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HIDDEN FIGURES: Helpers make our expat lives richer

For most Western expats, the concept of full-time (say nothing of live-in) domestic help is a foreign one. In other parts of the world, it is considered a necessity of everyday life for those who can afford it. Singapore’s foreign domestic worker (FDW) industry is highly regulated, unlike many other countries, which serves to educate prospective first-time FDW employers and protect the workers themselves. And it seems to be working out quite well for both ends of the spectrum. As of June 2022, the Ministry of Manpower reports there were 256,300 approved work passes for Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) in Singapore. According to a confidential survey commissioned by MOM in 2022, 99.2% of FDWs rated their job satisfaction at five or above on a scale of one to six, with six being “extremely satisfied.” Additionally, 99.0% of FDWs would recommend their family or friends to work in Singapore as FDWs.

Some expats describe the experience of having a live-in helper as life-changing. “My helper is so organized, I sometimes tease her and say it's like having a wife! When I'm running out the door, she says, ‘Ma'am, don't forget to buy milk for tomorrow morning.’ Or she'll remember to put my daughter's library book in her bag when it's library day at school. The kids’ clothes are always neat and ironed, and the house is clean and tidy. It's fantastic. I'm not the exhausted, haggard full-time working mother I was before,” says Lia Testa Teismann.

Other employers credit their helpers with allowing them to pursue priorities that were being ignored when housework fell on them. “It has taken the pressure off immensely from managing the house and children, so we can focus on our well-being, our interests, and our jobs,” states Gayatri Singh. Sarah says, “Firstly, it was a helping hand with very small kids and a husband who was traveling constantly. Then, it was the ability to go back to work full-time. I couldn't have done it without her!” Rebecca Hick says knowing her kids were in good hands has allowed her to advance her career without worrying about the effect it would have on her family. Valerie Cheng is grateful to be “able to go out occasionally with my friends for brunch, and also have date nights with my hubby without the kids.”

Many employers find it pleasantly surprising how their helpers work hard while maintaining continuously positive mindsets, caring for our homes and families like we were their own. Born and raised in Manila, Cheng knows, “Their main reason (for working as an FDW in Singapore) is because they earn more than double here compared to what they would likely otherwise be getting in Manila. They chose to be a FDW to send money back home for their families.” And in talking with helpers, one will hear a variety of life-changing priorities of their own that motivate them. Most support not only their immediate family but the extended family also on the salary they earn here. Building a house can be done in many places on an average of one year’s salary. Most importantly, many helpers see their role as allowing the next generation greater opportunities. “My helper has two teenage boys who she…was able to raise through to secondary (school), and then she had to leave to continue to pay for their education. She always talks about them with a lot of pride. I know she misses her boys, but I also think she is grateful that she is doing her best to give them a good education and future choices,” comments Testa Teismann.

One of the more inspiring stories comes from Kylee Smith, whose helper has given their family more than they ever expected. “Without a doubt, I most appreciate my helper for saving my little boy’s life! My then ten-month-old was sick with a fever, and I left him with my helper to sleep while I picked up my daughter from school. While I was gone, she was worried that he was so sick, so she waited outside his bedroom door to check for any noises. Lucky for us that she did because he had a febrile seizure. He had turned a blue/black color, and she had to perform CPR to get him breathing again. She alerted the neighbors for help, and once he came around, she wanted to give him Panadol to help with his fever. She didn't know his weight, so she weighed herself holding him, handed him to the neighbor, weighed herself again, and calculated his dosage based on the difference. She wet his little lips with a syringe of water to keep fluids going in, and she told him she loved him and begged him to stay with her like he was her own child. All the while, she was trying to call me, but as luck would have it, my mobile broke that day. I didn't know all this was happening until I got home and found my very sick little boy and all the neighbors around. I then took him off to the hospital, and thanks to our helper, he was perfectly fine a few hours later. We can never repay her for what she has given us; our little boy would not be here if she had not reacted so quickly and sensibly that day. As a mom, the gravity of that is not lost on me... I will forever be indebted to her.”

Whether it’s as simple as cleaning the house or as heroic as saving a life, Singapore’s helpers play a vital role in our personal lifestyles and the whole of Singapore, from social life to economic prosperity. Admits Testa Teismann, “Housework is real drudgery for me, but my helper – bless her heart -–really enjoys it and genuinely wants to take good care of us…. She makes our house a lovely home.”

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