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“I Don’t Have the Guts to Say NO to Them”: A Foreign Domestic Worker Speaks on How COVID19 Traps Her

This article is part of an ongoing series chronicling the lives of FDWs during COVID-19. The article below was written based on a phone interview the writer had with a FDW on April 30th.

The name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.

Previously, we tried to understand how the initial rulings by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), advising foreign domestic workers to limit their movements outside of the house, has affected the mental wellbeing of the workers. This time, I contacted another domestic worker to discover how the Circuit Breaker changed her life – for the worse.

23 days into the Community Circuit Breaker and by this time, Singaporeans have slowly acclimated to living a life with minimal outside contact. Lifestyles have changed, routines have been turned upside down and foreign domestic workers living inside the many houses in Singapore continue to have their lives swept under the rug. Amidst this, I chanced upon the opportunity to speak to Lisa, a foreign domestic worker who has been working in Singapore for the past 20 years. I was able to uncover the hardships she was facing especially in the face of COVID-19.

Her employer has illegally deployed her to work in two houses, the employer’s as well as their elderly parents’. This put her under immense pressure, with an overbearing amount of work.

Lisa wakes up early at 6.30am in the elderly parents’ house, makes breakfast for them and leaves the house at 8am sharp. She has no choice but to walk all the way from the house of the parents’ to her actual employer’s house due to her fear of contracting the coronavirus if she took the bus. Once she reaches her employer’s house she doesn't even have time to breathe. With a neverending list of work to do, she only has 15 minutes to eat her lunch and rest. From 8am to 7pm, Lisa has to suffice with only a meagre 15 minute break to rest. That’s not the end to her already exhausting day, there’s still more that awaits Lisa. She now has to walk back to the elderly parents’ house to make dinner and complete all the household chores before finally ending her day around 9.30pm.

This is a typical day for Lisa.

Beyond this already strenuous routine, which is illegal under Singapore law and warrants the employer a fine up to $10,000, Lisa has another adversity to bear.

With COVID-19, her pay has also been cut by $200. She says, “I have no choice but to accept it. At least I still have a job and salary even though [they] cut off some. By right they can’t cut my pay because I’m still serving them the same long hours of work”.

"I have no choice but to accept it."

On the problem of going back and forth two different houses, Lisa adds, “Every time I step out of the house, I am paranoid. Scared. I keep thinking, what if I got the virus because I still keep going out. I think I have a high chance. There is also a lot more to do. Like during my off-day I need to follow old people to the market. Then, I have to cook lunch and dinner. Before COVID-19 off-day is free. Whole day outside. Relax. But now, I can't say no to old people. I have no guts to say no to them”.

"Before COVID-19 offday is free. Whole day outside. Relax. But now, I can't say no to old people. I have no guts to say no to them”

Lisa is bound by the conditions set out by her employer as that is the only way she can survive in Singapore. When asked how she is able to withstand her pay being cut and her workload increasing she simply says, “It’s tough but I’m just thinking in a positive way. I think I’m still lucky everything is free. I have a roof to stay under, no need to pay rent and buy my own food. Even though they cut my pay at least I still have income. It’s not like other domestic workers, no work no pay”.

The COVID-19 outbreak has made domestic workers like Lisa, more vulnerable to the whims of their employers. The nature of domestic work in Singapore causes a foreign domestic worker’s life to be inexplicably tied to her employer’s. However, the MOM has clearly stipulated that employers are to reach a mutual agreement with the domestic worker so as to ensure she is not overburdened with work and is paid fairly during COVID-19.

“It’s tough but I’m just thinking in a positive way. I think I’m still lucky everything is free."

Yet, such rules are broken again and again, with domestic workers in Singapore.

As I was ending my conversation with Lisa, I asked her when she feels well-rested during the day and she said, “When I hear the prayers”.

It is extremely saddening that the lack of enforcement for a domestic worker’s rights in Singapore pushes her to cope only through her faith in God.

Written by Samihah Niquat Safeel

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