A letter to a F(riend)/(oreign) domestic worker

A few weeks ago, IOM X approached me to write a blog article. I attended the IOM X ASEAN Youth Forum in 2015 and am part of activities to raise awareness about human trafficking and exploitation at my university.

The premise for the blog sounded interesting. I was asked to visit the website nooneshouldworkthisway.com and write a response to what I saw and read.

No One Should Work This Way is photo exhibition that documents abuses of domestic workers. The photos and write-ups are harrowing and moving; but at the same time, they are empowering to the victims who are finally having their stories told.

Scrolling through the website and reading the stories made me do something that I have been meaning to do for a long time. While it’s not exactly what the original blog idea was, this is a result of my emotional reaction to No One Should Work This Way.

Dear Jeet,

I know you will never read this and I am not even sure if I am writing this for you or for myself, or for anyone out there to read and try to understand the relationship we created in a span of four weeks and some. Every Friday morning, I looked forward to seeing you and all the other women from the Humanitarian Organization for Migrations Economics (HOME). Before our first meeting, I nervously ran through all the possible talking points in my head. In my mind, there was a fear that looming, awkward silences would ensue at our meeting, a fear irked by the belief that we had nothing in common.

 

I, a 20 year-old university student born and brought up in a wealthy, developed country and you, a 23 year-old married mother taking on the additional identity of a migrant worker from the developing world- what could we possibly have in common?

 

I won’t paint a perfect picture by lying and saying that we bonded instantly. I remember the first hour of our meeting when you and your friends glanced at me nervously. I could sense that you felt threatened by me, holding a notebook and aggressively taking notes as if I was trying to document your every move. I couldn’t blame you for not understanding that I was only doing so as not to forget these crucial introductions needed for my reflection. I also couldn’t blame you for the initial animosity because your past experiences in Singapore could hardly lead you to trust us, Singaporeans, for having treated you in a less than humane manner. Your mistrust was guided by the looks you receive on our streets, labelled more as a foreign nuisance than a loving care-giver, giving up your life at home to come look after us. I say again, who could blame you?

However, within the first hour, I was disrupted by a frantic phone call from my mother wondering if my morning alarm had woken me up in time for this meeting. I responded in my mother-tongue Hindi, and in a quick moment, I saw the expression on your face transform into a gleeful smile. Therein lay our first commonality — language. Not to be overly dramatic, but Mandela’s words struck me at that moment.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

The last hour had been spent talking to you in English, a language you definitely understood yet comprehension and expression can be miles apart. It struck me that this wasn’t just a struggle you faced today. You and your employer must have faced the same distance created by communication in a language that was new to you, yet one that you were expected to take directions in, with the promptness of a high-speed rail. After a quick clarification that I did in fact speak Hindi, you provided me with a flurry of information about yourself as I attempted to take it all in. I gasped when I heard that you had a 6 month-old son back home and then again when you told me you were a university graduate! You told me about your favourite film and that you visited the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) everyday back home. We talked for a while longer, before it was time for you to go back to the shelter, but you made me promise I would come back next Friday.

Friday morning dawned and I was woken up again by my mother’s call, worried yet again that the alarm clock would have no effect on me- she knew me so well. This time though, I was left wondering if your mother ever called you to wake you up, or if you will ever be able to spend time getting to know your son as my mother knew me. At today’s meeting, the atmosphere was jovial. I had become a familiar face. However, the trust that was growing between us also meant that I got to know more about your life here in Singapore, not just the stories from back home. I learnt of the exploitation you faced at the hands of your employer. You showed me the scars, emotional and physical. Your accounts made me loathe with disgust at the human race. How could someone do this to a fellow human being? You told me that my shock was uncalled for because after all, she was only a maid. Oh, how I hated that archaic word. You were a domestic worker- a woman with a full-time job in the labour market. You were a breadwinner. You were an independent woman seeking employment just like any other, and you should not have had expectations any less when it came to safety and well-being.

Yet, you were told to expect less. From your agent, from your employer, from the government, from the society- you were expected to earn lesser, to be fed lesser, to be treated as lesser.

Four weeks later, I realized that we had so much more in common than our language. You had the same dreams and aspirations as I did, of a young adolescent woman looking to build a future. The shelter told me that you left a few months ago because you were not able to get another employment contract in Singapore.

You had told me that you spent your life’s savings in hopes of coming to Singapore, and I am sorry that my sunny little island fell short of your expectations. I am sorry that you were met with unkindness.

But, I am also hopeful that the time you spent in the shelter went some way in rebuilding your ability to trust. I can only expect that you are missing HOME, a space carved out on our tiny island to help you and your friends restore a better life. A few months later, as I write this letter to you, I am hoping that when you think of Singapore, you also keep me in your memories. Jeet, you were a foreign domestic worker to many, but a friend to me. Keep smiling.

Love and respect,

Sovereigna

No One Should Work This Way focuses on spreading awareness of the physical and psychological abuse of domestic workers as a way of promoting their labour and human rights and encouraging countries to ratify ILO Convention №189. The project was undertaken by photographer Steve McCurry and journalist Karen Emmons. If you are interested in exhibiting or using the photos, please visit http://nooneshouldworkthisway.org

View a video about the project at http://bit.ly/1NINmQ6

Sovereigna Lakhotia is a senior year student at the National University of Singapore where she is majoring in global studies.

This piece originally appeared on the IOM X Blog.

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