A Woman’s Worth

Yesterday we said goodbye to Janeth. I haven’t really written about Janeth here, because it’s difficult to explain “helper culture”. Now that I’m coming out the other side of my yearlong experiment, let me see if I can try to capture the experience.

Janeth has been our family’s foreign domestic worker for the past year. I hired her at the end of February 2020 and she started with us the first week of our lockdown, last April. Janeth is 38 years old and originally from the Isabela province in the Philippines. She has one grown daughter who works in South Korea. Her salary here in Singapore helps to support her family farm. They grow bananas and pineapples. She’s very proud of the support she has been able to provide by working abroad. Janeth has worked in Singapore for about 8 years. We were her 3rd expat family. Prior to working in Singapore, janeth worked as a aid in a school in the Middle East. Janeth lived with us for the past year (most homes in Singapore have a small space for the helper to live, though some share a room with a child or even sleep in a storage closet). We paid Janeth S$800 a month salary, provided for all her food/toiletries and gave her an extra S$50 a month to use on her day off. We pay the Singapore government a S$300 levy each month for her employment (expats pay significantly more than locals for the levy). FDW’s work everyday except Sunday and public holidays. For our family, Janeth cleaned, did laundry, cooked dinner, and did some of the grocery shopping.

How does employing a helper work? Having household help is VERY common in Asia. In some countries they are live in (like Singapore) and some they can live out. Singapore has very strict immigration laws. If you are not a citizen (or permanent resident), your immigration status is depend at on your employment. For example, our family is “sponsored” by Ryan’s company. All 5 of us are tied to his employment pass. If he were to lose his job, we would have 30 days for him to either find a new job, or to leave Singapore. In Janeth’s case, I am her Employer. Her ability to remain in Singapore is my responsibility until the end of her 2 year contract, at which time she can extend the contract, finish with our family and find a new employer or go home. Under her contract we are responsible for all her care (including medical). We have insurance, but it is catastrophic in nature. She is required to have medical checkups 2 times a year where they check for pregnancy, STD’s and tuberculosis. If any of these are found, she would be immediately deported. Either of us can end the contract before 2 years (as we did) but they must give 4 weeks notice (this can be as short as 2 weeks in some contracts). In that time if janeth cannot find new employment, it is our responsibility to deport her or sign her over to an employment agency. In Singapore your helper is required to live with you to prevent them from living in improper circumstances. They are also forbidden from being employed in any other way (no side jobs). If caught, they can be deported. While Singapore has been trying to make the terms of employment more equal between the FDW and the employer, inevitably the employer has more control of the situation. Because their employment is “invisible” they are often exploited (working too many hours, poor living conditions, not provided enough food). While it is good for stability to work for a local family, they like to work for expats as we typically pay more for less work and more freedoms. Singaporeans often accuse expats of “spoiling” the market. This accusation is not completely false…

Why does Singapore have helpers? There has always been domestic help in some capacity in Singapore. When the Chinese came, they brought their “amah’s” with them. Also, Malaysian women were also frequently employed as domestic help. But after WWII and Singapore’s independence, most domestic tasks had fallen back on wives, mothers and grandmothers and remained that way until 1978. In 1978, Singapore, in an effort to have more women enter the work force, created the existing “maid scheme”. They began importing workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma (Myanmar), India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia. As of 2017, 59% of eligible Singaporean women participated in the workforce (the US is about 57%). In December 2020, there were approximately 240,000 foreign domestic workers employed in Singapore.

How do I feel about helpers now? I’d say I’m just as confused about it as I was a year ago when we started this journey. Some days I think employing Janeth was my biggest regret of our time here. But I don’t like feeling that way. I like to look at it as a lesson learned.

Don’t get me wrong, having someone to take care of all your household tasks is amazing. As another woman I met here said: when people ask her what it’s like having a helper, she responds, “it’s like being my husband”. What does she mean? Having a helper is a bit like having your very own wife. Can’t make the bus pickup? Send your helper! Want to go out with the girls? No need to double check if the husband can cover, you have a helper! No time to stop at the store? Helper!

So what’s the downside, that all sounds pretty great, right?!? Well, it all depends on your helper. These are woman that have left their home, families and children not 💯 by choice. Many of them have had traumatic childhoods. Their home countries don’t have suitable employment for their populations, so their solution is to export their people. Many helpers take great pride in what their money is able to do at home. They buy land, build homes and educate their children. But many also end up divorced, lonely and feeling used by those they love. This is a career choice of last resort. Their mental state generally reflects this. Add COVID-19 to the equation and you get the idea.

On a day to day level, my biggest frustration was the lack of initiative Janeth showed. She had to be told VERY directly what to do. Helpers are trained to be this way. This is not an employment method I am comfortable with. I had thought when she told me she “loves to cook and is a very good cook” (also backed up by a reference) That she would take ownership of this, introduce us to a wider variety of Asian/Filipino food. Instead, we devolved into eating simple, basic meals day after day. Also, I mistakenly took an American attitude with her. “You get your work done, your time is your own” was my mantra. Well, there’s a reason that is not the norm here. More and more time was taken and less and lass work was completed. Most days she completed her tasks in about 2-3 hours, then had the rest of the day to herself. Naively, we thought she would want to take care of us and grow attached to us. While I know she did like us, I can’t help but feel she liked the easy life we provided more than us as people.

Finally, I think I have a fundamental issue with this being the solution to allow women to participate in the work force. While it does free you up to work (or be a “tai tai” in my case (a “tai tai” is a woman of means with no job and little responsibility)). My issue is it perpetuates the patriarchal society that is pervasive over the world, but very much here in Asia. Instead of trying to more equitably divide care giving tasks, it continues to ride on the backs of women. It just pushes the tasks down to a “lower class” of women, further exacerbating class divisions. Mentally, as a woman who gave up my career 13 years ago to care for my family, is that my only worth, a menial employee that caps out at $800 a month? That’s a tough one for me.

Maybe if we had hired a different helper, I would have a different assessment. And in Singapore, a VERY first world nation surrounded by emerging nations, of course this is the solution to getting women in the work force. But I naively hope that in the future there is a solution that doesn’t rely on the poverty of their third world neighbors.

I wish Janeth nothing but well with her new family. I hope they are lovely to her and give her the freedom to pursue her interests. I hope she gets home to visit her family soon… I hope they stay healthy. For good or bad, she has imprinted on our lives and will now always be a part of our Singapore chapter.






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