Saying thank you to maids on International Migrants Day

Event organised by civil society group recognises their contributions
By Radha Basu

AS A reward for 15 years of service, Sri Lankan maid Mary Angelina’s employers gave her an all-expenses-paid holiday to Europe. Filipino maid Grace Delmundo’s employer gave her time off to sit for O-level examinations and earn a diploma in computer science. Her compatriot Luz Macaraig was allowed to live with her husband and daughter at her employers’ homes while working as a maid here.

While allegations of maid abuse here by Human Rights Watch made the news recently, plenty of happy maids and their employers attended an event to celebrate International Migrants Day yesterday. More than 3,000 workers attended the celebrations, organised by Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a civil society group which works for the welfare of foreign workers. TWC2 president Braema Mathi said the event is just Singapore’s way of saying a heartfelt ‘thank you’.

‘Some of these people have raised entire families, giving selflessly for years,’ she said. ‘We wanted to recognise that.’

Ms Angelina, Ms Delmundo and Ms Macaraig all fall in that category, having worked in Singapore for a combined total of 73 years.

Soft-spoken Ms Angelina, 46, first came to Singapore in 1988, a few years after she lost her father in the civil war in Sri Lanka’s strife-torn north-east. Since then, she has thrown herself in the service of the Selvas from Bedok, whom she now regards as her own family.

‘Whatever I ask for I get, but that’s only because on my part, I too never fail in my duties,’ said the Jaffna native. These have included gifts such as the $5,000 Europe trip, another $3,000 to buy land and a gold chain. Her employers, clinical psychologist Joseph Selva, and his airline executive wife, Hannah, both 55, are like her brother and sister, she said.

Ms Angelina, who now earns $300 a month, helped raise the couple’s two children, Mark, now 30, and Rebecca, 25.

‘It helps that Mary is very forthright,’ said Mr Selva. ‘We always talk things through.’

‘And we treat her like a member of the family – that’s what’s most important.’

Ms Delmundo said being considered part of the employer’s family helped her to spend 21 years with her first and only employer, Ms Doris Lee, 63. Ms Lee had just lost her husband when Ms Delmundo came to work for her in 1984.

‘They did not have children and now my employer treats me as her own daughter,’ said Ms Delmundo, 42.

But it is Ms Macaraig, 56, who has had the most extraordinary time. She has worked in Singapore since August 1970 and served 12 expatriate families – two Filipino and the rest American.

‘I was lucky enough to get married and raise my daughter here,’ said Ms Macaraig, whose daughter, Maria, now 28, lived with her in various employers’ homes till last year. Her seaman husband Eduardo also stayed with them when he was back from overseas. Mr Macaraig returned to the Philippines after he retired in 1990.

Her current employer, American businesswoman Anne Hockett, 44, and her family were there yesterday to cheer Ms Macaraig, who received a long-service certificate from the organisers.

The event, which included cultural shows and sports contests, underscored one of the most important demands workers’ welfare groups have made: the importance of rest and recreation and time off.

Currently, only about half of the 150,000 maids here are given a day off a month.

From next year, their contracts will have to include that rest day. Groups such as TWC2 are already pushing for a weekly day off for all maids.

‘It’s great to see workers mingling with friends and taking part in recreational activities,’ said TWC2 vice-president John Gee. ‘But to be able to enjoy such activities, they must be given a day off every week.’

I was just wondering whether having an International Migrants Day would actually help the maid situation in Singapore. Even though it balances the negativity surrounding the maid conundrum, it does not really answer the question as to how we can further protect the rights as maids as workers and as human beings. Why do I say this?

This article presupposes the well-treatment of maids as a social fact in Singapore. But is it? While figures recently released by the Singapore government catergorically states that the number of reported maid abuse is dropping, can we proudly proclaim that maids are now better treated since they are not abused? I seriously doubt this.

The three maids featured here represent the best and most luckiest of all maids by virtue of their employers. Their employers make it an effort to make them part of their families while at the same time, the maid recognises her role as one who takes care of the family through all the household chores. But do these maids fit the typical demographic of a maid in Singapore? These maids have lived in Singapore for a very long time and have adapted well to the different surroundings. How about those that have just arrived in Singapore? How can we help them and protect them from their evil employers?


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