A visit to my maid's hometown opened my eyes to life beyond our big little city

Madam Enalin Santiago, 45, (behind pillar) giving out chocolates and gifts during the first day of her return to her village outside Sara town in Iloilo province, for a two-month holiday, on April 3, 2014. -- ST FILE PHOTO: JOANNA SEOW
Madam Enalin Santiago, 45, (behind pillar) giving out chocolates and gifts during the first day of her return to her village outside Sara town in Iloilo province, for a two-month holiday, on April 3, 2014. -- ST FILE PHOTO: JOANNA SEOW

Will it be tough to live in the village after so many years of living in Singapore?

A reader asked this after seeing my story last Sunday about visiting the house and family of Madam Enalin Santiago, who has been working as a maid in my home for 11 years.
I have no answer. But what I do know, from a very short trip to Iloilo in the Philippines, is that there is so much about a maid's life back home which we as Singaporeans do not fully appreciate.

The countries, towns and homes maids leave behind to work in ours may not be geographically far, but they are worlds away from life in this metropolis.

Their transitions, exit or entry, are often traumatic.

Many of Enalin's relatives and neighbours are farmers, and live in small houses made of bamboo.

Most maids, especially those from Cambodia and Myanmar, come from rural hometowns where even a proper toilet is a luxury.

They may be a two hour bus-ride from the nearest mall, and may never have seen a skyscraper in their life, nor cooked over an electric stove or used high-speed Internet.
Yet when they come to Singapore to work, employers often expect them to know how to use a microwave and washing machine and how to wash a car.

It is not unreasonable to expect someone to be able to learn how to do these tasks, but once they do, we quickly forget how unnatural such things must be to someone who grew up without all these modern quirks and conveniences.

Some might argue that maids are paid to deliver a service. But in many ways, the work of maids goes beyond regular service, for example, living permanently at the place of work, or caring for a family that is not their own.

The emotional sacrifice of living apart from family was alluded to by another question raised by the same reader: How does the husband feel not having his wife by his side?
Seeing first-hand Enalin's mother, siblings, husband and daughters who she bravely leaves behind each time she returns to Singapore drove home a greater appreciation of the emotional investment her work requires.

If expectations are not tethered to mutual understanding, the working relationship between employers and maids can become strained.

I have definitely been fortunate that my family met Enalin, a conscientious and caring woman who even a visiting friend remembered as "sweet and friendly".

But some employers are not as fortunate. There are maids who make the news for misdeeds, such as the three charged with murder since the start of the year, or those who steal jewellery and cash from their employers.

Singapore's turnover rate for maids is notoriously high. And while the number of Indonesian maids running away has fallen in recent years, possibly due to better pay, the number of Myanmar maids doing so has risen.

Earlier reports noted that between September last year and February this year, 61 of them sought shelter with migrant worker group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, compared with 49 in the same period in 2012.

Not all unhappy incidents can be prevented, but perhaps some of the stress and tension between employers and maids could be avoided if there is a better understanding of each other's unique pressures and needs.

The Manpower Ministry already has an orientation programme for employers who are hiring maids for the first time, or who change maids more than four times a year, for example.
Perhaps employment agents can also try to share with employers some background information of their maids, or get them to have a brief chat about life back home.

A stronger understanding of the maids' lives, often in a village, can't hurt. It is heartening to learn from some readers that they, too, hope to visit their maids' hometowns.
My trip only scratched the surface - I was only a guest at a meal for which a pig was slaughtered, and there is so much more to Enalin's world.

When we Singaporeans become more aware of what life is like beyond our big little city, we are more likely to have long-lasting and productive relationships with those who work among us.


Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.