Living in South East Asia makes certain lifestyle choices possible that just wouldn’t be an option elsewhere; crazy cheap massages, high quality but low priced beauty services, and what makes life convenient for so many of us- live-in help. Having a full time helper can be awesome, but it certainly has aspects to it that most people simply do not consider. I was speaking to a friend from Mexico the other day on the topic and his jaw dropped when I told him some of the things that are normal in the life of a foreign domestic worker. So I’ve decided to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained while having a helper because it really is an interesting, but odd experience.

Full-Time Versus Part-Time

In Manila and in Singapore, I had a part-time helper. The person had a set of keys and came in a few hours per week to cook and clean. It was great. I looked forward to coming home and having an immaculate apartment with a fridge stocked full of food. I rarely saw my helper so I didn’t have to sacrifice my privacy and it was very inexpensive, so it didn’t put a dent in my wallet. But when my boyfriend and I decided to move into a ridiculously large house, we knew we were going to need help taking care of it. But there is a big difference between hiring part-time help and having someone full-time. In Singapore, only Singaporean citizens or permanent residents can work as part time maids, and the price is usually somewhere around $20 per hour. Not exactly cheap. To have a full time helper you must hire someone living in Singapore for that sole purpose, also known as a foreign domestic worker, or helper. That person must live in your home. You have to provide them with a room and pay for all meals, medical care and a return trip per contract to their home of record. You also have to pay a $265 monthly levy to the Singapore government and purchase a bond to cover the fees should your helper run away. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a $5,000 fee if your helper should skip the country. Sounds weird, right? Why would someone want to leave in such a hurry? Well it has to do with being treated poorly, which I’ll get to later. The bond also covers any catastrophic health care issues. For example, if your helper were to be diagnosed with cancer, it’s your responsibility to cover her health care costs. Even with all of these added responsibilities, it’s still quite a deal compared to some other countries.

The Hiring Process

Hiring a maid through an agency feels like what I would imagine going to a brothel might feel like. The women are lined up outside the agency and all happily greet you simultaneously as you walk in. You go in and tell the person in charge what you’re looking for and she brings you all candidates that fit those requirements for you to interview. When the interviews are done you hire someone, and have to walk back through the line of disappointed women on your way out. It’s really the worst part of the whole process, unless of course you have to fire someone. There’s also lots of paperwork you have to fill out, a course you have to take on how to actually be a good employer, and health screenings for your new helper that have to be done beforehand.

One of the many hiring agencies located in Singapore. You can find them in almost any mall.

One of the many hiring agencies located in Singapore. You can find them in almost any mall.

You Become a Boss…Literally (The Firing Process)

Not all hiring decisions turn out to be good ones. If you decide that it’s not a good fit you have to fire that person, hire someone new, and help the person you just fired find a new job-all while having the person that you just fired living with you. Before your new helper can start your old helper has to secure a job and you must give them 30 days to do so. If they aren’t able to find a suitable job during that time frame, you have to pay to send them home to their country of record. I can tell you from experience that 30 days is an eternity when you are living with someone who you just fired. Not sure things get more awkward than that.

The other aspect to being someone’s boss, someone who lives with you at that, is that you have to outline their job responsibilities, manage a pay schedule, evaluate their work, set a curfew, and go over house rules. It seems ridiculous to discuss a curfew with a grown woman, but again, should your helper not come home, that’s your responsibility. Even if your helper were to become pregnant, it would be your responsibility to send her back to her home country. Some employers abuse the system and exploit the women. The previous family my helper worked for took her passport so that she couldn’t leave, forced her to work on her day off, refused to pay her in cash and instead sent her pay to her family for her. In doing so they were keeping her broke and totally dependent on them, and generally gave her zero freedom. I’ve also heard horror stories of helpers not being fed properly or overworked, as well as being asked to do something dangerous, like cleaning the outside of windows on higher floors. Some of the hiring agencies even engage in some pimp like behavior. My boyfriend and I had to step in once when we were walking by an agency where the manager was screaming at one of her girls and berating her for not accepting a job. It’s really disturbing to hear stories like these, but sadly it does happen.

These ladies were so excited when I asked them if I could take their picture. They were having an early Christmas celebration on their day off.

These ladies were so excited when I asked them if I could take their picture. They were having an early Christmas celebration on their day off.

Another community of foreign domestic workers gathering to enjoy their day off together in the Botanic Garden.

Another community of helpers gathering to enjoy their day off together in the Botanic Garden.

How Fortunate Are We?

More than anything, having a full-time helper makes you aware of how fortunate you are. Not only do you have someone to cook, clean, iron, grocery shop and even do the gardening for you, but you learn a lot about that person as they become a part of your family. And usually you also learn how good you’ve got it. For example, my helper is from the Philippines and has been working abroad for several years to provide for her family back home. While she’s been here caring for other people’s kids, her children are back in the Philippines with her mother. She has given up seeing them grow up and getting to be a larger part of their life so she can give them a better future. While many of us help out at home and continue to give financial support, it pales in comparison to the sacrifice these overseas domestic workers make. Most work 6 days a week, enjoy one day of freedom each week and send all of the money they make home each month. Some of them are highly educated, but the salary they make as a maid here in Singapore beats what they would make as a professional in their home country. When we sifted through applications it was heart breaking to see the skills and education some of the ladies had that they weren’t able to utilize.

Having live-in help definitely takes away some of your privacy, but for some helpers privacy is essentially non-existent. Our helper has a large room with en suite bathroom on a different floor from our bedroom, but most helpers are forced to stay in a tiny space or even what is technically a bomb shelter. What was designed to be our helper’s room is what we now use as our pantry. It would be cruel to put someone in a space like that. Even on their days off helpers have very few options. They can either stay in their rooms all day or they can venture out into the crowded city. Places like the Botanic Gardens or malls are packed on Sundays since the maids have nowhere else to go on their days off. If they are lucky, they have a community of other maids that they can hang out with. But while Sundays may be a bit crowded and not the best time to go out, I’m always pleasantly surprised at the spirit and sense of community amongst these women when I see them congregating at the Botanic Gardens or on Orchard Road. I think it’s a lesson to all of us to be more appreciative of what we have, including their help.

While I’ve learned lots about the process of hiring a helper in my time as an expat, I’ve more importantly learned empathy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint and often cry a river over my first world problems, but it does make you thankful even for your problems. As the saying by Regina Brett goes, “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.”