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Yes, we're happy

Some maids put up with poor working conditions, yet they claim they are still "happy". -TNP

Wed, Jan 26, 2011
The New Paper

Gan Ling Kai and Amanda Phua

DESPITE their working conditions, only eight out of 100 foreign maids in a poll said they are "unhappy" or "very unhappy" working for Singapore households.

And nearly 60 said they were happy or very happy to do so.

Last week, The New Paper reported that 18 of the 20 condominiums we checked with do not allow maids in swimming pools.

A Filipino maid, who wished to be known only as Jen, 25, said things like this did not bother her.

She said: "I can pray in my room, so I am fine with not getting any days off. Although many Singaporeans look down on us (maids), my employer doesn't."

For that, she said she is "very happy" working here.

Another maid, who wished to be known only as Mariam, 35, said she has to bathe the dog once every two days although she is afraid of animals.

But she said she is "happy" because her employers "treat her with respect".

She added: "There are little things that I would like to change, but overall, I am very happy working here."

Mona, a 39-year-old Sri Lankan maid, gets scratched often by the family cat when she bathes it weekly.

This maid, who has been in Singapore for six years, added that she has to sleep with the light on and the door open so that "I can be a night light for the house".

Yet, she said she is still "very happy" working here.

So why do maids say they are happy working here despite being treated poorly?


Mr John Gee, 57, president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a charity that helps migrant workers, said being trained to say "yes" to every task they are given may lead to foreign maids indicating they are "happy" despite harsh working conditions.

"At the training centres, they are told to please employers all the time. They are conditioned to say 'yes, madam' to everything. This makes them terrified of their employers," he said.

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» Teach kids to respect maids

He thinks it is unhealthy that maids do not speak up when faced with unfair treatment.

"Employers need to integrate their maids into their families and not expect them to 'parachute in'.

"Each family is unique, different from the household next door. So employers need proper two-way communication to ease their maids into the job," he said.

Mr Edmund Pooh, 27, the director of Universal Employment Agency, said the "playing field is not level", which is why maids would rather say they are happy and not speak up about the conditions they face.

He spoke of how the relationship between an employer and a maid was different from a romantic relationship.

"In a boy-girl relationship, everything is equal. Both parties can choose to break off. But the relationship between an employer and a maid is different," he said.

"The employer can choose to give up the maid any time. The maid, on the other hand, needs to get the consent of her employer before getting a transfer (to work in another household).

Take loans to work here

"Of course, she can also choose to terminate her work here and go home. But most wouldn't do that because they have taken up loans to work here. How are they going to repay the loans if they leave?"

The New Paper understands from Mr Gee, Mr Pooh and Mr Desmond Chin, 45, the group director of maid agency Nation Employment, that it is common for foreign maids here to use the first eight to nine months of their salary to repay the loan borrowed from maid agencies and recruiters in their home countries.

The loan can be more than $3,000.

Mr Chin also said the pay of maids here is "too low", but they rarely complain about it.

For example, Indonesian maids here earn about $400 a month. But in Taiwan, they can easily pick up a pay cheque that's twice the amount, said Mr Chin.

He said: "This is a chicken-and-egg problem. Because our pay here is low, we can't attract the best maids. Yet, the employers here expect high quality service. Many disputes happen because of that."

Poll results

59 - Number of maids who said they are either 'very happy' or 'happy' that they work here

33 - Number of maids who said they are 'neutral' about working here

8 - Number of maids who said they are either 'very unhappy' or 'unhappy' that they work here

Maids' wish list (in order of popularity)

  • Weekly day off
  • Employers to be nicer
  • More time to rest
  • Able to contact family members at home (over the phone or by returning for a holiday)
  • More privacy
  • Food issues addressed

Poll allowed respondents to pick more than one option on the wish list.

>> Next: They work for a 'dream boss'

They work for a 'dream boss'

TWO maids working at an apartment near River Valley Road feel they are working for a "dream boss".

When Madam Ludi Farraas, 54, a Filipina, and Miss Fitri Nur Janti, 27, an Indonesian, faced difficulties - fell sick or had family members hospitalised or dying - their employers showered them with compassion, they said.

But it's no wonder if you know that their boss is Mr John Gee.

The 57-year-old permanent resident is an advocate for the rights of foreign workers here.

The freelance writer volunteers as the president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a charity that helps migrant workers.

Madam Farraas, who has worked for the Gees for 11 years, is in charge of cooking and other household chores.

When her elderly mother died in January 2009, she was given two weeks of leave to return home to be with her family.

When her husband was struck with pneumonia last November, she was given a two-month break to return to the Philippines to care for him.

For both trips, the Gees paid the airfare.

They also continued paying her salary even when she was away.

Mr Gee said: "What we are doing is no big deal. It is just like how your company would give you compassionate leave if a crisis happens. Employers shouldn't dump their staff when there's inconvenience.

"Moreover, (our maids) need the money especially when problems happen at home."

Madam Farraas, who gets a day off weekly, said: "I'm very happy that I have such a good boss."

Miss Fitri also feels "lucky" to be working for the Gees.

Three years ago, Miss Fitri, suffered deep vein thrombosis in her right leg.

Her leg was swollen and there were days when she cried, not just in pain but also because she was anxious about her medical bills.

Her multiple medical check-ups cost about $1,000.

Although it is mandatory for employers in Singapore to pick up the medical bill for their maids, Miss Fitri felt "guilty for being a burden".

But Mr Gee and his journalist wife picked up the tab willingly, Miss Fitri said.

She also went for an operation in June 2009 to treat the deep vein thrombosis, which the doctor said was life-threatening.

Medical insurance

The surgery and her one-day hospitalisation cost $2,600. That was covered by insurance.

After the surgery, she was given six months of no-pay leave to return home to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to recover. Her employers paid the airfare.

After she regained her health, she returned to Singapore to resume her main duty - running errands for Mr Gee's 87-year-old mother-in-law.

Miss Fitri gets a day off fortnightly.

The Indonesian, who has been working for the Gees for five years, declined to reveal her salary, but said that increments have been given over the years.

She added: "It's not just about the money. They treated me very well."

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This article was first published in The New Paper.

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