Singapore's foreign domestic workers turning to sport to battle the bulge

Before Aye Aung made her first trip out of Myanmar to Singapore as a foreign domestic worker, the 25-year-old weighed slightly more than 40kg. But after working in Singapore for just over a year, she has put on some 15kg.

"I was very skinny since I was young and people used to call me names. But now I eat much better here. My family will be very surprised and happy to see me getting fatter when I return," she said.

There are some 250,000 foreign domestic workers in the island nation, which relies on them in sectors ranging from elder care to childcare. Social workers, observers and domestic workers themselves all point to helpers' expanding waistlines after moving to Singapore, leading a growing number to boost their level of physical activity.

"For women who get jobs with good employers, they generally do eat quite well," said John Gee, former president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit organisation which aims to improve the conditions for low-wage migrant workers. "Certainly, some of them have put on weight to the extent that they are worried about it. For them, exercise and trying to keep things in check is important."

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A World Health Organisation report estimates that around three out of 10 people in the Lion City are overweight, the second-highest prevalence in the Association of Southeast-Asian Nations. Obesity rates in the city state have also been broadly rising since 1992, according to a 2017 report by the local health authority.

Most of the domestic workers in Singapore come from neighbouring countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka - nations in which many people live below the poverty line.


Aye Aung used to eat a simple diet of rice and curried vegetables when she helped her family in the paddy fields of Ayeyarwady, a low-lying, arable region adjacent to Yangon. Meat and poultry were rare.

But now, she eats the same food she cooks for her employers - including local dishes such as braised pork belly, preserved radish omelette, fried seasonal vegetables and tofu.

"I am very lucky to find a job in Singapore and get a good employer. Although I have to live alone and away from my family, I get to earn more money and also eat luxuriously," Aye Aung said. "If I continue this way, I might even become overweight if I don't exercise. But I am very lazy to run. Perhaps I should start to exercise soon."

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Another domestic worker, Mia Mila, has been living on a diet of Indomie. A popular staple for many in Indonesia, the instant noodles may be tasty but fare poorly in terms of nutritional value.

"When there is no one at home to cook for, I will [fry] Indomie for myself. It is not healthy, but I like [it]," said Mia, who is in her mid-30s. "It is fattening, but very [delicious]. It is very easy to make, easier than cooking rice and dishes."

While her food is her choice, some domestic workers in the Lion City have been forced into a diet of cheap and unhealthy processed foods. In 2017, a Singaporean couple was fined and sentenced to jail for starving their Filipino domestic helper, only feeding her instant noodles and plain white bread. As a result, the then 40-year-old lost 20kg over 15 months, and weighed 29kg when she escaped from her employers in 2014.

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But according to social workers close to foreign domestic workers, there has been an improvement in helpers' diets along with a decline in cases of malnutrition in the past few years. Employers have a sharper awareness and sensitivity towards providing a proper diet, they observed, although there remain cases where domestic workers do not have access to enough nutritious food.

"We've still got those families who are trying to give the workers as little as possible. That's still a concern for us. I would say it's definitely a minority who are behaving like that," said Gee from TWC2. "There are still good employers who just don't think about the importance of providing a good variety of food for their helpers. They've acted on it once they had this pointed out to them."

The Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI), a Catholic welfare organisation, has also noted a "significant improvement" in the way domestic helpers are treated in Singapore when it comes to being given enough food.

"This is largely due to the increase in awareness and action by the public in treating foreign domestic workers with more respect and dignity," said an ACMI spokesperson.

Domestic workers who spoke to This Week in Asia said their better and in some cases unhealthier diets in Singapore, coupled with their sedentary lifestyles, were the main drivers behind their weight gain.

"My employer's house is very small, and I can't move around a lot for exercise," said 30-year-old Indonesian Siti Nana, who says she has put on weight during her five-year stint in the island nation.

These days, however, she rarely sits still in the evenings, making use of the treadmill and stationary bicycle at the gym in her employers' condominium.

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"[My employer] is very supportive of me and lets me have some free time after work to exercise," Siti says. "Sometimes neighbours will complain that I am using the gym, but she will always say I am part of her family."

Another domestic worker, Yunawati Ati, has chosen to turn to dieting. "Exercising is very difficult. My employers are also trying to lose weight, and all of us don't eat rice at night now. I try to cook healthier for my family too," said the 29-year-old Indonesian.


A growing number of domestic workers have also taken to group exercise to get active on their days off. At an empty field near Singapore's National Stadium, hundreds of domestic workers gather on weekends for some sweat and sporting fun.

On several Sundays each month, the area takes on an atmosphere reminiscent of a sports carnival, with dozens of volleyball nets stretched between makeshift poles and tree trunks.

Hundreds of domestic workers gather near Singapore’s National Stadium on weekends to play volleyball.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

"Many who come here enjoy volleyball as a hobby and want to exercise to keep fit," said 39-year-old Racquel Pascual, a domestic worker who organises the games.

These casual volleyball friendlies are free for anyone to join in, but a fee of $50 is levied on each team during competitions. The proceeds are used for the likes of venue rental and prize money, while the excess is donated to charitable causes in the home countries of foreign domestic workers.

Nina, a Filipino domestic worker who declined to give her full name, was among those on the volleyball court.

Her employers give her an allowance of $5 a day for lunch on weekdays. With this money, Nina goes to a nearby coffee shop for a bowl of Teochew minced meat noodles or Hainanese chicken rice, which cost an average of $3.

"Playing volleyball helps me to keep fit and lose weight. There is so much good food here," she said. "I love the minced pork noodles and fried chicken. It's hard not to put on weight in Singapore."

Other domestic workers in the city state have been seen practising yoga or taking part in the dance-fitness routine Zumba, in activities organised by charities and the Catholic Church.

At Agape Village, a social service hub in the residential heartlands of Toa Payoh town, domestic workers gather in an air-conditioned dance studio for complimentary Zumba fitness lessons.

"Doing Zumba can definitely help you lose weight - you just have to couple it with good, balanced nutrition and give it time," said Helen Leen, an instructor who has been conducting free weekly lessons for domestic workers there since early 2017.

In southern Singapore, near the world-famous ports, there is a 7,000 sq ft clubhouse where weekly fitness workshops are run by the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST), a government-backed charity which provides training and support for domestic workers. Some 8,000 helpers are members there.

Among other classes, its sports centre offers Zumba, Pilates and yoga lessons every Sunday, catering to a growing demand from domestic helpers to get fit. Helpers pay an annual membership fee of S$10 to make use of the sporting and other facilities.

The number of sports offerings is expected to grow once the organisation moves into a larger clubhouse later this year. The new venue will be able to accommodate 5,000 members, a tenfold increase from its current capacity.

"It was one week after Chinese New Year and there was a special Chinese New Year Zumba dance party at FAST. I tried it for the first time and it was very fun. I perspired a lot," said 32-year-old Filipino Jan Cruz.

Since then, she has been regularly trying out different exercise classes with her friends at the clubhouse and elsewhere. "My employers asked me to help finish the Chinese New Year snacks. I ate a lot and I got fat after that. But I felt better after dancing to the fast music."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.