Cover image: Rusti(right first) and her friends
Today we explore foreign domestic workers’ contrasting views on their relationships with employers and how these perceptions shape their migration journeys. In this episode, Rusti and Tutee, two Indonesian workers who spent more than 10 years of their lives in Singapore, share their inspiring stories.
Like many other migrant workers, Rusti struggled in her transition to Singapore. The first job she got was to take care of an elder in the household who was paralyzed from the waist downwards.
From her waist to her leg, she cannot move anything. That means I must carry her. I must take care of her to (help her) do everyday activities. I must help her.Rusti
This exhaustion was further intensified by the cultural barrier Rusti encountered. The elder Rusti was taking care of did not understand any other language except for Cantonese. To make it worse, the rest of the family lived in a separate house, leaving Rusti entirely on her own. So the choice was to either quit the job or learn Cantonese. Rusti chose the latter.
Every time I communicate with her, I take notes down. I write down what is the word for going to toilet or something she wanted. Of course it’s very difficult until I cannot stand it. I cried. It’s very difficult.Rusti
Just as Rusti said, it wasn’t the easy option. She could have gone straight to the FDW employment agency and asked for a transfer, but she didn’t. So what is the reason for that choice? The answer must be found in Rusti’s fundamental view of the worker-employer relationship.
Too often in the news stories, employers are portrayed as the ones at fault in worker-employer relationships. Rusti, however, saw the limitations of this one-dimension view and understood that workers share a large responsibility in building a healthy worker-employer relationship, which is remarkable because she is a foreign domestic worker herself and could have easily taken a biased stance on the topic. Rusti explained three ways in which workers can contribute to a healthy worker-employer relationship.
Firstly and most importantly, trust. The advice Rusti gave was to never break a promise you made to your employer.
For example, if the employer says ‘Rusti, can you come back at 7 o’ clock on your off-day?’, we must follow that instruction. We must follow the instruction and what they(employers) want.Rusti
The second tip is to always think one step further. As Rusti explained, the responsibility of domestic workers extends so much beyond cleaning and daily chores. It is important that workers realize that and always think one step further for their employers.
Sometimes they(employers) invite people. Sometimes they have dinner parties. If they trust me, they will ask me to cook for them and the guests for the next day, the next day and the next month. This is also a very big responsibility. Why? Because I must think about everything in the party, not just cleaning the house. I must think about the menu and the dishes. I must think for the guests in the house. I must make my employer proud of the dishes and everything. That is for me the responsibility.Rusti
If workers always take the initiative to listen to employer’s needs and demands instead of only doing what they are explicitly told to do, they will be much more successful in their job and gain trust from their employers.
The third factor in building a healthy worker-employer relationship is persistence and the willingness to learn. This is also the quality that stood out the most from Rusti. Working in Singapore as a domestic worker is difficult, but Rusti decided from the start that no matter what, she would not quit her job. Armed with such resolution and persistence, Rusti taught herself Cantonese, and after 22 years of working in Singapore, she eventually became a speaker of 7 languages. This enables Rusti to adapt to households with diverse cultural backgrounds.
During her 22 years in Singapore, Rusti didn’t break a single contract, nor did she ever ask for a transfer. In fact, Rusti has been able to maintain such positive and intimate worker-employer relationships that one of her former employers, after moving to America, still remains in contact with her as a friend.
Until now we still communicate through video calls and whatsapp. Sometimes she cry because she want to go back to Singapore and want to have me working with her again.Rusti
Coming up after the break, Tutee shares her unique perspective on the power balance between workers and employers.
For Rusti, workers adapting to employers’ needs is at the heart of a positive worker-employer relationship. Tutee, however, has a different approach.
A parallel could be drawn from Tutee’s experience to Rusti’s in that she also found the initial transition to Singapore challenging. Her first employer used physical punishment against her.
If I do something wrong, she tell me to keep standing there for 1 hour and 2 hours.Tutee
Tutee made a choice that took her on a migration journey divergent from Rusti’s story.
(I only worked for the first employer for) five months. I did not want to work for the employer so I didn’t finish the contract. I went to the agency and chose another employer.Tutee
Choose another employer. During the interview, Tutee used the word “choose” multiple times, and we thought there must be a connection between this use of language and her perspective on the worker-employer relationship.
Tutee views workers and employers as equal in their relationship with each other. Therefore, for Tutee, employment is a mutual selection process. It is not just that employers choose workers, but workers choose employers as well. It is not just the responsibility of workers to adapt to employers’ needs, but that employers must respect and care for workers. For many of our listeners, this may be something that seems natural, something taken for granted. However, as many foreign domestic workers in Singapore are so dependent on their job to support their family, they often lack the courage to speak up for themselves and many compromise to the worst of working conditions such as not getting adequate food. Tutee, again, flips this thinking process.
Because here in Singapore, many people need me. Not just you.
It is not just workers who need this job, employers need workers as well.
So where has this perception of the worker-employer relationship led Tutee? Well, it is fair to say that Tutee experienced more frequent transfers between employers than Rusti did. However, she has also been able to find a job that meets her needs and maintains a positive relationship with her current employer.
Actually she is not my boss. She is my sister. She is like family(to me).Tutee
One important note before we finish: we are not encouraging workers to take Rusti’s or Tutee’s view to their extreme and stand up for themselves at all costs or compromise to employers no matter what. Of course there is no right or wrong answer to how we should view worker-employer relationships. In fact, as we have witnessed in Rusti’s and Tutee’s stories, both perceptions can lead to a successful migration journey. And it is up to you, our listener, to choose for yourself.
We hope this episode of Her Journey has been inspiring for you, and please fill out our short survey before you leave, the link is in the article. We would love to hear your thoughts and feelings or any questions you may have about the worker employer relationship.