I’ve recently watched a film called Remittance. You won’t see it advertised at your local cinema. You won’t see glossy posters with the names of famous actors at the top. Remittance is a tale of foreign domestic workers in Singapore. It’s a tale of truths from two hundred or so foreign domestic workers already in Singapore. And it is, for want of a better word, heart-breaking. I won’t spoil the film for anyone, but there are moments that are so clearly based on personal experience you forget you’re watching the tears of budding actresses. The budding actresses you see on screen are almost all domestic workers in real life. Remittance is their story.
The reasons for women entering the domestic work industry are not particularly complex with the main motivation being financial. These women can earn significantly more working in places like Singapore than they can at home. Marie, the lead character in Remittance, leaves the Philippines in order to support her husband and children just as so many women do in real life. Even a wage of S$500 (approximately £285) a month is considered acceptable. This is in exchange for working fourteen hours a day (give or take), six days a week. For new arrivals like Marie, the salary might be significantly decreased in order to “pay off” agency fee’s or loans. Marie spends the first eight months of her employment in Singapore earning $20 a month. It is no wonder she had to find a way in which to supplement her income. It’s illegal to do so, but it happens.
But for all the scenes that are difficult to watch there are moments of pure joy too. Witnessing the friendship and banter among the women on their day off offers some light relief. There is an inescapable reality though. As someone who lives alongside these women in Singapore, it is as if they exist in a parallel version of this city to myself. At times our paths cross. I stand behind them in the supermarket queue. I smile at them in the playground as our charges are all running wild. I’ll be propositioned by a helper occasionally, someone who wants to take on some extra cleaning work on her “rest day”. For the most part though, these women remain in tight knitted groups, and the women in Remittance were no different.
According to this 2015 report from the International Labour Organization, there are approximately eleven and a half million foreign domestic workers currently employed globally. Second only to the Arab States, the region of South East Asia and the Pacific accounts for a larger number of foreign domestic workers than any other region in the world (2013 data). The report goes on to state that the gender balance of domestic workers globally is 73.4% female and 26.6% male. So it stands to reason that Remittance represents a majority group of this workforce. In fact, according to data from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, as of December 2016 there were 239,700 work permits in use by foreign domestic workers, forming about fourteen per cent of the non-resident population in Singapore (according to The Straits Times).
The number of foreign domestic workers in Singapore has been increasing as supply matches demand. The increase was attributed to “Singaporeans’ rising desire to augment their own care for their children and elderly” according to the Population in Brief 2016 report from the National Population and Talent Division the Prime Minister’s Office in Singapore. There is an ageing population here. Without a societal shift in community based care-giving, it is left to individual families to come up with a solution. Employing a foreign domestic worker is just that.
However, employing a domestic worker is also a status symbol. This is rife nowhere more than among the expat community. Expats here have a long history with employing foreign help, and between the 1930’s and 1960’s the help came in the form of an Amah. Amah’s hailed from China and were not only a symbol of wealth, but they were highly regarded and well respected. Amah’s were widely considered a part of their employers family.
The dawn of the domestic worker as we know them today came about thanks to the industrialization of Singapore in the 1960’s and 1970’s. With the industrialization came the need for women to be in the workplace. For normal Singaporean families (as opposed to the extremely wealthy who already employed Amah’s), this created a need for outside domestic help. The modern day foreign domestic worker revolution began with 1978’s introduction of the Foreign Domestic Servant Scheme. The women that were attracted to these roles came from neighbouring countries in the region. Not much has changed since.
This shift in the culture of domestic workers has, unfortunately, also meant a huge shift in the treatment of them. The days of the respected family Amah have gone. Instead, domestic workers are now often treated as a disposable commodity, with the threat of “being sent back” hanging over them. Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines have all, at times, considered a ban on women taking on live-in domestic worker roles abroad because of the treatment they can endure. The legacy of the modern day domestic help is yet to be seen. But it’s not hard to see where the comparison to modern day slavery comes from with stories of abuse rife.
I expected to come away from watching Remittance feeling incredibly sad and angry. But I wasn’t. I was confused. Somehow the film hadn’t once allowed me to feel sorry for Marie whilst she was in Singapore. I felt the complete injustices of her life many times. But at no point did I feel sorry for her. Marie wasn’t a woman who wanted sympathy. She was stronger than I could ever imagine being, and she was providing for her family. She would do anything – ANYTHING – to support her loved ones. There are many lessons to be taken away from Remittance, admiration for these women being the main one.