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One-On-One With MaidForMore Founder — Advocating for the Rights of Domestic Workers in S’pore

Driven by sheer will to invoke positive change in the lives of Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs), MaidForMore was founded by sister duo Nessa and Phoebe Swinn. It is a group of youth advocates dedicated to the betterment of the beneficiaries above and has been lauded as young advocates for the dignity and fair treatment of migrant domestic workers in Singapore.

Some of their key initiatives include Valentine’s Day Fundraiser for HOME, their #Looklikeamaid 2019 Christmas campaign (Collaboration with local jewellery brand Crimson & Clover), Rolling Family Features series on exemplary employer-employee households, and a Cooking Tag video with Roz Pho & Siti.

It is a group primarily run by volunteers, all fighting alongside one another for the just treatment of their migrant friends. Nessa talks about what led her to start the initiative and the struggles which MDWs face in a time of COVID-19.

Credit – MaidForMore (Nessa, pictured on the far left)

Vera Leng: How would you describe yourself and what you do at MaidForMore to someone you’re meeting for the first time?

Nessa Swinn: Hi, I’m Nessa. MaidForMore is a cultural advocacy group for migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Singapore. We are an informal group of volunteers led by my sister Phoebe and I.

It’s something we’ve always wanted to do. When we managed to get a small grant from the National Youth Council in 2019, we formed a team (I just put out an open call on my social media accounts) and haven’t looked back since.

What drove you to start MaidForMore?

A keen awareness growing up and observing the sheer imbalance in power dynamics between Singaporeans and MDWs, especially in how they manifest interpersonally. We typically witness an MDW seated alone and away from her employers at a restaurant, with not much else to do but wait and look on as the family enjoys good food and companionship.

We often observe familiar sights of small-framed MDWs struggling with more than her weight in grocery bags as her employers’ family walks on in front. I could go on and on.

“Why do these examples leave such a bad taste in our mouths?”

The point is that these are not crimes. Some may argue that these are not even exploitative practices. So why do these examples leave such a bad taste in our mouths? What do these instances collectively say about how we view these women who are systematically some of the most under-protected labourers in modern society?

Why is the hard work they do day in day out for long hours so undervalued structurally and culturally? Why are they the targets of discrimination and bullying?

The list of questions is endless, but you get my gist. In bringing to fore these questions about the experiences of MDWs, we are also asking important questions about ourselves. And when you do, you find that there is so much wrong with the system, with our culture—there is just so much rot.

You find that there is so much wrong with the system… so much rot.

Do other similar groups like yours exist?

Yes, of course. The low resource/operational cost work we do is also to help plug the gaps of current migrant worker advocacy efforts led by established civil society groups, as well as civil society groups like HOME and TWC2—organisations I deeply respect. So much of what they do can be seen as putting out fires—providing shelter for MDWs on the run, helping with casework, providing food, and more.

MFM work intends to plug the cultural-level gap on a more present level that relates to stigma, discrimination, and myths. And because domestic work is so feminised, undervalued, and invisible, raising awareness is one of the main pillars of our work.

What do people misunderstand the most about migrant workers in Singapore?

The key myth about migrant workers in Singapore is that the work they do is “unskilled”—thus warranting low pay, poor working conditions, and low status. What does unskilled even mean? If these workers are so unskilled, let’s test that claim—and it is a claim, albeit one with institutional power—and imagine them collectively ceasing to work for a month.

Our lives would fall apart, I can assure you. We’d scramble to perform half their tasks with half the ability. Just think about this, and it will come into clearer perspective how unfairly we view their labour.

I reference the Straits Times article that was reposted by MaidForMore’s FB page. What do you think Migrant Domestic Workers struggle the most with in a time of COVID-19?

Isolation. As it is, many already do not get a weekly off-day in normal times. Now, we are taking away the one day they get to be themselves around people they are fully comfortable with, who speak their language, who understand their woes, and who eat the same food they do.

It creates a sense of unbearable loneliness and anxiety most Singaporeans are lucky not to experience. For those who work with unreasonable employers, this isolation is exacerbated when they are overworked, overly controlled, and not given enough rest and food.

During this Circuit Breaker period we’ve also been releasing infographics in Bahasa, Tagalog, and Burmese on updated Circuit Breaker measures and resource kits for helpers. We also host free virtual workout sessions on Sundays for MDWs led by certified instructors, ranging from Yoga to Barre.

This isolation is exacerbated when they are overworked, overly controlled, and not given enough rest and food.

It is hard to run away from the harsh reality that is the divide between migrant workers and white collared workers in Singapore, made all the more evident by our recent trend in COVID-19 cases. What, in your opinion, is the root problem at play for this divide?

If you’re talking about the outbreak amongst our male migrant workers, then it is an issue of the government having ignored years of calls by groups like HOME and TWC2 to reform the conditions of their accommodation and work.

Also, the fact that they are transient workers and so managed on a cruel ‘use-and-discard’ policy (this is an actual quote used in a paper by migrant labour researchers) to keep costs low. It’s similar for domestic workers. All of this goes back to how their labour is valorised—as unskilled.

…managed on a cruel ‘use-and-discard’ policy to keep costs low.

Where do you see MaidForMore in the next 2-3 years? What does success for the movement look like to you?

One of the pleasant surprises we’ve had running our advocacy work is the amount of support we’ve gotten from the community in terms of offers to volunteer, comments of encouragement, shares, and reposts. We collaborate a lot with people who step forward to offer help, and some of our work is the product of collaboration with people outside our core team.

I want to keep doing that. It gives me the morale to keep grinding and helps me go to sleep better at night, knowing there are others out there who care as much about MDWs as I do. It would be great if we could scale up our public outreach and work with other stakeholders in the MDW labour industry. It would be useful to work with employment agencies, for example.

Unfortunately, a lot of the impact of our work I think cannot be quantified or easily measured. We’ll keep at it though, but I think a clear sign of success would be if we could grow a sizeable community of Singaporean advocates for domestic workers beyond our age group. That would be an indication that we’re doing something good and sustainable for the MDWs.

Credit – MaidForMore

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