compliment them for a well-cooked dish. This simple gesture might just make their day.
Practise patience and forgiveness
FDWs are humans too, and as humans, we all make mistakes. We can show patience and forgiveness by not taking away their few privileges – such as off days and phone calls with family – or deducting their salary as a punishment when they make honest mistakes, which is illegal.
In situations where they lie to and steal from employers, or worse, ill-treat the young or elderly left in their care, they have to be dealt with according to the seriousness of the offence. In any case, it is important to ensure there is proper due process, and the ways of dealing with these transgressions are legal and appropriate. Where criminality is involved, the matter needs to be reported to the police.
However, I like to give the benefit of the doubt that most FDWs have the intention to work hard and do the best in their jobs. When we treat them with genuine kindness, they will reciprocate with loyalty, joy in service and trustworthiness. Where the transgression is an aberration, it is not a bad idea to talk to them and where there is genuine remorse, to give them a second chance.
Go above and beyond what you are required as an employer
Treating them as part of the family and including them during special occasions gives them a sense of belonging and purpose. I am heartened when I go out for meals in restaurants and see FDWs dining with their employers. If your family celebrates Christmas, buy her a small gift. During Chinese New Year, give her a small red packet.
In the case of some of my friends, they have done a lot of wonderful things for the FDWs including helping them to save money and helping them to set up small businesses or buy land in their hometown. These FDWs are ever so grateful and they are still in touch.
Treat them like how you would like to be treated
It is always good to practise this old saying “Do to others what you want others to do to you!”
FDWs are human beings too, not simply workers. It is an enormous sacrifice, leaving their families behind to make a living in Singapore, missing their children and forfeiting the opportunity to watch them grow up while they are helping to raise our own. We can always show more kindness in our words and actions as a way of appreciating their contribution to our lives.
May I suggest a challenge to get to know them as persons, not just FDWs. Instead of treating them as invisible people, get to know them which is the best way to build good employer-domestic worker relationships. Ask about how things are like in their hometowns, and how they are adjusting to life in Singapore. Ask about their fears, worries, and hopes for the future. Have meaningful and caring conversations with them.
Treat them like family, and they’ll begin to treat your family like their own.
Dr. William Wan, PhD., JP, General Secretary, Singapore Kindness Movement contributed this article to OFW Pinoy Star to highlight what we can and should do as International Migrants Day comes around again on Dec 7.