I do not have a (full time) domestic helper, and I have my reasons for not employing a full time helper. So perhaps what I am about to share may sound unconvincing, but this is all based on my own observation on domestic helpers I come in contact with.
As a SAHM, I see domestic helpers every day. I see them when I fetch my children and they go and fetch other children from the same places. I get to see firsthand, how domestic helpers behave when their employers are not around and how they treat the children who are in their care. I have seen helpers who care for their employer’s children like their own, and I have seen helpers who let the children crawl in drains while they socialise with other helpers (I’m not exaggerating, I’ve seen it happen).
Domestic helpers, like employers, can come with all types of attitude. Some are good, some are not so good.
What made me want to write this today is because one acquaintance of mine recently had to get a new domestic helper and after being with the family for less than a month, the domestic helper spoke to me today. It was obvious that she had been crying almost every day and as she spoke to me, she was trying to fight her tears.
“Sister,” she called me, “Last time mum maid ok?”
She wanted to know what her employer’s previous helper was like. I had seen the previous helper for a few months because the employer’s child and my Daughter took the same school bus.
“She’s okay,” I said, “She does the same things as you.”
“Ah Ma always scold last time maid. Ah Ma always scold me,” she said, tears in her eyes, “Mum also always scold me. Say I take care boy boy then ask me hurry hurry do work.”
She was trying to tell me about what she goes through at her employer’s home every day. This helper has to look after a three year old, a nine year old, and do all the chores at home. I could imagine what she has to cope with. At the same time, I could picture her employer scolding her. I witnessed it once. Her employer yelled at her in public when she was only a few days into the employment. I was about 50 metres away and I could hear everything.
Prior to that scolding session that I witnessed, I was chatting with the employer, my acquaintance. She was sharing about what a tough time she was having. Her mum suddenly fell very ill and was hospitalised for a few weeks, her last helper suddenly didn’t want to work anymore, and she was between jobs. At that time, this new helper was only a few days into the job and my acquaintance was not happy. She found this helper too slow and not smart enough.
As I chatted with my acquaintance, the helper, unaware that her employer had stopped to talk to me, walked off on her own in the direction of the home. My acquaintance realised her helper had walked off without telling her, and ended her conversation with me. She caught up with the helper and rained a series of not-so-nice words on the helper. It was so loud that I heard everything. I felt bad for the helper. I understood that my acquaintance had been going through a rough time and there, she seemed to be taking it all out on this new helper.
Fast forward to today, the helper’s conversation with me felt like a cry for help. I didn’t know what to do.
While I am not an employer of a full time helper, I have lived with helpers before when I was much younger and lived with my grandparents for a while. I have seen helpers and employers of all kinds and sometimes I really feel for the helpers. Employers may have some things that they are handling in their lives, but some also forget that these helpers are people who have a life of their own too. There are some difficulties that these fellow human beings face when they come to a foreign country to work.
- They come and live with strangers.
Just as these helpers are strangers to us, we are strangers to them too. It takes time for strangers to to get to know and trust one another. A lot of employers seem to expect helpers to adapt to this new life with strangers at the snap of their fingers. If it takes time for you, it takes time for your helper too.
2. They do get homesick.
After all, these helpers have left their home country to live and work in a totally unfamiliar country and environment. They may miss their family and everything they have left behind. They could have a sick family member they are worried about and are unable to see now that they are here to work for you.
3. They need to learn a new language and culture.
One of the things my acquaintance’s helper told me was her “English no good and mum angry”. This helper is working in Singapore for the first time, and while she may speak some simple English, she probably needs to think about what the instructions spoken to her in English mean before she can react. She has to learn a new language and comprehend everything fast, while learning the culture of her new employers. All these things take time.
4. They do not know the habits of the employers and need to learn really fast.
In the case of my acquaintance, she was starting a new job one week after her new helper came to live with her and got furious when the rate at which the helper was learning was not meeting her standards. While I can’t exactly compare this to when I was a first time mum, I think it is only fair to give helpers time to learn what they need to do for the family. After all, in the case of this helper, she would be doing things for three adults and two children. That is five different sets of patterns and habits to learn.
5. They cannot be too smart or too dumb.
Forgive me for my poor choice of words but this was exactly what I witnessed with one of my relatives. She doesn’t want her helper to be too smart because she worries that “smart helpers” can be up to no good. At the same time, she complains about a helper who is “too dumb” because that helper, in her opinion, can’t get anything right. Then how? How are helpers supposed to be?
I felt sorry for the helper who tried to confide in me, but I knew I couldn’t say too much. My acquaintance might think I tried to teach her helper wrong things, or that I acted like a good guy when I shouldn’t. So I told her, “Just try your best, okay? Maybe you tell mum that you will try your best and do things.”
She managed a slight smile, tears still in her eyes.