During the circuit breaker, I had to send my foreign domestic worker home.

Umi had been with us for three years. She was our fifth domestic worker and came from Indonesia.

She was the one who was the closest to the family, mainly because when she joined us, the kids were older and could have a proper conversation and even banter with her (they call her “Auntie Umi”).

But sadly, last year, due to a family emergency, Umi had to go home. And we have been without a helper in the family since.

For many Singaporeans, hiring a foreign domestic worker (FDW) is not a luxury but a necessity.

Amid rising affluence, a prevalence of dual-income parents and a rapidly ageing population, Singapore families’ dependence on FDWs is here to stay.

And over the years, FDWs have become integral to the smooth running of many Singaporean households. They pick up after the children, fetch them from school, accompany their elderly charges to the hospital and keep homes tidy, among their many roles.

Especially for adults who work irregular hours, these domestic helpers’ presence at home is a boon. And, of course, they are relatively more affordable to employ than getting specialised home and eldercare services. Very often, they become part of the family.

FDWs taking care of elderly
Image source: Shutterstock/kuanch

Yet for all our positive interactions with our domestic helpers (and there are many) that often go unnoticed, there are the negative headlines that grab our attention.

On one hand, we hear tabloid tales of maids stealing stuff, being negligent or suffering from mental wellness issues that lead to abuse. Then there are the horror stories of what some inhumane employers do to their helpers, like the tragic fatal abuse of Myanmar maid Piang Ngaih Don.

And while there are many such cases that end up in court, there are also other headline-grabbers that, while not criminal in nature, are no less infuriating.

Recently I came across news that a certain Thomson Road condominium sent out a circular to its residents that domestic helpers were not allowed to use the recreational facilities within the premises. It stated that if any domestic helper was found in the recreational facilities without her employer, the resident would be evicted immediately.

I had to read it twice to confirm it was a condominium in Singapore. It was. It made my blood boil. It’s 2021, why are we treating our helpers like second-class citizens?

Indispensable part of the family?

Amah, FDW
An amah. Image source: The Thrifty Traveller

When I think about it, our FDWs today perform a very similar role to the amahs of yesteryear.

From the 1930s to 1970s, employing live-in help was the domain of expatriates and wealthy local employers.

That was the time when the legendary amahs or majie (literally “mother, sister” in Mandarin) came about. These women, hailing mostly from Guangdong province in China with their distinctive plaited hair and samfu comprising white blouse and black pants, were often regarded as respected figures and part of the family.

Most families gave their amahs the leeway to discipline the children, allowing them to function as another “parent”.

The environment changed when Singapore started to industrialise from the late 1960s and more women took up jobs in factories and offices. So the Government introduced the Foreign Domestic Servant Scheme in 1978, enabling women from neighbouring countries, including the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, to be employed as paid domestic help.

Our Auntie Umi

Kids doing homework
A typical evening when the kids were younger. Umi preparing dinner while the kids did their homework under the watchful eye of Rockie, our corgi. Image source: Karun S’Baram

When Auntie Umi joined us, the kids were 7 and 9 and starting to be very vocal. We made it clear to them that Umi will take on the role of a parent when we were not around. Thus they had to listen to her and respect her.

And that relationship grew. Although they called her Auntie, the kids connected with her and she with them (her petite statue could have contributed to that!) They had their own hand signals and inside jokes.

Even Rockie, our naughty corgi, would follow her everywhere. In fact, she was the only person that could give Rockie a bath without a fight.

The wife and I were happy with Umi. She was proactive and always knew what to do.

Over the years, the kids got closer to Umi. During Ramadan, the kids will “break fast” with her even though we had different faiths. This gave us a chance to talk to the kids about racial practices.

They really liked the idea of laying a mat in their rooms and waiting for the time to eat. Later on, Umi told us that the kids even joined in her family video calls to Indonesia.

All was good until the circuit breaker last year when Umi told us that her father, whom she is very close to, was seriously ill.

She couldn’t fly back to visit him and became depressed. My wife checked on her mental state and we gave her less work and more time to video call with her family.

A few months passed and her father was getting better. She was getting better. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Suddenly, one Sunday she came crying to my daughter and hugged her. She just got news that her father had died. We were all shocked. My wife and kids stayed close to her and kept her company. It was Phase 2 and travel was still restricted. It also meant additional costs and quarantine orders if she wanted to go.

We realised then that Umi had to go home. Her father had been taking care of her kids and her sisters. Within a week, we bid Umi a sad farewell and sent her home.

Difficult to find a replacement

Not only were we sad for Umi, the wife and I realised that we had to find another helper. Covid-19 had made it difficult to find a replacement. We had to wait in line.

At first, new helpers could not enter Singapore and we could only hope for a local transfer (Things have changed since). During the transition period, getting used to not having a helper was very hard.

Fortunately, I was still working from home, which meant I could cover some of the duties.

After three tiring months, we managed to get a transfer helper but she lasted for only one week. We found out that she only wanted a transfer because she wanted to go back home and her previous employer didn’t not allow it. Eventually, we decided to send her back as we did not want an unhappy helper.

We realised that replacing Auntie Umi was nigh impossible. So right now, we’re on Plan B.

We had a family discussion (with Rockie in tow, as everyone had to play a part). We told the kids that we will not be getting a new helper and that we all had to take on responsibilities. Thankfully everyone was on board with the plan.

Corgi with sock in mouth
Rockie the corgi helping out by bringing the kids’ socks to them… or not. Image source: Karun S’Baram

Now, my daughter, who is 12, helps to get her 10-year-old brother ready for school in the morning. Even Rockie helps by grabbing their socks for them!

We bought an all-in-one cooking appliance that is safe and easy to use. We taught the kids to use it to cook some easy meals for lunch if we were not around because of work. We also taught them to use delivery apps to order food.

Yes, there were a couple of misadventures, like missing the school bus in the morning and some heavily overcooked food – but it was all part of the experience. It also became a family bonding session to recount the shenanigans of the past week.

It has been eight months now and we are doing fine. Doing household chores have taught the children to be independent and self-reliant. For example, they now know how to wash their clothes, fold them and put them away.

All these the kids excitedly tell Umi, whom they keep in touch with via social media. They still hope she can return to visit us one day.

Treating our domestic helpers like family

A 2015 study by migrant advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) found that about 24 per cent of domestic helpers in Singapore suffer from poor mental health. That’s one in every four domestic helpers who live with us and are depending on us for their welfare.

We need to consider that our FDWs may face difficulties. It’s very important to have open and clear communication channels. Yes, it is difficult, but we need to try.

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After five helpers over 11 years, my wife and I have discovered several lessons:

Never compare them to the previous domestic helper: We cannot expect the same from every helper. Everyone is unique and would do things their own way.

They have a family of their own too: Many have left their dear ones to seek a better life for their families. Let your helper re-connect with their families whenever possible. Talk to them and create a safe space for them to share any concerns or put them in touch with organisations who can support them.

They are human, just like us: Above all, be kind. Be patient and understand that everyone makes mistakes. Just like how we are with our kids, we should give them time to learn and play to their strengths. Then we can be clear on their priorities.

Instead of telling them what to do, discuss with them on how they think it should be done.

It’s important to treat them with respect, so they will in return treat our homes and our children as their own as well.

I am lucky to be blessed with helpers who have treated my kids with love and care. And even though Auntie Umi had to leave, in leaving, she gave my kids a final lesson on independence and responsibility.

I like that we are still keeping in touch with her. Just like a family member.

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