A foreign domestic worker advocate explains why financial education is so important for your helper, and how employers can help empower them
When I arrived in Asia from London 13 years ago, I’d never had a helper and the concept of ‘maids’ was only a vague memory from my grandparents during the war. I was a young mother thinking I could do it all myself. But I quickly came to realise that I could not avoid hiring a domestic worker – and I’m glad we did! Our helper has stayed with us for 12 years, and I’ve learnt so much from her.
She was good at her job, and after a while, she became a great cook, a meticulous cleaner and home organiser, and she was incredibly loving and patient with my kids. But even with the best domestic worker, you can’t avoid some turmoil.
When a loan shark calls you every day
We started getting phone calls from money lenders after a couple of years. Then our domestic worker asked us for help when one of her ‘friends’ made her sign a guarantee letter for a loan, then disappeared, leaving her to repay a crazy amount. Then it was the friend she shared a SIM card with who disappeared, leaving her a HK$1,000 (S$172) phone bill. We always supported her (not always happily), because as her employers, we are legally responsible for these misfortunes.
It got to the point where we had to change our phone number, because of the incessant calls from loan sharks. We told our helper that even though we loved her, we could not keep her if this happened again. She confessed it was very difficult for her to say no when her friends asked to borrow money. When I checked in with her later, she said she was no longer seeing any friends because she feared another money issue. She was a respected, middle aged woman with a lot of work experience. It made me realise how tough the peer pressure in the domestic worker community really is.
What my job taught me about domestic workers
Working in a domestic workers’ recruitment agency, I saw how incredibly grateful they are for the simple tips I’d give them to boost their confidence, or simply for a listening ear. I learnt that small acts can make a big difference to people trying to adapt to a different world far away from their families. I realised that we often underestimate their needs on so many levels.
So, I joined the non-profit organisation Uplifters, founded by Marie Kretz Di Meglio. They provide free online money management courses for domestic workers in both Singapore and Hong Kong, teaching them to prepare for the future, save money, avoid debt scams and even how to say no to unnecessary financial requests from their family back home. These courses go a long way in helping to break the poverty cycle many of these women find themselves in, so they can build sustainable futures for themselves and their families. The truth is, domestic workers don’t have access to basic financial education and arrive in our cities completely unprepared. How can they possibly manage?
Why should employers care?
While I’ve been working on Uplifters’s crowdfunding campaign, many employers have asked me, “Why should I get involved in my domestic workers’ financial education?”, “Why should I sponsor this cause?”, or “Why should I care at all?” Many prefer not to overload their domestic workers or disturb their busy routines. They’re all fair questions and I’ll answer them here:
Better work performance
First of all, I’m sure you’d want your domestic worker to be able to fully concentrate on taking care of your house and kids and not be distracted by financial worries. You trust her with a lot. These courses empower her to be responsible, reliable and good at what she does.
Peace of mind
Nobody wants to deal with loan sharks knocking on the door, asking your domestic worker for repayment. It causes stress and damages your relationship with her. You also want to avoid unpleasant surprises, such as having to repay your domestic worker’s loans. If she learns how interest rates work, how to budget and how to control her payments to her family, she will reduce her risk of spiralling into debt.
A better relationship
We asked graduates of the Uplifters course how it impacted their relationship with their employers. Here’s what they said:
Janelyn: “Now that I am more driven in my passion to learn and earn, I am more dedicated to my work. I am putting all my effort into learning new things to impress my employers. Now we communicate much better together.”
Rubi: “With my employer, it’s changed a lot of things, because I am more confident when I speak English and I am more humble.”
Cristina: “There was a great improvement in my communication skills, and now we understand each other much better.”
Maylin: “When my employer knew about the course I took, they did not worry anymore about me spending my money on unimportant things, and the trust itself started to build.”
Joan: “I believe that when your employer knows that you are learning something to improve yourself, you gain respect from them. It’s good that you let them know that you are productive in terms of learning new things, so they won’t look down on you.”
Contributing to others
Finally, as an employer, you want to be considered responsible and caring, right? Personally, I think it’s normal (and rewarding) to care for the people who work for you, especially those who make up part of your home and family life. I want to know that the salary I pay my domestic worker will contribute to her retirement, or be part of an investment that will help her build a business at home one day. The thought of her daughters coming to Hong Kong as domestic workers doesn’t feel so rewarding for some reason. She has hopes for her family, just like we all do, and deserves a chance.
There are many ways you can help your domestic worker access basic financial knowledge and education. In addition to Uplifters’ free 3-week online course, here in Singapore AIDHA offers an outstanding series of in-depth courses for helpers covering financial and business topics. FAST (Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training) also offers a Basic Financial Education course.
The beauty of sponsoring your domestic worker’s financial education is that it’s win-win for both employer and employee.
A Foreign Domestic Worker’s Open Letter to Her Employer
5 Questions for Helpers that All Employers Should Ask About Their Kids
READ: 28 Real-Life Stories by Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore