Many foreign workers in Singapore use social media to connect with home

-- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
-- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
People making use of the free Wi-Fi access outside myVillage mall in Serangoon Gardens. Scouting for free Wi-Fi zones is a popular pursuit among foreign workers who are becoming increasingly Web- and social media-savvy. -- ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
People making use of the free Wi-Fi access outside myVillage mall in Serangoon Gardens. Scouting for free Wi-Fi zones is a popular pursuit among foreign workers who are becoming increasingly Web- and social media-savvy. -- ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

As she climbs into bed after a day of cleaning, sweeping and scrubbing, Filipino maid Cecilia Domingo Hilario looks forward to two uninterrupted hours of surfing.

She dives into Facebook to view her friends' photos, picks up where she left off on Candy Crush and calls her younger brother in the Philippines through free call app Viber.

"I look forward to going online every night," said the 40-year-old, who is single and has been working in Singapore for 20 years.

"It is my time to relax and to be updated on my family and friends' lives back at home. It keeps me happy," she said, adding that she uses a tablet and a smartphone for her nocturnal happy hours.

And it is all free, because her employers allow her to use their home's Wi-Fi network. Not everyone is as lucky, though.

The growing desire among maids and foreign workers to go online has driven them to great lengths to stay connected. This, however, has led to tensions with some employers who worry that the workers will neglect their duties.

But there is little they can do to control this cyber craving as many workers are more than willing to splurge on Internet access.

Many interviewed said they spend about $50 a month, a sizeable chunk of their salaries of between $500 and $700, to top up pre-paid cards for their mobile phones.

Telcos SingTel, StarHub and M1 told The Sunday Times they recognise that there is a growing demand for mobile data among foreign workers, who form the bulk of their pre-paid customer base. The telcos have rolled out plans that allow pre-paid users to use chat apps such as WeChat for as little as 40 cents a day.

These foreign workers are also willing to shell out for hardware. Some have paid up to about $600 to own the latest smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note II or S4.

Mr Mohamed Shiraj Abdul Hatin, a sales assistant at mobile phone shop Taqwa in Little India, said some foreign workers are willing to spend more since they use the gadgets extensively. "They see nice phones as a treat for themselves," he added.

Getting online, however, remains tricky for some of these workers. To avoid paying hefty mobile data charges of up to $80 a month, many scout for free Wi-Fi zones in shopping malls and fast-food joints on their days off.

Others are so desperate that they invest $200 to buy a Wi-Fi decoder that generates passwords so they can illegally access secured networks.

Mr Tay Khoon Beng, owner of Best Home Employment Agency, said the urge to go online has even led to some maids giving up their days off in exchange for their employers' permission to use the home's Wi-Fi network.

"Going online keeps them happy. They feel they don't need days off so frequently," he said.

However, maid agents pointed out that not many employers are liberal enough to allow their maids to use their home's Wi-Fi, especially if they are new.

"Many employers still don't even allow their maids to own mobile phones, let alone use their Wi-Fi network," said Ms Shirley Ng, owner of Orange Employment Agency.

Other employers, like construction boss Chen Chuan Hoong, are worried that their workers will get carried away and neglect their job. Mr Chen, who does not give his workers Wi-Fi access in their dormitory, said: "Some workers may end up spending hours on the phone at night and not have enough sleep. They will be tired the next day."

Some workers said going online can be addictive. Indonesian maid Sri Wahyuni, 31, said when she got her smartphone three years ago, she would stay up until 2am to chat with her friends on Facebook.

Mr M.K. Leo, owner of Averise maid agency, said it is foolish for employers to stop their maids from using smartphones, which have become part and parcel of their lives.

"They want to go online to see how their family is doing. If they don't get to do so, they may end up worrying and feel demoralised," he said.

The key, said Ms Hilario, is to build mutual trust. Workers must agree to go online only after they have finished their work and bosses must recognise the importance of cyber connection today.

"Using Facebook and chat apps can be distracting because we get many messages throughout the day. But maids must be disciplined enough to reply to the messages only when they have finished their work.

"They must show their employers that they can be trusted to finish their work on time," she added.

ameltan@sph.com.sg