#IGiveADayOff: Yayas and moms in Singapore

Who knows their kids better? Is it the mothers or maids?

In a controversial video featuring mothers and maids being quizzed about the children they care for, 74% of the maids had more correct answers than the mothers.

Questions ranged from what the children want to become when they grow up, to their favorite subject at school, who their best friend or crush is. Then the heart tugging video asks the mothers, “Shouldn’t we spend more time with our children?” as a segue to their main message of “Let’s give domestic works their legal days off.”

The recent #IGiveADayOff campaign by ad agency Ogilvy Singapore for non-profit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) triggered an online debate about the right of foreign domestic workers to a weekly day off and the reality of working mothers who don’t spend enough time with their children.

According to their study, 40% of Singapore’s foreign domestic workers do not have a weekly day off despite a law in 2013 that made it mandatory.

Many felt that though the campaign’s intention came from a good place, the approach of shaming mothers went somewhat amiss. It struck a nerve as it reflected the painful trade-off working mothers face – that between earning a living and spending time with their children.

'MUM OR MAID?' The video that tested mothers and maids on who knows their kids' better stirred controversy in Singapore. Screengrab from YouTube

‘MUM OR MAID?’ The video that tested mothers and maids on who knows their kids’ better stirred controversy in Singapore. Screengrab from YouTube

But unlike the working mothers depicted in the video, the trade-off faced by foreign maids who are also parents also stings.

Out of the 222,500 foreign domestic workers in Singapore, approximately 32% or 70,000 are Filipinos. These are women who don’t get to return home to their families at the end of every day. And despite many being denied the right to a day off by their employers, they persist to work overseas to provide a better future for their own children back home.

Cost of going home

While many maids are working mothers too, they don’t have the luxury of flying home whenever they want to.

The average monthly salary of a Filipino maid is SG$500, while a round-trip Singapore-Manila ticket costs approximately half of that (SG$250-$300).

Then there are many other expenses to consider, from homeward-bound remittances to surviving in a country twice labeled as the most expensive city in the world in recent years.

Unfair working conditions

As a collectivist culture, Filipino values are deeply rooted in the family. Regardless of liberal and Western influence over the years, the family is still the basic building block of our society.

With the physical and mental distance placed between loved ones, that very bond becomes strained for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Though having an emotional support system is important for anyone living abroad, it’s even more crucial for OFWs who work under unfair labor conditions, denied of their rights.

According to a Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) study, 27% of respondents said their employers have entered and searched their rooms or checked their phones, while 73% were restricted from communicating with their friends and family members.

The study also found that the maids tend to work long hours (a daily average of 13 hours), and 4 in 10 did not have a weekly day off. Almost a quarter of 700 women surveyed suffered from mental problems and only 54% received adequate medical attention when they fell sick.

The emotional debit

For many domestic workers, theirs is a familiar tale – that they are working overseas to support their family. OFW mothers are pillars of strength, breadwinners who can only show their love from 2,391 km away, one transfer at a time.They are lauded as unsung heroes by our government, often because their remittances help keep the Philippine economy afloat.

But who’s supporting them in return for the monetary assistance they provide? With every deposit into their Philippine bank account comes an emotional withdrawal for an OFW.

While Labor Day celebrates the achievement of workers around the world, Mother’s Day puts the spotlight on domestic workers who are mothers.

Though maids might know the children of their employers better than the parents do, we should take care not to write off the emotional needs and the rights of OFWs too.

View my original article on Rappler. 

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The boundaries of free speech as a foreigner

Photo from the internet

Photo from the internet

My thoughts on the Edz Ello controversy and the boundaries of free speech as a foreigner. I’ve changed the headline from what was originally posted on Rappler. I’m using OFWs as an example but I think it’s a common concern for anyone living abroad regardless of their nationality.

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Filipinos are no strangers to making the headlines in Singapore.

Last June 2014 a Philippine Independence Day celebration in Singapore was the subject of xenophobic heckling and harassment online, causing the organizers to cancel the event.

(READ: Pinoy group in Singapore drops Independence Day event plan)

A few days ago the couple behind The Real Singapore, a popular alternative news site, was charged with sedition. The cause? They allegedly claimed that a Filipino family caused an incident during Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community.

Online forums are regularly flooded with comments referring to Filipinos as “foreign trash” or “cockroaches,” making Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) feel angry, ashamed or even apathetic. These derogatory comments are nothing new. The question is whether OFWs should feel obligated to defend theirkababayantooth and nail in a nationalistic effort to change the narrative about Filipinos abroad.

But the controversy sparked by Edz Ello, a Filipino nurse working in a government hospital in Singapore recently charged with sedition and lying to the police for posting hateful comments about Singaporeans online, paints a different picture.

Instead of defending a fellow Filipino, the OFW community too condemned his actions, to the extent of saying that he deserved the strict consequences that followed.

RACIST COMMENT? Filipino Nurse Edz Ello, an OFW in Singapore is fired from his job for allegedly making these racist comments on Facebook. Screenshot from Facebook

RACIST COMMENT? Filipino Nurse Edz Ello, an OFW in Singapore is fired from his job for allegedly making these racist comments on Facebook. Screenshot from Facebook

The unspoken rule: don’t bite the hand that feeds

Most OFWs believe that it’s a privilege to be working overseas, especially in Singapore, where the earning capacity tends to be much higher than back in the Philippines.

Regardless of your nationality or income, the bottom line is that every expatriate and migrant worker is a guest in a foreign country. It’s an implicit agreement – that locals expect respect and sensitivity from those who would share their home.

In the case of Edz Ello, both Singaporean and Filipino netizens alike felt that the hateful comments he posted reflected the exact opposite. They said, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds,” an unspoken rule about not offending your benefactor that OFWs are all too familiar with.

Boundaries of free speech

While OFWs are used to a culture of freedom of speech back home, once we venture beyond our borders the boundaries become gray. Living abroad makes us more self-aware of our actions, especially online, not merely out of fear of being deported or arrested, but also out of respect to our host country.

Singapore, on the other hand, is known for its strict laws about voicing opinions publicly.

The priority of the government is to preserve harmony in a multicultural society, where race is a major social identifier for locals. As mentioned by Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, “You have full freedom of speech [in Singapore] but it doesn’t extend to offending somebody else.”

So similar to how religion is a popular yet sensitive topic in the Philippines, such inflammatory comments along national and racial lines can elicit controversy in Singapore. This is increasingly relevant amidst growing concerns about the influx of foreigners in recent years, with an almost 40% foreign population.

Goodwill ambassadors

172,700 Filipinos work in Singapore, according to the latest publicly available Philippine government data. As part of the foreigner population in Singapore, the responsibility of OFWs is to become goodwill ambassadors for the Philippines.

We are guardians of the Filipino name for the world at large, whose only points of reference about the Philippines are sweeping generalizations and often negative stereotypes. That’s why the OFW community did not speak up on behalf of Edz Ello. They agree that his actions unfairly represented Filipinos. Even some locals echo the same sentiment – don’t let the actions of one Filipino paint the wrong picture of an entire race.

The Ello controversy reminds us that nationalism goes beyond our bloodline, heritage, language and the color of our skin. It’s about knowing that we can be better Filipinos, while holding our fellow kababayansaccountable to that very standard.

As an OFW, that means doing our utmost best in protecting our name abroad. Then perhaps, we’ll be making headlines for all the right reasons.