Domestic helper Syafieka Abobakr may only have been with her employer for a month, but their relationship is off to a great start.
On Feb 14, she wrote a heartwarming post about her employer on a Facebook forum for foreign domestic workers (FDW), calling her an “angel boss”.
“She really [treats] me more like her sister than her helper,” Syafieka wrote.
She continued in detail about the kindness of her employer, who buys her clothes online, gives her time and freedom to perform her daily prayers, and brings her along to hotel buffet meals, where she can eat to her heart’s content.
The majority of Facebook comments, left by fellow domestic helpers in Singapore, congratulated Syafieka on her good luck.
Norebas Casaña Jheng said: “You’re so lucky, sister… Treasure this kind of employer.” Ofelia Antolin added: “Thank God u found a gd employer.”
Going by the theme of these numerous comments, it seems to imply that the kindness of Syafieka’s employer is a rare thing in the FDW scene.
And that, frankly, is a tad worrying, especially with the spotlight on maid abuse cases in the last few months – most recently, with the sentencing of the married couple who forced their helper to perform acts of self-harm.
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According to the results of a 2017 survey, six out of 10 maids in Singapore are exploited by their employers, with the helpers citing bad living conditions, excessive working hours, deduction of salary and violence.
One of the sad realities for FDWs here is that they are sometimes seen as commodities – “bought” to provide a service – and, therefore, not afforded the dignity and humanity they deserve.
But in coming here to try and make a better life for themselves and their families back home, they have, in fact, made a huge sacrifice by leaving everything they know behind. Most of them also arrive alone, and may not have anyone to turn to if they need help or support.
So, how can we start treating our FDWs better?
That’s easy – we simply have to remember that they’re human beings, too, and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.
If you wish to go one step further, treat them like family. After all, with the time and effort they invest in looking after your needs and that of your family’s, they might as well be.
And, as with family, it’s normal to feel frustrated with them occasionally. That’s part and parcel of working and, especially, living with someone else.
It then goes without saying that employers and their helpers will sometimes have disagreements, with the former having to reprimand the latter from time to time.
My own Indonesian domestic helper, Tri, has been with us for over 20 years. In that time, she has, of course, made mistakes from time to time, especially in the beginning.
My mother would then reprimand her – kindly, but firmly.
She said: “If Tri made an honest mistake, like accidentally mixing a coloured sock with the whites, I will understand and forgive her,” she said. “After all, she didn’t mean it, and it would be unfair for me to scold her.”
“But if she was really in the wrong, I have to tell her that what she did upset me, and to try not to do it again.”
Thankfully, Tri is very good at her job, and hasn’t made many mistakes in the decades she has been with us. Although, my mother added, with a laugh: “She is getting quite forgetful in her old age!”
So if your helper makes a mistake, like scorching your favourite dress while ironing it, or accidentally breaking a teapot, there is no need to call them “stupid” or “useless”. And bear in mind it is unlawful to punish them by hitting them, or denying them food and rest.
No matter how angry you are, or how many times your helper messes up, it’s never OK to verbally – or worse, physically – abuse them.
A little patience, a motivating pep talk, or a stern rebuke would do just fine. In the worst-case scenario, there is always the option to send the helper back to the maid agency.
Of course, a good relationship between a helper and her employer boils down to chemistry as well.
It’s not always possible to create the almost sisterly relationship that Syafieka wrote about, but at the very least, there should be a level of mutual understanding and trust that can be developed between both parties with a little care and communication.
Yes, there have been cases where helpers do end up taking advantage of their employers’ trust. But instead of taking matters into your own hands – sometimes, literally – a better option would be to terminate their contract, or hand them over to the authorities.
Kindness helps cultivate rewarding relationships
Considering FDWs often live with, and work for, their employers for years, treating them well can go a long way towards building a close and fulfilling relationship for both parties.
In our case, Tri has cared for my younger sister and I since we were toddlers. It comes as no surprise then that she views us almost like her own children.
And to Tri, my mother is more like her friend or sister. Their relationship is what motivates Tri to work harder. “I care a lot about Ma’am,” she said. “So, I don’t want to disappoint her.”
When my family went through a rough patch a few years ago, Tri chose to renew her contract to stay in Singapore with us for a few more years. She stayed to offer us emotional support, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.
But now, with Tri’s aging mother, who is back in Indonesia, needing more care and supervision, Tri’s time in Singapore with us might soon be up.
“Although I want to go home soon to my own family, I find it so hard to leave you all,” Tri said.
“I will miss you when I go home,” she added with a sad smile.
And the feeling is mutual – I can’t imagine what life would be like without Tri. After all, I grew up with her by my side.
She isn’t just someone who is very close to us, like family. She is family.