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Elma Mijares Fabilitante remembers crying on the first plane ride she ever took, over six years ago.
“I had mixed feelings that time”, recalls the 48-years-old wife of a farmer.
“I was nervous but excited. I had never been outside the Philippines, and there I was, going to a strange country to live with people I’ve never met”.
Questions swirled in her head. She worried about her safety, and whether or not she could get along with these strangers.
She also wondered when she would see her five children again.
Like thousands of other Filipino women, Elma was headed to Singapore to work as a foreign domestic helper.
Her new living environment might have been unfamiliar, but Elma knew a few things about her job. Her new employers, the De Jesus family, were a Filipino-Malaysian family who hired her directly on a referral, and she had to undergo a two-day training course.
More importantly, she would be earning much more than the monthly 5,000 pesos (around S$150) she used to get from being a domestic helper in the Philippines.
Armed with a primary school education – and having lived in a country where average incomes often approached minimum wage – this was a line of work she had no choice but to take.
Foreign domestic workers have become a necessity and not so much a luxury for many Singapore households in recent years.
Despite the occasional headlines reporting cases of abuse on these workers, their numbers have been growing steadily. Last year, there were 209,600 domestic helpers in Singapore compared to 183,200 in 2007, with the majority of the workforce from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Because of their English proficiency (English is widely spoken throughout the Philippines), Filipinos typically get a higher salary than their counterparts from other countries.
ADJUSTING TO LIFE IN SINGAPORE
Fabilitante was no exception. With her starting pay of S$300 (the 2007 minimum wage), she got the standard benefits of one day off per week, along with food, lodging and any necessary medical care.
Such matters though, were the last things on her mind when she began her term with the De Jesus household.
She says: “Singapore is so different from the Philippines. There are so many tall buildings, and there are all kinds of people”.
Thankfully, her employers made it easy for her to adjust, and they got along well. With their help Elma quickly learned the ins and outs of Singapore living.
“Inside the condominium, it felt just like any other middle-class Filipino home”, she recalls. “The Chinese food was new to me, but it wasn’t too different from Filipino food. Ma’am Jane (her employer’s wife, a Malaysian) later taught me to cook noodle dishes.”
Apart from her cleaning and cooking duties, she served as a yaya (the Filipinos’ term for nanny) to the couple’s two children.
Outside of home, her newfound friends – other Filipino domestic helpers in the neighborhood – taught her how to use the EZ-Link stored value card to navigate the city’s MRT and bus systems.