The Foreign Domestic Workers Who Become Family

As someone who grew up in a household without a helper, I’ve always been curious about what it would be like to have one. Beyond being able to escape household chores, I was envious of my friends whose helpers were akin to friends who watched over them as they grew up. 

I caught a small glimpse of this when we brought in a helper to take care of my grandparents. With my grandfather’s ailing health, their helper served not just as a caregiver but as a companion to my grandmother. Despite their language barriers, they communicated with easy camaraderie, finding their own ways to develop inside jokes and share about their day. 

Yet, heartwarming experiences like what I have witnessed are rarely reflected in our headlines. Instead, our FDW stories are often dominated by stories of abuse and misdemeanour, of endless debates on who is right, what is right, and what we should do. 

Sure, there’s much debate surrounding FDWs in Singapore, and there are most definitely horrific instances, but there are also stories of trust, hope, and love that should be shared. If nothing at all, perhaps this will add a little heart to the conversations we are having regarding the role of helpers in our society, and remind us that even as we discuss pertinent issues surrounding employees’ rights, a little compassion can go a long way. 

But first, how did Singapore’s obsession with FDWs even begin? 

FDWs were a part of Singapore’s social fabric even prior to independence. Then, they were known as amahs and mui tsais, two groups of immigrants who came from China. 

Post-independence, changes in Singapore’s immigration policy saw migrant workers becoming increasingly employed in the commercial rather than domestic sphere. As a result, domestic tasks were increasingly taken on my wives, mothers, and daughters, which was counterintuitive to the Government’s efforts to increase female participation in the workforce at the time. 

Thus, the Foreign Domestic Servant Scheme was introduced in 1978 to allow women from neighbouring countries (including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand) to be employed as paid domestic help. Since then, FDWs have gained increasing popularity in Singapore. 

From a base of approximately 5,000 helpers in the late-1970s, the number has now increased to approximately 250,000 today. One in five households now have helpers at home, as compared to one in 13 back in the 1990s.

Today, helpers play an integral role in many households, going beyond helping families with menial household chores. Instead, many of them are often hired to serve as caretakers to dependents such as young children or elderly, especially in dual-income families. 

Walk past a school or visit a hospital today and it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to find helpers accompanying elderly citizens to their medical appointments, or picking young children up from school. 

Despite these roles, an article published in The Straits Times stated that migrant workers’ groups have asserted that many families today regard helpers as an employee rather than part of the family. 

Yet, the close relationships these families share with helpers in their employ tell a different story – one that is equally important, and perhaps will shift the way we look at and treat these individuals that have become so integral to our society. 

The helpers who become family

Susan, 46, has had the same helper under her employ for more than a decade. While the decision to hire a helper was first made to aid her ageing parents with household chores, their family’s relationship with her helper has inevitably morphed over the years. 

“She’s a full-time caregiver for my ageing parents, and definitely like a friend to me,” says Susan. 

Beyond a clearly demarcated employer-employee relationship, Susan shared that her family makes an effort to show interest in their helper’s life and family back home as well. 

She shares, “We make an effort to ask her for an update on what is happening at home every now and then. She, on the other hand, introduces her family members to us when she facetimes with them.” 

In fact, their relationship has even progressed to the point where their helper actually invited the family to her wedding. 

Susan goes on to elaborate about how her helper goes above and beyond when it comes to caring for their family, citing examples of how she would make an effort to learn Susan’s schedule, even though her primary responsibilities are to care for Susan’s parents. 

“She… will text to ask if I’m going home for dinner on specific days of the week. She packs cooked food for me to bring home so I can heat it up over the week when I work from home.” 

When asked if Susan would consider her helper as part of her family, Susan’s answer was a firm “yes”. 

The fondness of which Susan speaks of her helper is something I’ve often witnessed with my grandmother as well. Whenever we visit, my grandmother would often regale us with stories about her helper’s life, taking keen interest in what she did in her free time when not caring for my grandparents. 

In fact, I’ve also observed similar trends with some of my friends who grew up with their helpers. Oftentimes, these workers become a confidant or even a second mother to them, having been there with them and raising them since they were young. 

A friend of mine had even visited and stayed with her helper in the Philippines for a few days after her helper had left the employ of her family and went home to be with her own. Despite her helper having returned to the Philippines many years back, they still keep in touch regularly today. 

Perhaps we, as a society, should start thinking of them more as family too

As an adult, I no longer feel the same envy when I witness the close familial bonds that can be nurtured between helpers and their employers. As much as these relationships are genuine and heartfelt, they are also discordant with the larger conversation regarding the rights of FDWs and heart wrenching stories that often make our headline. 

In coming here to make a living, these workers leave behind their own families to help us raise ours, and it’ll do well for us to remember that even as we have these conversations and continue to depend on them to manage our households. 

While unreasonable parties will always exist, perhaps thinking of these workers as potential extensions of our own families will help us create a more compassionate society, and more conducive working and living environments for both these workers, and the families they work for. 

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