What the maids and foreign workers get up to AND why I’m not appalled

Photo Credit:
Jeremy Brooks, whirljack.net

I’ve been mooning about quite abit in our neighbourhood park recently.There was the mid-Autumn blog series and my looking for inspiration from  the trees, the fresh air and of course the moon. And then there was my grand-dog, whom we get to dog sit whenever my daughter and son-in-law are away. Both imperatives necessitated lots of  circumnavigation around our park.

We live in one of those decidedly middle class estates where there’s a mix of HDB flats at the fringe, and then private condominiums, terrace and semi-detached houses and modest 10,000 square feet bungalows further in. The area was first occupied by university lecturers and professionals who are now being replaced by bankers with adolescent children, flush with cash.

Our estate’s Construction Central

The new buyers invariably tear down the perfectly good 2,000 square feet 2 storey 1960’s house they’ve purchased to put up a post-modern 4,000 foot  3 1/2  storey high edifice with a lap pool and roof deck. On our short stretch of street, 10 houses long, we’ve seen 3 houses torn down and rebuilt in the last 12 months. I’d say, within the estates’ 2 square kilometers, we currently have at least 10 construction projects. That’s a lot of construction workers coming in and out of the area, and sleeping over at their worksites. Healthy young men with muscles from Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia.

We’ve a whole community of home helpers

Being a middle class neighbourhood, almost every family has at least one home helper. We’ve got at least six hundred families living here, I’d estimate. That’s a lot of home helpers. Young women from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, Myanmar, alone and far away from home.

Our park is Hookup Hub

The park nearest my house is just off the main access road. It’s the size of a football field, with shady trees, benches, and picnic tables. It’s reasonably lighted at night, but not too bright. It’s HookUp Hub for all the migrant workers in the vicinity.

The park has its diurnal rhythm. In the early morning, the old ladies come out for tai-chi, followed a little later by the maids with their dogs. It’s pretty much empty through the hot hours. But at four the children flood onto the swings and climbing equipment, their nannies, grandma’s and granddad’s with them. The wheelchairs are out then too, their helpers pushing along.

The park’s empty again at dinner time. And then…

Between eight to nine, that’s my time in the park. Also other middle-aged people who want to get an after dinner stroll in before going back to their televisions and computers. But gradually, as we move towards nine, the men appear. They’re alone or in pairs. They lounge on the benches, playing with their mobile phones, chatting in Bengali or Burmese or Indonesian. Invariably smoking. Then, done with the after dinner washing up, the maids arrive. They’re usually by themselves, with a gigantic dog on a leash. They congregate at the tables and around the swings and slides with their friends. They laugh and talk loudly, teasing in Tagalog and Indonesian. Sooner or later, the men begin to sidle up to fringes of the conversation. Soon, they’re chatting in broken English, their only common tongue.

There’s a little cluster of three Indonesian women and a Bengali man. He brings his meals onto the children’s tree house and eats his evening meal there. The girls, Filipino, hang around – one on the swing, another at the bottom of the slide, one up in the tree house her legs dangling out. I wonder which one our lucky chap will finally choose. Or, will he say in true egalitarian fashion, I’ll marry all three.

Then there’s the girl with the yellow dog who seems to walk out of the park with a different man every time I see her. She’s doesn’t seem particular. Golden, brown or mahogany, tall or short.  I wonder if she’s doing a business. Or if she just hasn’t found Mr. Right.

Why I’m not appalled

I can imagine many of you snorting as you read this. Saying, “So there! You see! No wonder we need to keep our maids shut in, cloistered. Just in case, they catch Aids, or a baby, or worst still runs away with one of these unsavoury men. Most horrible of all, end up bashed to death after a lover’s tiff or found floating face down in a water tank. It’s how things begin, with the smallest loosening of restrictions. And before we know it, there’s a pile of big trouble and we’re on our way to losing our 5,000 maid deposit.”

I’m not appalled though. I find what’s happening in the park charming, albeit very sad too.

All this glancing and prancing about just shows how you can’t keep that buzz between men and women down, no matter what we legislate. The park overflows with male and female pheromones. And that’s as natural as can be.

The problem isn’t that men are coming out to look for women. That women are waiting to be picked up. The problem’s that poor men and poor women are forced to leave their families to look for work far from home and their own people. The problem is we pretend we can suppress these natural urges and we refuse to talke about them with our domestic help. The problem’s that we leave our domestic help  so little time for leisure and for expression, they’re forced to seek it on the sly.

Our helpers have every week-end off. I have no idea what they get up to on the week-end and I don’t care. As long as they’re back by ten., and get up to make breakfast and send the children off to school on time. They know adn I remind them every so often if they want to continue working in Singapore, to continue to send money home, no pregnancies please, no STD’s. That’s the law. If they want to continue working for me, please don’t bring your problems into the house. My home is your workplace, please be professional.

But everyone needs a place of their own. My helper’s bedroom belongs to them, I don’t go in and sneak around. Although I won’t have their visitors in my house, after work’s done, they can talk as long as they like on the phone to whomever they like. It’s a private place and a set aside time for them to have a meltdown if they need one. They can pick over their lives on the weekend, over the phone when work is done. That’s how it should be.

After all I’m not their friend, I’m not their mother, I’m not their caretaker. I’m their employer.

And as for that matter of AIDS

I mentioned the goings on in the park to one of our helpers. “The girl with the yellow dog, isn’t she afraid of getting HIV?” I wondered.

“Ah Ma’am,” she said with a smile, “all foreign workers get tested every six months. It’s safer than sleeping with your own husband back at home.”

Helpers are humans. They’re adults. We can’t treat them like half-grown children. In the same way we’re not going to let our daughters out into the wild wild world without “that conversation” its up to us to have “that talk” with the help. It’s up to us give back the responsibility for their sex lives to them.

Otherwise, we’re just going to wring our hands and dither. And the park around the corner will remain HookUp Hub.

Am I just a naive fool? What do you think? Leave a comment!

7 Responses to “What the maids and foreign workers get up to AND why I’m not appalled”
  1. This was a fascinating look at the lives of migrant workers in Singapore. I too think it is, at least, touching and, in some ways, sad. I wish that no one had to be in poverty to such a degree that they had to leave their families and friends to seek work elsewhere. Some, of course, want to go. But for others the choices are all grim. Thanks for writing about this.

    • oddznns says:

      I’m already talking high end here. Some household helpers not only don’t have days off. They’re not even allowed out unaccompanied, ever. The government’s just put in place a new regulation, where domestic workers must have a day off a week. But they don’t have to “take” it, they can be paid more “in lieu”. I’m wondering how many intimidated maids there are out there who won’t take their day off. The debate about the one day off was fascinating, with many many people lobbying AGAINST the move. It seemed, they just could not manage without someone to help even one day a week. Some claimed, they needed the weekend to rest, to bond with their children. Their weekday lives were so stressful. I’m not saying life in Singapore isn’t stressful. But, come off it! A lot of bonding can happen while washing dishes, ironing, doing the yard, taking poor old wheelchair bound grandma out for a walk in the park together. Anyway… life is not kind for most foreign workers. Not just in Singapore, but almost everywhere. Sad. Yes.

      • I can see both points of view here as we live in Bangladesh and have maids working for us six days a week. For us, the professional/private line is blurred as we consider them and their village to be family and sometimes on the day off my family and I go visit them in their village! But we manage a happy and close working life together and we are very, very grateful for their help in keeping the house running.

        I can’t imagine the same kind of people having to work in a foreign country. I know they would be scared and feel isolated and if the laws of the land don’t protect them well then it must be an awful existence. From what you write, it sounds like colonial thinking is still alive and well with some people who just don’t seem to know how well off they are if they can’t manage without hired help even for a day! I’m fairly certain that is called slavery!

  2. C says:

    Hear, hear! A very eloquently written piece, thank you. I find some Singaporeans’ mentality that domestic workers are merely a sub-class of human, repulsive. They are PEOPLE; they have hopes and dreams, fears and worries just like everyone else. The fact that they’ve chosen minimum wage jobs in a foreign country so far from their home country is a testament to their grim situations. Therefore, for them to find comfort, sexual or otherwise, is a very human compulsion. Many don’t understand just how ostracized they are, how alone they find themselves.

    People complain that there is too great an influx of foreign workers in Singapore but truth be told, it’s not like many of them want to be here. There are simply certain jobs some Singaporeans won’t do and to fill up these empty spots in the economy, one must bring in foreigners.

    In conclusion, I say what these domestic workers do in their free time (assuming they get any), is not any of our concern and we should leave them be. Put yourself in their shoes; do you really want YOUR boss hounding you about what or who you’re going to be doing this weekend? I think not.

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