For the past 25 years, 50-year-old Melody’s days have mostly been occupied with cooking, cleaning, babysitting and taking care of chores around the house.
Contrary to what you may think, she’s not a housewife. Far from it, if you consider that she meets her family only once a year, getting to spend just a precious few weeks with them each time.
Melody is a domestic helper based in Singapore. And going by the years she has spent working for numerous employers here, she observes that employers have become more demanding over the years.
Thinking back to her first employer in the early 90s, the Filipina’s eyes lit up as she told The Pride: “They were a young family of four who treated me very well. Their children were five and eight years old, and I helped to look after them.
“Even after I moved on to work for other people, we still kept in touch. Both kids are adults now, and we contact each other on Facebook sometimes.”
These happy memories are in stark contrast to the troubles she faces with her current employer – also a family with young children. For one, Melody describes them as “quite difficult to work for”.
She cited the timetable that they had initially given her, and explained: “They wanted me to wake up at 5am every day, saying that if I want to finish all my work, I must wake up early. In the timetable they prepared, it had all the tasks that I needed to complete, without any time to rest or meal times marked out.”
It took some negotiation before her employer agreed to let her start the day at 5.30am and include a couple of breaks throughout the day for her to catch a breather.
The punishing schedules and strict house rules that some domestic helpers have to adhere to have attracted attention recently.
In a report by Mothership in March, a timetable thought to belong to a domestic helper was discovered wedged in a public library book. It shocked Singaporeans as it was jam-packed with chores to be fulfilled. And earlier this month, another domestic helper complained in a Facebook group frequented by helpers based in Singapore that her employer had repeatedly pushed her curfew earlier.
Melody tells The Pride that these schedules and house rules supplied by employers are the norm for any domestic helper working here. And while most are usually within reasonable demands of a helper’s job scope, things get difficult when employers are excessively rigid or impose unrealistic expectations.
Describing her employer as “quite a perfectionist”, she described her routine to The Pride: “The floor needs to mopped every day, the children’s toys must be cleaned every week and all the curtains in the house need to be washed weekly because the children have allergies.”
All these are in addition to daily chores that include going to the market, preparing three meals for the family, other cleaning duties, looking after the kids and picking them up from school.
“There is so much work to do and not enough time. Sometimes, I’m so tired that I oversleep in the morning,” she sighed.
Another source of discontent is that at the point when she started working for her employer last year, the latter had not been upfront about having another child on the way, and the fact that the family lived in a large, double-story house.
Both factors, according to Melody, would have prompted her to think twice before signing the contract.
In response to queries from Mothership, the Ministry of Manpower reminded employers to be transparent with prospective helpers about the kind of work they were expected to do, especially for duties that involve caring for the young, elderly or disabled.
And while it said that schedules can be helpful to domestic helpers, they should allow for sufficient food and rest, and that employers and their helpers should treat each other with respect and dignity to maintain a healthy working relationship.
All this is something that Rizza, a helper who has served three different employers in Singapore since arriving here in 2004, agrees with.
The 38-year-old Filipina felt that basic house rules, like not to bring outsiders into the home, were reasonable to have, but to abide by a fixed schedule rigidly could be too stifling.
Speaking to The Pride, she said: “It’s very tiring not just physically, but on an emotional level, too. It’s like the employer doesn’t trust you. When you have a timetable that tells you that you have 20 or 30 minutes to do this chore and that chore, and you’re expected to follow all of it step by step, we feel suffocated because it’s as though we are not trusted to take care of the household.”
Compared to many of her helper friends here, Rizza enjoys a close bond with her employers, who have come to treat her as family since she started working for them in 2009.
Their expectations have been simple from day one: Keep the house clean and take good care of our son.
No elaborate schedules, no spot checks, no curfews – as long as she gets her job done. Her employers also give her two days off in a week, the freedom to call her family whenever she wants, and access to their WiFi network so that in her downtime, she can indulge in her favourite Korean dramas and keep in touch with friends back home via messaging apps and Facebook.
At this point, if there are employers who are reading this and feeling scared that their helpers could go astray if they were given too much freedom, Rizza offers a different perspective: the care and freedom that her employer has given her have made her even more determined to keep them happy and do her job well.
This respect and thoughtfulness goes both ways, as she explained: “On my day off, I usually just stay at home, not because I don’t want to spend money, but because I feel most comfortable here. When I’m off, my employers don’t ask me to do anything or disturb me at all. In fact, they will even buy food for me.”
“And on my part, since I don’t have a curfew, sometimes I would stay out up to midnight, but I would always call them in advance to let them know that I will be late, so they do not worry.”
So perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we treat and scrutinise our live-in helpers and the workloads that we place on their shoulders, bearing in mind that they are thinking, feeling human beings – not robots to be held to perfectionist standards.
In Rizza’s words, the sign of a happy maid is one who stays with the same employer for many years. Being made to feel welcome and treated as family as she has been, it comes as no surprise that Rizza has not entertained thoughts of working for someone else.
She said: “It’s a give and take relationship between maids and employers. If an employer is nice to me, I would give it my best, 100 per cent. But if my employer is unkind, I won’t feel good, my heart gets heavy and that will affect my ability to do my job well.”