Plights

On being a migrant worker in Singapore

Xiao Yuan and Loida Arevalo

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

Much is being made of the "influx of foreigners" as we in Singapore approach the General Elections. In a year where discussion will be dominated by shallow arguments of economic necessity and simplistic soundbites about "integration" and "diversity", the life-story interviews with transient workers collected by Migrant Voices offer an opportunity for more thoughtful reflection on the larger issues surrounding the question itself, and more importantly, on the larger forces shaping our view of the kind of society we want.

Notwithstanding the public outcry, the recent case of the military serviceman caught on camera with his maid carrying his fieldpack merely laid bare what had long been a central but tacitly unacknowledged fact of life in Singapore: our "economic miracle" is built on the backs of cheap semi-skilled and unskilled labourers conscripted from poorer countries around us. The accusation and my use of the verb "conscript" – to force into service – will strike many as outrageous and absurd. Here, the story goes, we enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with our indentured Asian workforce: we allow them to enjoy a better standard of life than back home, while they help us keep labour and living costs down and make the country "a good place to do business." And after all, they came here of their own free will!

These life-stories offer a salutary reminder of how staggeringly ignorant these assumptions are, and how profoundly disconnected from reality. The interviews demolish the myth that economic growth can be had without the exploitative extraction of labour. What appears from our perspective a shining paradise of unfettered choice and opportunity is, from an Indonesian or Bangladeshi viewpoint, only the purgatorial gloom of peonage and the poverty trap.

At issue is not simply that migrant workers should be treated more fairly, but that they are here for reasons that contradict much of official propaganda on the virtues of global capitalism and the Singapore success story. For example, we are often told that we need cheap foreign labour to grow the economy and create jobs, but how do we explain the fact that in the very decade when that has become readily available, class divisions and income inequality have surfaced with a vengeance? And how does the state account for its sacred principle of "self-reliance" and getting the unemployed back to work when it seeks at the same time to depress wages with indentured foreign labour? How do we weigh our smug claims about being an open and cosmopolitan society against the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers ghettoised and made invisible within our borders? Equally how do we reconcile the dynamic "rise of Asia" with the exploitation of millions of men and women from South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, many of whom work in the Middle East and Singapore?

We are not dealing, in other words, with a problem that would be solved if migrant workers were to miraculously disappear from our shores. We need to start acknowledging that the disenfranchisement of working Singaporeans shares much in common with the disempowerment of foreign workers. Both have their shared origins in the global concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands, and the fact that elected governments have become virtual proxies for multinational corporate interests. This collusion was illustrated quite unself-consciously by Lee Hsien Loong in a recent televised forum, where he declared that 'the competition [facing Singaporeans] isn't the foreigner who might be here, it's the millions of foreigners in the other places and they're competing with us whether we like it or not.' What the life-stories show is that "the millions" which Lee counts us amongst do not constitute a "free market" as much as a global prison of unequal exchange. The hostility borne by state and corporate power toward human labour and agency cannot be effectively resisted unless we look beyond what is narrowly defined as Singaporean, and find new forms of solidarity whilst breaking from existing models of power and privilege.

It is in this broader setting that the value of the archive of migrant worker oral histories should be understood. Here it is worth remarking on the differences between an official discourse that has strenuously claimed the representation of migrant workers for its own, and the actually existing voices of the workers that have been documented in the archive. To commemorate International Migrants' Day on 18th December 2010, the Straits Times published a special report on "Model Migrants", which featured four foreign workers who were given a glamour makeover and answered a short interview. The article's straplines instruct us on how the report was conceived, and how it was meant to be consumed: "On home ground"; "She built her parents a new house"; "Labouring on in hopes of a better life"; and "Reaching for the stars". The kaleidoscopic variation and messiness of discrete, individual lives are distilled into an ideological vision, a mythology, of what we expect from migrant workers in Singapore: study, save up, live disciplined lives. By simultaneously marking them out as cheap unskilled labour (that is after all the objective of the report) and yet ensuring conformity to the dominant middle-class model of success (as upwardly mobile young urban professionals), this "special issue" tells us a great deal about the complacency and authoritarian condescension of officially sanctioned attitudes to migrant labour.

So, I would like to conclude by emphasising the fragility of these life-narratives given the landscape of our malaise, so to speak. The Antiguan writer, Jamaica Kincaid, once described learning as a process which leads "people to a different relationship with the world, a more demanding relationship" based on "knowing why they are the way they are, why they do the things they do, why they live the way they live, why the things happened to them happened." Indeed it is difficult, if not impossible, to attempt to apprehend in fullness the experiences of migrant workers without also moving quite involuntarily into a process of self-examination. There is something about their worldliness and introspection that calls on the reader and listener to match it. In giving voice to freedom, dignity, creativity, and other fundamental human qualities which may be fully realised in a better society, they issue a standing reproach to the circular and self-enclosed mythologisation that is the Singaporean Dream.

—Ong Sheng Pei, Migrant Voices





Xiao Yuan

People's Republic of China (Jiangsu province) / 38 / Carpenter in construction



I am from Jiang Su, China. I work in construction.



This picture was taken to make my identity card in China. I can show it to you. It's in my luggage or somewhere.



(Laughter.)



It's okay. What do you think? (Laughter.)



I think it's okay. It was taken in the winter. When I went home, I got a haircut and straightened my hair out because it is a little curly.



I used to have longer hair but I don't have pictures of that here. In the first picture I had recently trimmed it short. But when I first came to Singapore, my hair was so long I could tie it up. People thought I was Thai.



Yes, I used to be fair. I used to take care of my skin. Let me tell you: I'm an unusual case at construction worksites. When I came to Singapore, I brought with me a huge straw hat. I would wear the safety helmet and then place the straw hat over it to protect my complexion. That's how I am. And my hair—I would trim it, but not cut it, so that it would remain long. People say that it's too hot, but I think it's okay. I would often tie it up.



That's strange. Maybe it's because I wanted to protect my looks, my skin. Maybe. I don't want the sun to beat down on my skin and turn me too dark. (Laughter.) I think if I turn too dark, I will look older.



I didn't come here to earn lots of money. I am more mature now. At the time I was just curious. It's the same working anyway. Back home I have to work; overseas I have to work too. I wanted to know what it's like outside of China. How different the outside is from China. When I first left the country I remember thinking that I must be dreaming. Since I have the chance, I must go and explore the outside and see what it's like.  I came here with these kinds of thoughts.



My parents didn't understand and they didn't really agree with my decision. They think it's easy enough to survive in China. At home, I am the youngest in the family. I have an older brother. My family has never been overseas and they were worried for me. My wife was okay with the idea. She said, you can work and at the same time see what it's like outside, how people live there.



I was twenty the first time I went abroad to work.



Yes, I definitely can't stay at home all the time! Actually, my relationship with my family is not bad.  We have a child at home, so I would like us to talk more often. Still, my family is not bad. We are not all that polite at home.



Singapore is a good place. Back home, my family can get by well enough. We are not rich, but we have some to spare. Singapore is not bad place. It's a country that has laws. I can give a few examples. Firstly, the surroundings are much better here than in other places. When you walk out of your house, you see that the public roads and even the small alleys are very clean. Back home, it's not as clean. It is very convenient to move around here. Sometimes, even when it rains, there is no need to use the umbrella. This is a good thing. The law here is just, unlike China where bribery is everywhere. The bosses rule the world there. They use money to bribe people; black is easily turned to white. Something that isn't your fault may turn into something that is. It's no use trying to sue them. But in Singapore, it's not like that. If your boss has money and uses it in ways that people in China do—it just wouldn't work here. I have experienced it with my work injury case. My boss used unethical tactics and I told him, "This isn't China; this is Singapore. I know some of the laws here. Don't think that you can do whatever you want just because you are the boss. You can't do that here." With this work injury case, I have really experienced what it is like and understood this about Singapore.



I had no place to go. I met a Singaporean who told me that there is a place I could go to for help. And that's how I came here. My company did not care for me. I became homeless, like a beggar, because nobody cared about me. So I came to Healthserve Clinic.



I thought about it like this. Singaporeans did not cause this incident. The construction company that I worked for is from China. The boss is Chinese. Maybe he's a permanent resident in Singapore. He was able to live here for some time and managed to get permanent residency. I know that he is originally from China. In fact, he's from the same city as I was, Haimen Shi. So I understood him well. That was why I told him that he shouldn't use unscrupulous ways against his workers. I told him to his face.



Yes, I did go to the hospital. My boss told me, "You should go back to China. If you don't want to go home, you are on your own. If you want to return to the company hostel and canteen, you'll have to pay for food and lodging." I said, "You're making it difficult for me. You know that I was injured and that I couldn't work. Why are you still asking me to pay?" He said, "Okay, then you should go home." He really wanted me to return to China and tried to get me to go back two or three times. I said, "That's impossible. I am young, and because of work, my leg is now badly injured. How can I go back with this handicap? It's impossible, absolutely impossible." This is not so nice but I told him, "Even if a person dies, he should die justified." If this case isn't properly dealt with, I won't go home. I told him to his face. I am telling the truth. I will  only do this through the proper channels. I don't sneak around and do illegal things. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) told me to ask for my medical leave pay from the company. We [the boss and Xiao Yuan] argued and he called the police. He called the police, not me. I said, "Okay, you call the police. I'm not afraid. I won't run away." I told him, "I more or less know the law in Singapore. I'm not scared. This isn't China where the boss can tell the worker to do whatever. You can't do that here. Call the police. I won't run, even if it takes them half an hour to get here."



He called because I asked him for my medical leave salary. He told me, "Impossible, who asked for it?" And I said, "MOM did. MOM told me to come here." When the police came, I said, "The police is here. Give me my medical leave salary right here in front of them. If you still don't believe me, we will go to MOM together. You, me and the police officer." MOM told me to get my medical leave pay. They said that I could get the money as long as I had a medical certificate.



It was 4 months. I was at the hospital for 12 days. The boss didn't care. He discharged me a day after I had my operation.



I was on crutches. Nobody cared. The negotiations this time round, they disagreed. This means they contested the assessment points of my workman compensation—the amount of compensation that I should get. If it was successful, I would have gotten my compensation in a few days. But on the 28th, when we went there to discuss it, the insurance company disagreed with the outcome. 11 points. We discussed and they said we'll think of something else. MOM said that if you disagree there must be a reason. But they don't seem to have a reason. MOM said if they don't get back to us, it will arrange a meeting time for both parties to negotiate again.



Yes.



I don't know. I think he has no authority to. I don't actually know. MOM's information was that the insurance company disagreed. So this means that the case will be prolonged and I will be here for a longer time. But I'm not scared.



Human beings have to survive. It's not just one or two days. MOM said before that it would be a long process. It could take from half a year to over a year. But in the meantime I would have to find a way to survive. MOM could not house me. I used to live in Toa Payoh. But my boss tried to repatriate me two or three times. So I went to a Police Post at Toa Payoh to make a report. I told the police officer that my boss tried to repatriate me illegally. The police officer told me I had to find a way to survive. I said that although I had friends, they had their lives and I couldn't rely on them all the time. So the police officer told me that there are some shelters in Singapore and that I could ask them for help. I asked him where and he suggested that I could go to some temples. So I left the hostel.At first I would sleep at home [the hostel] or at the construction site or somewhere around Toa Payoh. My health wasn't good. I would think a lot and I would have headaches. I would have high fevers – twice at Toa Payoh, 39-40 degrees. Wah, I didn't even look human then. Someone at the hostel suggested I leave. He said that before, I could work. But now I can't work, I am often sick and I don't eat well. It's like I'm no longer human. After listening to the advice of the people in the hostel, and the suggestion of the police officer, I decided to leave. What's the use if I stay on in the hostel and fall ill? I might get my compensation, but if I fall ill who will settle my case? It could destroy my life. That's what I thought. So I decided to leave. It was a really painful time for me. It was an experience that I won't forget. Sometimes I think too much. When I was alone sleeping there I would think a lot and I wanted to write it all down.



This was the most unforgettable experience of my whole life. People might say to me, this isn't your first time in Singapore. Even though I have been here a few times, the living experience is different each time. You see, this time I have fallen badly. People think that because this is my third time here, I shouldn't have any frustrations or hardship. But these kinds of things often happen. In reality, from the bottom of my heart, I don't blame or harbour any hatred towards Singapore. My misfortune is because of my boss. If my boss had reported my work injury, these things would not have happened. I would have remained in his company. But he did not try to help me. He just kicked me out. So I had no choice. I have asked your government for help, i.e. MOM. MOM can't house me. I have to settle this problem myself. MOM said they couldn't house me nor feed me because they are a government. They said I have to go out and rely on my friends or find other ways. Let me tell you, I have tried picking up paper boxes. Sometimes I have no food to eat. I have no more ideas. Before I came to Healthserve, I was walking up and down along this road and saw some people praying. At first I didn't, but now I believe in God. Somehow this seems to clash with the Buddhist temple. But at the time I didn't think about this. I just needed to survive, so I went to the temple. Two kind-hearted monks saw me sleeping at the temple and asked what had happened. They then gave me some food. I was like a beggar.



Oh no. Until December 4, my case has been going on for 8 months.



Yes. People have to eat. You can't just cut me off because I am injured.





Loida Arevalo
Philippines / 38 / Domestic Worker



I'm 38 years old. I'm still single and looking for someone. No attachment, I'm not committed to anyone . . . In terms of family background, well, I'm the eldest among my siblings and then I finished elementary school in my mother's province, until high school, and then during my college days I moved to my father's province because, well, they separated.  I stayed there until I graduated.  Then I taught in the Philippines for almost four years in a private school because I was 'under board'.



No, no, it was in the province.  Binalbagan Catholic College, but our school was active in whatever organizations—as in advocacy organizations.  Then I became a member of the League of Filipino Students, which is an activist student organization—



LFS, I became a member . . . every time we elected officers yearly I was part of the propaganda movement. I was always involved in organizations.  During the summer, I had friends who would join NGOs in Binalbagan and somewhere in Negros.  They would take me as a volunteer worker.   During elections, the NGOs in Bacolod would organize a group and I would join them.  For example, the People's Movement for Electoral Reform.  That is another organization that mobilises during stunt elections, because there are a lot of Filipinos who just vote.  They don't know who they should vote for, how to vote, and how to pick candidates that are . . . ah . . . genuine.  Because, you see, there are two types of candidates, namely Guapo (Genuine Politician) or Trapo (Traditional Politician).  We would explain the difference, especially in the provinces.  One thing we explained is that hopefully they won't be lured by vote buying and we explained what the consequences are, the advantages and disadvantages of those things.  And then when there were no elections—of course elections don't happen yearly—we would go to the farms.  I became a volunteer of the Negros Council for Peace and Development, what they call NCPD.  I became a volunteer for that, we would go to remote areas and we would teach literacy and numeracy.  It happens every summer.  Sometimes when there are activities, for example, on May 1, Labor Day, I would be there with DALO, the Democratic Alliance for Labor Organizations.  I would participate in that, I would join in whatever pleas workers had for the government that were not being granted.



This was . . . ah . . . 1992, '93 until the '95 campaigns—



The president at the time was Erap [Estrada], no, before Erap sat, it was the time of—



Yes, of Fidel, of Fidel Valdez Ramos.  The movements wanted to change the Philippine Constitution or Cha-Cha [Charter Change]. We were on the streets for almost a week doing noise barrage.  We were doing many different things, because at the time I was already teaching in a private school. I'd just started.  Those were my activities until, of course, I began teaching.  When I started teaching, it was in a Catholic school, so sometimes the priests would have moves, depending on what the government called for or whatever the government asked and the people are against, we would support and operate—I was still involved in those things.  Like I wasn't comfortable anymore just staying in the house, or like, I became busy.  I became a busybody when it came to joining and participating.  I couldn't stay put, when things were being done and I was just in the house.  Until I resigned from the school, I had those activities, I would still go.  I would still join them.  Well, those were the things I used to do—



I decided in 1999.  It was March, after graduation, because I realised that . . . there was a big need from my family in the first place . . . I had siblings who wanted to go to school and my parents couldn't afford to send them.  Then I realized that as much as I was active in the organizations, it ended there.  I has been useful to the community . . . I was a part of what we call "change" and I could participate and encourage my fellow youth, but my own family would be left in a state of poverty.  That was why I decided to stop.  Once I even told a joke. I said, "I can be useful to my province but my province is of no use to me."  . . .  I wanted to stay, but what about my needs?  Even small things that I wanted for myself, I wasn't able to buy.  So that's why I decided.  And one more thing, almost everyone from my father's side was abroad.  Most of my male cousins were seamen.  They were moving.  I had cousins, second cousins, who were already in Canada.  They used to be DH [domestic helpers] in Hong Kong.  DH from different countries.  At least they were able to elevate themselves while I was still left out.  Although I'd been active in organizations, sometimes I would be the one to finance whatever activity we were trying to pursue.  So I realized nothing would become of me . . . My first application was in Hong Kong.  I realized with Chinese people, you only have to nod and nod and be okay with everything.  And maybe due to my background, I brought an attitude to Hong Kong.  Even to small things, I would react.  I would argue with my employer.  I didn't like that you just had to follow, just say yes, yes. I wanted to reason out to know I'm right.  That's why I didn't last long over there.  I was fired . . .  Sometimes the children were crying and they would accuse me of doing something bad and say they would call the police.  That was the time I really answered back.  I said, "You know, in our country, I am a human rights advocator.  I hate child abuse. It's impossible for me to harass or hurt your children."  She didn't like that I answered back.  So I was fired.  I went back to the Philippines.  I worked for different companies.  Of course, it was difficult because the number one qualification that they were looking for had an age limit.  At the time—



I worked in a hen factory in Swiftdick . . . what was it called?  They were the ones supplying chicken for Jollibee, for . . .  ah . . . what was that . . . whatever, I can't remember.  For whichever malls in the Philippines, that company was the one supplying chicken.  I was a checker there.  I would check—



. . . Of course, it was hard because of contractualization.  After 5 months, you don't have a job.  You need to find another one.  Then when you apply, the number one qualification is computer literacy.  I wasn't computer literate, because when I was in school, computer science wasn't in demand.  I had a difficult time again.  If ever there were people looking for candidates who weren't qualified or didn't really emphasize computer literacy, there was still a problem.  They needed someone with a "pleasing personality."  . . .  (Laughter.) . . . It was a big struggle because I didn't want to leave the country.  I wanted to—



Continue my goals . . . I was always aware of current affairs, what was happening, what's this and what's that, like I wasn't content being in other countries but I didn't have an option.  That's why I decided to apply and stayed long in Jordan.  I was in Jordan for 5 years.  By God's grace, my employer was okay but . . . I had no problems but the surroundings were kind of hard, because there were a lot of domestic helpers being mistreated by their employers.  How I wished I could help them.  I was able to help the others sometimes.  The problem was there were no organizations that could help OFWs [Overseas Foreign Workers] who were maltreated . . . It's hard to work abroad if you didn't finish school.  You don't know how to stand up and fight . . . Not that I'm belittling the job of a helper. At least we are decent, because we earn money legally.  We don't do things that would disgrace our dignity as Filipinas, but it's still better if the people working as domestic help are at least educated, so they will know how to stand up and struggle for themselves . . .



Especially in a foreign country.  You're away from your family.  Even if you have friends, they can only give you advice.  You will be the one to stand up and fight for yourself.  If you are weak . . . I mean, if you are weak-willed and lack knowledge, you are more pitiful.  That's how abuse by employers happens.  That was my experience in Jordan.  It hurts me and I can't accept it when I hear someone was used by the boss.  She tried to fight but he banged her head on the wall.  It hurts me.  Why are there situations like that?  Where did it start?  Why do those things happen?  By God's grace, the tips of my fingers had never once been touched by my employer.  Maybe because they see that they can't do that to me.  There's a formality about my person, so they'd never do anything like that.  That's why I always say don't underestimate my fellow Filipinos or Filipinas working as domestic help . . . So that's what—until my contract ended.  Actually, my employer was kind.  They weren't asking me to leave, but at the time I had decided to get married, but it didn't push through.  I was embarrassed to go back . . .



. . . but I think that I mainly didn't want to go back because the government has no outreach programs for OFWs.  You have no place to go but walk around in malls, unlike in Singapore where I have time to study or enrol on my off days . . . Until now, by God's grace, things have been okay . . . Domestic help is a difficult sort of job.  If you lack presence of mind, if you lack in confidence, in determination, you will go back to the Philippines a lunatic.  You won't have outlets, because of course you're in the house all day working.  If anything wrong happens, you're the absorber.  Sometimes if your boss has a problem, even though it's not your fault, you will be the one . . . I mean you're the punching bag.  You're the one to get all the anger and irritation, if they're haggard or stressed . . . .  Plus you feel homesick. You've got nothing else to do, you can't go out, you have no day off . . . it can really drive you mad.  So it's really important for a domestic helper to be tough inside.  And one more thing, pray to the lord all the time that his guidance be with us in all things we do.  Well, this is what my life is as a domestic helper.



Pau, that's Pau liniment.  That's a new brand, like Efficascent, for external use only.  Since you work all day, always standing and working, of course your body aches . . . so this is what I thought of bringing because I can't find it here in Singapore



Yes, like Tiger Balm.  Like that.  For pain relief as they say. When you are about to sleep, you put it on your body so the ache you feel from standing up all day from—



At least, it lessens.  Sometimes your body is aching so bad, your legs are throbbing.  You only get to sit when you eat or when you go to the toilet.  So let's say you're downstairs with the kids, it's harder because they're running around and you need to keep following them.  If you miss them for a second, sometimes they might fall. The only help we have is this ointment.



There are two of them.  The first one is seven years old.  He just turned seven last week.  The other one is almost one year and two months—a girl.  The older one is a boy, but the girl is more difficult, the small one because she's still a baby.  She was seven months when the mother had me take care of her.  I had a difficult time with that one.  My work stopped.  Whatever I wanted to do, my household work, I could only do when the baby was asleep . . . Then, these slippers because—



Islanders, I also bought them in the Philippines.  I brought them even to Jordan, because they're comfortable, tough and easy to use.  And they look decent.  When I'm in a hurry, I don't slip.  Even when it rains and the surroundings are wet, I don't slip.  I'm very comfortable using them, and it makes me feel like I'm carrying things from own country that remind me I'm a Filipina.  That's why every time I see a Filipina, when I see a domestic helper wearing an Islander, I can tell she's a Pinay.  Because she's wearing an Islander.  It's like one of those things that—



. . . At least you have something that reminds you of who you are and what you are.  Then another is the scapular, like rosary beads.  It's handmade and I'm not sure where it came from exactly, but honestly, I only see it in the Philippines.  It's been with me for a long time.



From a parochial priest when I was still teaching.  It was my last year of teaching when . . . when it was given by a student.  I think it was 1999—



A student gave it to me.  A sacristan.  We went swimming in San Juan.  It was June 24, 1999.  I brought it to Manila, then to Hong Kong, then to Jordan.  It makes me feel that, sometimes when I wear it, I feel that I become stronger because I have it with me . . .



I don't pray the rosary because I don't know anymore—



I didn't memorize it.  It's like, I mean . . .



Yes, just keeping the faith. I would just hang it in the window . . . Of course, especially when I was in Jordan, my employer wasn't Catholic and they don't believe in pictures or anything that can remind you that there's a God in the house.  Since they are Muslim . . . I also have a picture of Mama Mary and Christ . . .



Soap?  I use any kind of soap as my skin is not sensitive. Personal things like shampoo, soap, toothpaste—my employer provides for me.  Of course, if I want to buy those things, personal ones, I would buy on my own.  But sometimes, like Likas Papaya, I would buy for myself just for fun, to try if my skin will improve or lighten.  That's the only time I would use it. Sometimes, when I have extra money . . .



It's easy for me to adapt, because first of all, I'm very talkative.  It's easy for me to ask questions.  I'm not shy . . . But sometimes, when I ask a Filipina, it feels different.  That's when I seem to be overbearing . . . And it's also not hard for me adjust because I've already been to other countries.  In Hong Kong, the buses are just like the buses here.  When I saw the buses here, it didn't surprise me.  Unlike when I was in Hong Kong, I was surprised—"Is that their bus?  It's like a house, there's a second . . . two storeys!"



Yes, I do ride the MRT [Mass Rapid Transit]. There's also one in Hong Kong.  In the Philippines too.  But the rules are different. I mean the surroundings are different, but at least I'm not innocent when it comes to these things.  My number one observation here in Singapore is what you call discipline.  Sometimes, even when you eat candy you can just throw the wrapper anywhere.  But here you make it a point not to just drop or throw it.  You look for a trash bin.  Unlike in other countries, even Hong Kong.  Even in Jordan, when you're riding in a car, you can throw your litter onto the street.  But I can never do that here.  So there's a big adjustment on my part, because, of course, as a Filipino, there's no discipline back home.  So here my struggle was really great to adapt.



At first, I wasn't able to enrol in classes here because I was late and I wasn't getting paid yet because I was still paying my agency through salary deduction.  So I would just join my friends in the disco, but I wasn't comfortable with those things . . . it was like . . . roaming around doing nothing.  I wasn't comfortable.  But when I started receiving my salary, I started to enrol.  To study.



I enrolled at the Holy Family—migrant training skills for OFWs.  I enrolled in the nursing aide class.  So I've finished that, then I enrolled in another class—I enrolled in a computer class because I have no knowledge of computers.  And I joined a theatre production.  One time, someone conducted, the director was Mr. Jay Espano. The Tres Marias



Morning, noon and afternoon . . . I was one of the 4 who were chosen.  On Sundays I also had a basic computer class in Tanjong Pagar.  So after our practice, I would run to school . . .



. . . now there's nothing because Espano's busy and can't organize any more activities.  But hopefully, when he gets time, it will happen and we'll still be here . . .



I don't want to stay here, because, first of all, the pay is really low.  And the tax is really high.  Maybe if half of the tax went to the Philippines, I would stay.  At least I would be of help to my country.  But there's nothing like that.  Our tax only goes to Singapore, no benefits.  And the pay's low.  The job's hard but you only get a meagre amount.  So for now, it's just a stepping stone—



I think the pay is higher in Hong Kong and other countries.  Here, it's how much—400 [SGD] a month?  Some get only 350 [SGD].  Because there's no tax.  Here, the tax is high and it is monthly.  In Hong Kong, there is also a tax but the levy your boss is paying covers your 2-year contract . . . I'm also planning to apply in another country, that's why I enrolled as a nursing aide.  I want to become a caregiver and then apply in Canada.



If possible, I hope to move out of Singapore before I reach 40 . . . I am 38 now.  I hope after two years I canmove to another country, because, of course you need to think about finances.  I hope to save money for the placement fee . . .



If I were earning a lot, I would like to help the programs we had before.  Because, of course, the NGOs, they stop because no one's financing them.  How I wish I was getting a big pay check, so even 10% of what I earn I can send to them . . .



. . . I have ways to contact them.  So if ever I'm back in the Philippines, maybe it will still be the same and I will go back to what I used to do, because I am already used to those things.  I am not content to just stay in the house. For example, the election is approaching.  So of course, they need people to teach and enlighten those around us; I'm good at that.  That's really my line.  When it comes to education, that's where I'm usually assigned by the organizations. But of course, life is hard, so I put those things aside.



If it's not in my fate to work abroad anymore, I'll go back home.  There's no age limit in joining advocacy or non-government organizations. As long as you're dedicated, you can be in it.  If your upbringing and orientation is the same as the people in the group, you're welcome to join. So in other countries, I think that my life is stable.  I won't be like this forever.



I have one plea.  First of all, to the Philippine embassy here.  Hopefully they can create an activity that would be productive for OFWs, because not all OFWs want to just wander around and go to the disco . . . There are OFWs who are willing to learn, willing to get educated, and willing to join activities.  The embassy can make ways to congregate the Filipino community even in small ways because it seems we only do so on Independence Day.  After that, nothing.



And the people who participate in the Philippine Independence Day are all skilled workers.  Like the manager of PNB will make a speech but they never give importance to the maids and domestic helpers.  They should pay attention to that.  For them to educate or provide activities that would allow domestic helpers to elevate their situation . . . Because sometimes when they say domestic helper, or DH, it has a different connotation.  They see us differently.  But when they ask, "Where do you work?" and they hear, "Oh, I'm an engineer. Or I work here . . . ,' they are more appreciative.  But those with the most hardships and struggles are domestic helpers.  They don't see that.  I hope our government, especially the Philippine embassy, can give something to encourage domestic helpers to learn and open their minds even in small ways . . . Because the image of the domestic worker is really changing: it's becoming degrading.  If the Philippine embassy can provide activities or projects or whatever, maybe we can elevate the dignity of domestic helpers.  That's my only plea. Thank you, and good day to all.

translated from the Chinese and the Tagalog by Tai Shuxia, Ong Xiao Yun and Richel Hidalgo



Xiao Yuan is a migrant worker in Singapore. He hails from the Jiangsu province of the People's Republic of China.

Loida Arevalo is a migrant worker in Singapore. She hails from the Philippines.

Tai Shuxia has a multidisciplinary background in the arts with a BA in fine arts and cultural studies and MA in environmental studies from York University Canada. She volunteers with migrant workers in Singapore and she is interested in art as a tool for community development and creative expression.

Ong Xiao Yun is an artist who works with site-specific community and public arts projects. She heads an arts collective, Artist Caravan. It has an ongoing exhibition called "Manicured Nature" at the Dairy Farm Nature Park in Bukit Timah, which explores the idea of interdependence in urban-nature relationships. She also volunteers with the local human rights organisation Think Centre.

Richel Hidalgo is from the Philippines and works in the corporate sector. She helps out occasionally with Migrant Voices.