Four hours – that was all she slept each night.
At 5.30am, her workday would start.
For the next 20-odd hours, Lily (not her real name), a maid in Singapore, would toil doggedly through the near insurmountable list of chores given to her.
Only after completing all her tasks would she be allowed to rest for the night. Given her huge workload, this often meant sleeping at around 1.30am.
Wash, rinse, and repeat – all seven days of the week.
However, a lack of sleep, and the resulting fatigue, were not the only issues Lily had to contend with.
Verbal – often vulgar – abuse, poor nutrition and emotional trauma were par for the course for the Filipino during her two-year stint with her former employers.
At the end of her contract, Lily had grown gaunt and haggard, with eye bags and pimples prominent on her sallow face.
More maids leaving their employers early
Unfortunately, ordeals like the one Lily went through are not unheard of for maids in Singapore.
And this could be part of the reason there appears to be a rising trend of maids leaving their employers prematurely – a recent news report by The New Paper quoted a statistic from the Ministry of Manpower which showed that about 53 per cent of maids did not complete a full year in a single household.
A spokesperson from the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a registered charity dedicated to assisting foreign workers in Singapore, told The Pride that this figure is indicative of the low quality of life most maids here have.
“This figure is a concern for us. Such high attrition rates show that we are not doing enough to provide sufficient protection and incentives for domestic workers to stay on the job,” the spokesperson explained.
“Long working hours without days off, inadequate rest, restrictions on mobile phone use, inadequate food and lack of opportunities to socialise have a negative impact on the physical and mental health of domestic workers.
“Being scolded and subject to verbal abuse and intrusive surveillance is also a cause of stress for many. These factors make it difficult for them to stay on the job.”
In Lily’s case, her employers – a family of four – would also not grant her rest even when she was sick.
Instead, they would accuse her of feigning illness and would force her to continue working without giving her any medication.
“They would say I’m pretending to be sick and just trying to get out of work because I’m lazy,” Lily, 30, told The Pride. “They won’t allow me to rest and won’t even give me Panadol as they say it’s ‘not free’. So, in the end, I’ll have to go and buy my own Panadol or I’ll be in pain the whole day.
“For food as well, they would provide me with very little as they say it’s expensive. Often, they would give me whatever leftovers they had from their own meals.
“One day, I just took one slice of bread from them for my breakfast and got scolded for eating too much. In the end, I decided to buy my own meals…at least then I won’t go hungry.”
Working under such conditions, Lily would frequently end the day huddled in a corner of her room in tears.
“I wasn’t happy at all and I cried almost every day,” said Lily. “Many times, I wanted to give up, but I had no money to go home. The first thing in my mind was survival, so I tried really hard to tolerate them. I pretended to be happy, and I would still be respectful to my employers no matter what they said or did.”
Nonetheless, it was only a matter of months before she submitted a request to her agent to be transferred out.
But her former employers made it difficult for the transfer to go through and Lily eventually had no choice but to endure and fulfil the full two years of her contract before being allowed to leave.
Maids need to feel appreciated
However, forcing an unhappy maid to stay on to work, as Lily’s employers did, is far from the ideal situation.
Instead, HOME recommends that employers learn to build a positive working relationship with their maids.
This could be done by simply making them “feel valued and respected”.
“Employers should learn effective management techniques to improve their relationships with domestic workers,” HOME’s spokesperson said. “By this, we do not mean control strategies that subjugate workers, but strategies employed by human resource professionals that seek to improve employer-employee relations, and which emphasise on valuing employees and improving communication.
“Employers should also familiarise themselves with regulations and guidelines on domestic workers in Singapore and ensure they do not exploit the asymmetries in bargaining power.
“Workers are more likely to stay on their jobs when they feel valued and respected. This can only happen when we uphold their basic labour rights, provide for their welfare and communicate with them respectfully.”
Maids, agencies have a role to play too
Employers, however, are not always to blame for the high turnover rate of maids in Singapore.
Maids, too, have a part to play in ensuring a good working relationship with their employers.
Betty Teo, a manager at a chemicals company, recounted to The Pride that over the span of 15 years, she has had to send two maids – out of a total of four that she hired – back prematurely as they were unsuitable for the job.
“We had a maid who suffered from some health issues when she came…she was physically very weak and would suffer from random blackouts,” the 53-year-old recalled.
“This was an issue for us because we were entrusting her to look after our child, who was back then still a toddler.
“Mentally, too, she wasn’t prepared to work overseas. She missed her children and was distraught at having to leave them. We decided to send her home after just two months…but as she had not saved enough money to pay the agent back, we helped her settle her debt so she could go back with peace of mind without owing anything.”
The next maid Teo and her family hired was better, and completed the full two-year length of the contract.
However, those two years saw Teo face her fair share of challenges in handling the maid as well.
In this instance, it came in the form of dishonesty and theft.
“In many respects, she was very good for us…she was excellent in taking care of our children and was very courteous and respectful,” Teo said.
“But towards the end of her contract, we began to realise that our money began disappearing. When we confronted her, she admitted to stealing, apologised profusely and returned the money.
“We didn’t take further action, but we told her to take this as a lesson because other employers may choose to report such matters to the police. I think she was very grateful to us for that, because every year thereafter she would call us during the Christmas period to say hello.”
Another maid that Teo hired simply refused to do any work as she was unprepared for the job.
“It was just her first day, and when I came back home after work, I saw her lying flat on the floor refusing to move,” Teo said. “It’s quite troublesome and costly for us when things like that happen, because we have to bear the cost of paying her salary until the process for her to leave was completed.”
HOME believes issues like the ones that Teo faced can be avoided if maid agencies had better recruitment and training procedures.
“Agencies should be trained on the selection and recruitment process (of maids),” HOME’s spokesperson said. “Agencies should also receive training on how to prepare domestic workers for work in Singaporean households.
“In addition, domestic workers need to have more decision-making power in order to negotiate for better terms and conditions.
“Agencies must also remember that they are serving two clients: employers as well as domestic workers, and that finding a suitable fit does not mean only meeting the employers’ demands but also the domestic workers’ requests.”
Respect, kindness the keys to happy maids and employers
Understandably, hiring a maid – essentially an invitation for a complete stranger to live and work in your household – will have a huge impact on your life.
But it need not be a negative experience for either party. Indeed, many maids and their employers have gone on to establish a strong and positive personal relationship with each other as well.
And ultimately, the key to that is for both parties to treat each other with respect, gentleness and graciousness.
It is a mantra that Lily, who has been happily working for another employer for over a year now, firmly subscribes to.
“My advice is for maids to be respectful…we must show our employers love and care, and respect them,” she said. “We have to be grateful to our employers for taking care of us as well, because it is not easy for them. So, we have to do our best to make their lives better, too.
“And if you are ever in a situation as I was, try and seek help. But always remember to trust in yourself and remain confident…don’t let nasty words get you down. You will not stay in that house forever after all, and eventually your pain will pass. Like for me, God has given me very good employers now.”
Teo added that it was the responsibility of employers to ensure their maids are properly taken care of.
“You’ve got to treat them like how you would treat your own family,” Teo said. “Give them a room of their own if you can, because everyone would like their own privacy. Don’t restrict their food intake, treat them with respect and ensure your whole household is nice to them.
“When you look after them well, they will do the same for you and your family. It is a two-way street, and we as employers must play our part by ensuring that our maids are well taken care of.”
Treating our maids with the respect and care they deserve – now, that’s not too much of a chore, is it?