Women who sacrifice a lifetime with their families to find work overseas deserve respect, but they don’t often get it.

Rob O’Brien
Jun 16, 2015 · 8 min read

Photography by Tom White (www.tomwhitephotography.com)

Through the glass of the Philippines’ Kalibo Airport departure lounge I can see a domestic worker and her husband sitting silently on a bench, going through the ritual of another painful goodbye.

Marifel is on her way back to work in Singapore after a trip home to see her family. She is one of 220,000 women who work in the city as domestic workers, cleaning, looking after children, the elderly and disabled and performing countless other domestic chores. They get called many things — helpers, nannies, maids, FDWs (foreign domestic workers); they are also known as the silent army helping Singapore become a powerful regional business hub.

Domestic workers keep Singapore ticking and in return,
they get very little back.

Marifel’s goodbyes are now very well-drilled — before she leaves home she kisses her three children goodbye outside her small house in the Barangay of Patria on Pandan Island, on the northern tip of Antique. She hugs her dad, brother, nieces, nephews, and jumps on the back of her husband’s motorbike, placing her bag between them.

Getting Daen and Juno ready for a swim. Marifel has worked for 11 years in Singapore and is moving to Hong Kong in August. (Photo by Tom White)

Her husband will drive some 50–60 kms on the Aklan West Road through the towns of Ibajay and Tangalan, past rolling green hills and along blissful coastal roads all the way to the airport. Tourists travel the same route in reverse to get to the Philippines’ island paradise of Boracay. Marifel and her husband get to the airport early enough to ensure she is the first person on the flight —but there they sit and wait until the last person has checked in for the Tiger Airways flight to Singapore. As today is the weekend before Chinese New Year — Kalibo is packed with holiday makers.

When all the passengers have checked in, Marifel calmly kisses her husband goodbye, walks into the airport, presents her booking details and coasts through immigration. She might look like a late boarder — the person who got her timings wrong — but she’s not: all of this is the meticulous habit of someone who has done this journey many times before as a foreign worker in Singapore.

This trip is slightly different in that Marifel is travelling back with her employer: me.

I hired her back in 2010 when I moved to Singapore with my wife and baby to work as a journalist. She first started working in Singapore 11 years ago. The decision to leave her family and move overseas wasn’t made by choice, but necessity. Daily life had become a struggle for her family: on occasion they ran out of milk and food for their children; sometimes they couldn’t pay their electricity bill. In the end, something — or rather someone — had to give.

We lived in a condo in Singapore called The Aberdeen, which is in Boon Keng, just off Serangoon Road. (Photo by Tom White)

When she and her husband decided to look for work overseas, it broke their hearts. In the frantic days after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 she wrote this piece for the New York Times about her decision to move: “We couldn’t afford basic things like food or electricity. I knew that it would be me who moved; I knew it was the best thing for me to find a job overseas. In my mind, this is all for the sake of giving my children a good life, and I am happy to have made that sacrifice,” she wrote.

I have asked myself this many times over the last few years: how do you tell your children that you’re going away when you don’t know when you’ll be coming back?

To make her leaving home easier on the children, amid the sobbing and wailing, Marifel told them that she was heading off to buy them some toys. She didn’t return. Her youngest son was just six months old when she left. The next time she laid eyes on him he was nearly three years old.

Her first week in Singapore was incredibly difficult. She stayed with her employment agent in a dorm full of other women and was paralysed with homesickness. “Sometimes the tears rolled down my cheeks without me even noticing,” she wrote in this blog post for the migrant charity Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). “My breasts were swollen because I was still breastfeeding, so every night I pumped them. It was so painful. I was crying in pain, but I could do nothing about it; I needed to be strong and face my new life with confidence, knowing that all my suffering was for my beloved family.”

Paper planes in flat No.11 (Photo by Tom White)

In those last few moments before take off she looks nervously at her phone and is on the brink of tears. When they make this trip, many domestic workers don’t know when their next visit home will be—that very much depends on who they are working for, sometimes it is months, but more often it is at least a year. I have interviewed many women who haven’t seen their families for as long as five or six years.

I had a conflict about hiring a domestic worker when I moved to Singapore. I didn’t want to be complicit in a system that I thought deliberately subjugated women who had made unbearable life choices to find work. My (and my wife’s) attitude was to make sure we were the best employers we could be.

The agent we dealt with to bring Marifel into our home was, in some small way, responsible for shaping that attitude. “To some local families, domestic workers are treated like furniture,” she told us, “but the years they spend with them are good training… and eventually they will ‘graduate’ to an expat family like you.”

We weren’t perfect — no employer is — but we promised to support Marifel in any way we could, to give her every chance of one day going home or, at least, going on somewhere better. Some people said that made me “soft” — susceptible to exploitation — or that I was a typical guilt-ridden expat. I was neither of those. I was simply grateful.

Today, the reason we are flying together is that I wanted to come to the Philippines with my family to see her new home and meet her family to see what she sacrificed: the kids she left to look after mine. I got to meet her children — now 13, 12, and 11— and was able to see her as the wonderful mother she is. I saw her smiling and laughing with her husband. It made me think about the journey she made to get here and how very little attention she commands from a world that is apparently championing her cause.

In the age of Lean In and the global movement to empower women, how does Singapore — the wealthiest nation on earth, where they are currently trialling driverless car technology — still justify its approach to labour rights
for women like Marifel?

In my five years here I have interviewed government officers, CEOs, MDs and a host of other people who have all paid homage to Singapore’s wonderful growth story. It is a place where “they decide what they want to do, and they get it done,” one person told me. That is very true. All of the glowing accolades for the late Lee Kuan Yew praised his meticulous, ‘no nonsense’ approach to cultivating a society which would famously leap-frog ‘from Third World to First’.

But there is plenty of Third World in Singapore and women like Marifel leave their children behind to work in a system that still allows daily restrictions on their movement (some are locked into their homes), limits on their ability to communicate with their families (mobile phones regularly get confiscated) and, in some cases, subject them to serious abuse?

How can a government so rigidly focused on building a city of the future, be so obtuse towards the people who work to support that growth?

Marifel gave everything up to come here, to chisel into my children the values she would have bestowed on her own. She brought them joy, laughter and a tiny hint of a Filipina accent. It was her who potty trained them both, helped them to swim, taught my son how to sing ‘Hey Jude’ (below). She gives, we take. That is unashamedly how the Singapore system works.

Obviously, her story is everywhere — the women who give up a life with the people they love to pursue what they need, as a matter of survival. The sacrifices I make are small in comparison to hers and the other women like her all over the world.

Right now, I’m looking over the aisle at her on flight TR2443 to Singapore. I can see her tapping a few final text messages to her husband before her wifi connection is lost.

Pretty soon after I hired her I asked her a question which many people who hire domestic workers privately wonder. “How do you cope?” In my mind, no one should have to leave their children behind to find work, but the world demands that the most desperate make the biggest sacrifices, risks and choices to earn a living wage.

People like me and places like Singapore are the beneficiaries of that sacrifice, and it is a sacrifice we would never make ourselves: after all, who cares what an indefinite goodbye looks like… as long as it is not our own?

“I have no choice, I have to work,” she laughed at my question. In a passage she wrote for TWC2 she explained:

“The sufferings and afflictions that we encounter are not signs that everything is over, they are signs that God has prepared something better for us and he was just giving us a choice on which path to take. There are no impossible dreams, there’s nothing that we can’t achieve. All things are possible to those who trust and believe.”

I wish I could believe that myself, but Singapore has taught me that the system is in no hurry to allow domestic workers to fulfil any of their dreams. At the very least I can leave here knowing and respecting what Marifel gave up to come here. That helped me appreciate the impact she has had on my fairly selfish life. And for that I am grateful I met her.

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Rob O’Brien

Written by

Content creator based in Amsterdam. www.balanceofzero.com coming soon

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