SINGAPORE

A rare glimpse into foreign maids’ lives in Singapore

Singapore’s more than 220,000 domestic workers don’t have an easy job. Far from their families and their homes – most hail from the Philippines, Indonesia, or Burma – they face long work days, little legal protection, and, sometimes, abuse at the hands of their employers. Many of them speak of feeling invisible in Singaporean society. A small group of them, however, are trying to change that by delving into photography as a way to show life from their vantage point.

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A domestic worker hanging laundry. All photos were taken by domestic workers taking Julio Etchart's photography workshop. 

Singapore’s more than 220,000 domestic workers don’t have an easy job. Far from their families and their homes – most hail from the Philippines, Indonesia, or Burma – they face long work days, little legal protection, and, sometimes, abuse at the hands of their employers. Many of them speak of feeling invisible in Singaporean society. A small group of them, however, are trying to change that by delving into photography as a way to show life from their vantage point.

A migrants’ rights organisation called HOME has teamed up with the National University of Singapore to offer domestic workers a photo workshop, led by Uruguayan photojournalist Julio Etchart. The first workshop they offered was geared to domestic workers living at HOME’s shelter: women who had suffered either physical or psychological abuse by their employers. Since most of the women in this original workshop eventually returned to their home countries, Etchart now teaches a weekly workshop for domestic workers with stable employment, which began last spring.

“Many photograph their church or temple, which is where they not only pray but socialise with other migrants on their one day off”

I have learned so much about domestic workers through this workshop. They’re extremely strong and resilient – usually, they came to work in Singapore so that they could make enough money to pay for their children’s schooling back at home.

A domestic worker shows a photograph of her husband and son, back at home.

Most of them only have Sundays off, and take most of their photos then [Editor’s Note: It only became mandatory for employers to give domestic workers a day off a week in 2012, and cases of abuse remain rife]. They are quite religious – whether Christian or Buddhist – so of course many of their pictures show activities in their churches or temples. These places of worship are where they not only practise their religions, but socialise with other migrants.

Religious themes run through many of the students' photographs. 

Food is also a big theme. They take it extremely seriously. All week, they eat the food that the families they work for enjoy. But on their day off, they like to go to a mall where there are Filipino and Burmese restaurants, and eat dishes that remind them of home.

Celebrating a domestic worker's birthday at a park. 

They also like to photograph the children they look after. Most of the women in the group have worked in Singapore for one or two decades already; they missed seeing their children grow up back at home, only seeing them for short visits when they could get vacation time. They love to show off photos of their children on Facebook, but don’t have many opportunities to photograph them themselves.

A domestic worker celebrates Halloween with two of the little girls she takes care of. 

I have taught my students to use self-timers on the cameras we loan them, so that they can take pictures of themselves at work. I’ve also asked them to take photographs of themselves with their employers; most of the employers have been OK with this so far. Next, I would like to try to get them to express more subtle desires in their photos, namely what they would have liked to have done if they had not become domestic workers, which most don’t see as their calling. One of them paints, and does really beautiful artwork; she told me she painted a lot when she was young, but wasn’t able to pursue this because she couldn’t afford to go to school. Another is a history buff, and would have loved to be a historian.

“I hope our photos will help locals see that domestic workers are humans, too”

Gilda Malaluan is a domestic worker who takes part in the photography workshop. She has lived and worked in Singapore for more than 20 years.

I have three grown children, who all graduated from university back in the Philippines in the last few years. When the last one graduated, I said, OK, now it’s my turn to study! I take classes on Sundays. I’m lucky to have good employers who respect my time off – I know women whose employers give them work on their “day off” and who don’t have any time to learn new things. The first class I took was in computer skills – I had always been scared of computers. When I cleaned my employer’s desk, I was afraid of touching the wrong key on the computer’s keyboard and breaking it. Then, I took a leadership course at my church, and now, I’m learning to express myself through photography.

A domestic worker's cross.

By analysing photos in class, I learned that you can tell a story through a photo. I learned to observe details around me, and capture them from different angles. It’s helped me open my eyes to the world around me. I take a lot of photos at my church – sometimes just a detail, like a close-up of someone who has beautiful eyes, or someone deep in prayer. I took a self-portrait of myself cleaning the fan at my employer’s house – that was hard!

Gilda's self-portrait.

We’re planning to have a public exhibit in a few months, and I hope our photos will help locals see that we domestic workers are humans, too. We work hard but also have other aspects to our lives, and we need to have the same rights as everyone else. [Editor’s Note: Domestic workers are not covered by Singapore’s employment act, which regulates hours worked, safety guidelines, and retirement.] There is a lot of discrimination here – for example, when you talk a bit loudly on public transport, people will glare at you because you’re a foreigner. Sometimes, they’ll say nasty things to us. But when locals are doing the same thing, no-one will raise an eyebrow.

A domestic worker puts on makeup. 

But domestic workers mostly we feel like we’re invisible, that most people here don’t care about us. So I want them to see that we exist, and not only that – without us, the country would be dirty. We clean your houses, we take care of your children, and the taxes on domestic workers helps build roads and make Singapore more beautiful!

Domestic workers take part in traditional dances during a Filipino holiday.

Fun with friends by the seashore. 

The photo workshop. 

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).