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The Forgotten Lifeline in Singapore: Foreign Domestic Workers during COVID-19

This article is part of an ongoing series chronicling the lives of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in the earlier days of COVID-19 and during the Circuit Breaker. It was written based on interviews the writer had with 2 FDWs on March 1st before the Circuit Breaker measures were put in place.




Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.


We hear of new COVID-19 clusters in Singapore almost every day, with most clusters centered around the many migrant worker dormitories all over the country. As a nation, it seems like we have finally lifted the shrouds surrounding the conditions of migrant workers. We are now able to view the hidden aspects of Singapore that most of us were unaware of. Yet, even this enlightenment escapes another group of hidden heroes in Singapore – our foreign domestic workers (FDWs).


Tucked away within the houses of many in Singapore, the life of FDWs are more often than not forgotten. Thus, we took a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered their life.


In the earlier days of March, MOM had advised FDWs to stay at home and if they were to go out on their off days, they would have to practice social distancing. During this period, I was able to speak to an FDW on the changes that this COVID-19 period had brought about in her life.


It all started on a Sunday in mid-February, when I received a surprising call from Jyoti. She called me asking me when I was available to interview her, as I had previously contacted her to conduct an interview for another project of mine. She had called to ask if I was available to come down within the next 30 minutes to meet her for the interview. Taken aback at the sudden request, I had asked her when her next off day was and she said, “even to come outside of the house today, I had to lie to my employer and tell her that my relative was sick. She did not allow me to go out because of the virus.”


Till that point, I had not realised how FDWs were maneuvering the crisis. Their only day of freedom was on the verge of extinction.


After speaking to Jyoti, I finally arranged a meeting with her in an isolated place. Fast-forward to the day of our planned meeting and as I was chatting with her, she opened up and said, “My sister is not able to get a holiday because of the virus. She is crying. Her house is in Punggol, and there are a lot of cases there.”


“Even to come outside of the house today, I had to lie to my employer and tell her that my relative was sick. She did not allow me to go out because of the virus.”

This shows us how one of the only outlets that the FDWs have to improve their mental health is being closed on them due to the pandemic. Leaving the house on Sunday is the one day for FDWs to meet their friends, offload the stress from their daily work, and safeguard their general well-being. Though the employers’ fear of who the FDW comes into contact with is well-founded, especially in houses with elderly and young children, exerting such extreme dominance on the FDW is also a terribly shorthanded manner to handle the situation.


Like the Straits Times had published in March, such incidents only served to engender conflicts between the employers and the FDW, that the needs of the FDW go unnoticed.


Albeit, it must be noted that not all employers act as the villains in the lives of FDWs. After interviewing a few other FDWs, I learned that employers had taken time to teach the FDWs on practices to follow when outside. Another FDW, Suseela mentioned that her employer taught her how to use a mask, when to use a sanitiser and how to practice social distancing as well. Though her employer tightened the reins on when she could leave the house and where she goes, she said that she understood her employer’s fear and returned home earlier than usual on her off-days.


At the end of the day, what is essential is balance. The stresses that COVID-19 has placed on our society are boundless and the ones bearing the brunt of those stresses are our migrant workers.


Employers need to understand the importance of an off day to the well-being of an FDW and should make sure that the FDW is still able to receive the rest she is entitled to on that day.


Written by Samihah Niquat Safeel

© 2020 ILLUMINATE SINGAPORE

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