Singapore is home to almost half a million low-wage foreign workers, including domestic helpers and construction workers.
And while they build our homes and tend to our households for a living, Singaporeans have sometimes held less than welcoming attitudes towards affording them public spaces to socialise on their off days.
But a recent post shared on a Facebook page popular with FDWs working in Singapore has shone the light on another perspective that comes from the workers themselves.
Eliz Morante Dominggo Llanillo was making her way to Orchard Road for a health check-up last weekend, when the taxi driver began to make small talk with her.
Upon discovering that Llanillo was a foreign domestic helper, the driver asked: “Why do helpers like to sit on the sidewalks by the roads?
“I see them sleeping on the grass and having picnics under the sun. Isn’t it hot? Don’t you feel tired? I know you work the whole week, but why not stay at home and rest instead of just sitting and chit chatting by the road when you’re outside?”
Llanillo shared her account and asked others how they would have answered the driver if they were in her shoes.
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In her post, she spoke of her certainty that the taxi driver was not the only one to be thinking this way about FDWs here. She also shared what she had said to the driver: “I told her, ‘Auntie, I can only answer for myself. I like to have picnics sometimes… I prefer to stay in one place and talk to my friends without spending much.”
The post has since attracted a flood of comments.
One user alluded to the loneliness that FDWs face working in Singapore, as she wrote: “So simple, it’s just because only off days we can have time to see friends and mingle with them.”
A few others pointed out that a day off spent at home isn’t always restful.
“I prefer to stay at home and rest… (but) if you are in your employer’s house, they will ask you to do something. So you don’t get to rest.”
Another wrote: “I will tell her that I can’t rest at home because even on my off day, there are noisy children playing at home. It’s also very uncomfortable because my boss will be in the kitchen cooking and baking, so I can’t sleep at all.”
And then, there is the social aspect of these public gatherings that onlookers may overlook.
One Lynnrhey Nudalo wrote: It’s our way to unwind, and shake off the stress that accumulated over the week. Sitting on the roadside and talking rather than staying at home is beneficial for us because we get to see a different kind of surroundings.”
Another user chimed in: “Being with our friends is not tiring at all. Wherever it is, how much we spent that day, how long we walked, how long we sat in the same place… We don’t mind it because only the happiness we shared is the most important.”
So the next time you feel uncomfortable as an onlooker for being inconvenienced by large groups of foreign workers congregating at public parks and even outside malls, you may want to try taking a kinder view of the situation.
After all, a large majority of them are law-abiding and are simply looking for an opportunity to socialise with like-minded friends. Many also work alone and spend long hours indoors within their employers’ homes.
The inconvenience you face will be fleeting, but to many of these foreigners, that afternoon will be the only precious few hours in the week that they are able to feel some semblance of home and friendship.