Here's how foreign domestic workers spend their days off in S'pore

We follow Filipino domestic helpers on their day off and discover that there's more to their lives than just cleaning and cooking.

Rachel Ng | Andrew Koay | January 05, 2020, 03:17 PM

This article first published on April 19, 2019.

Some 2,355 kilometres away from family and friends, Filipino domestic helpers perform their daily tasks of mopping, cooking, washing, among a host of others. But even as they live and work in our homes, and frequently become part of our families, domestic helpers are often confronted with feelings of homesickness.

For many, their one day off per week — often a Sunday — represents an opportunity to find relief from the stresses of living and working alone in a foreign land.

Mothership followed some of these ladies on their day off to get a glimpse into their lives outside the houses they work in.

Church in the morning

At the Church of Saint Alphonsus (you might know it as Novena Church) in Novena, many Filipino domestic workers are amongst the throngs of faithful who are attending mass. This Sunday happens to be a special occasion for the devout — Palm Sunday. 

On Palm Sunday, the Church of Saint Alphonsus is packed and overflowing. Photo by Andrew Koay.

Anna Marie, from the City of Bacolod, is a grandmother of five despite only being 43 years of age. For her friends and her, religion is a comforting respite from what can be a dark week.

"Of course it's a big effect for us. For example, we are in depressed sometimes. So we need to pray. We need to cleanse ourselves [laughs]. Because sometimes we're not perfect, we commit sins."

Anna Marie (left), and her friends. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Deep in prayer. Photo by Rachel Ng.

As the crowd streams out of the church, some stop to take photos to remember the day. Photo by Rachel Ng.

A picnic lunch

After mass, its time for lunch.

Mary Grace, 31 and from Southern Luzon, is holding a picnic with four other friends. Having all met at a weekend nursing aid course, they often spend their days off helping out at nursing or psychiatric homes.

Mary Grace has been working in Singapore for 5 years. Photo by Rachel Ng.

An authentic Filipino feast. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Today, it's a special occasion as one of them has just returned from a visit back home. To celebrate, they are eating home-cooked food reminiscent of meals that would be eaten in the Philippines.

"Like us, once a year we will go back to Philippines, just like one week or two weeks. Not enough time right? That's why we are meeting like this. To release or to forget the homesickness.

If we have a free time, just like two or three hours, because we are like very thick friendship. We save our time to have a time like this. But only once a month or once in two months."

Mary Grace (first from the left) and her friends. They all met while attending a nursing aid course. Photo by Rachel Ng

Guitar lessons

Seated a couple of mats away, Joy is part of a group of eight ladies brandishing guitars and belting out a variety of tunes ranging from Filipino favourites to golden oldies.

Joy (centre, in white) teaching her friends how to play the guitar. Photo by Rachel Ng.

For the group, playing the guitar and singing together on Sunday is the highlight of their week. Photo by Rachel Ng

The 45-year-old, who is from the City of Bacolod, teaches the group how to play the guitar. It's an activity that they look forward to every week — one of the guitarists even mentioned that she thinks about it every night.

"We're just here because we're the same interests, the same passion that we want to learn guitar. So I'll share my knowledge with them. That's why they're also encouraged to buy guitar and learn. But we're not professional actually, we're just only having fun. We make our time useful.

This is our way of expressing ourselves also. Yah because sometimes for the whole week, we spend six days with our employer right? So our mind is focusing on the work like that. But on Sundays, we spend our time with ourselves and with our friends."

The group has performed together at events. Photo by Andrew Koay

The chord sheet for a favourite Filipino tune. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Fashion show models

Elsewhere, Kate is also teaching her friends a skill, albeit a very different one.

Kate (left, in red) and her friends practising a synchronised walk. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Modelling helps these domestic workers to develop their self-esteem. Photo by Rachel Ng.

"I get to show my talent also. I teach some models also, how to catwalk and share my talent as a model.

All are Filipino, for the homesick also, the enjoyment on Sunday. They feel homesick, so we also encourage them to join this event."

The 32-year-old, who incidentally also hails from the city of Bacolod, is preparing her friends for a big show that will be held on April 28 at Kallang Theatre.

Red cups are used to designate the spots that models have to walk towards and pose. Photo by Rachel Ng.

The big show also features 'butch' models. Photo by Rachel Ng.

The show, which features both femme and butch domestic helpers, will also see celebrities from the Philippines in attendance.

Mark, who is also a Filipino working in Singapore, is helping to coach the models.

"It's a good opportunity for them to develop, like, their self-esteem, for them to be much more confident. For example, this one, they really did not train for like proper modelling courses. So that's why they're only developed here in Singapore.

Sometimes also they treat themselves as one family."

Mark (right, in black) coaches the models on how to perform catwalks. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Volleyball in the afternoon

As the afternoon sun died down, we headed to Kallang where Michelle's volleyball team, called Squad Force, conducts their weekly training. Hailing from Manila, the 46-year-old domestic helper founded the team two years ago with 15 other friends.

Michelle (third from the right) with her teammates and coach. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Many domestic helpers come for the recreation, while others are training for a competition. Photo by Rachel Ng

"If you know anyone, you can join here. You can train here. It's fun to play here rather than going anywhere, wasting our time.

Here we get the exercise, we learn. So better spend here rather than go anywhere else."

The coaches are from the Philippines too, working in various different jobs here in Singapore. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Nowadays, as many as 80 players — most of whom work here as foreign domestic helpers — attend the weekly training, conducted by a group of coaches who are also guest workers from the Philippines.

From these training sessions, teams are formed and sent to take part in local competitions.

Sparkling Team, sparkling smiles. Photo by Andrew Koay.

One coach told Mothership of the camaraderie the players share.

"This is not called a team, this is called family.

If someone needs help ah, everyone chips in just to give something ah. Even though all that one ah, is just a foreign worker. But all them care for each member."

Domestic helpers find a community to belong too in this volleyball team. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Dancing in the evening

Just as the sun went down Mothership caught 28-year-old Jonnah, from Mindanao, and her friends, as they performed one last run through of a dance routine they've been practising.

Jonnah (bottom left) and her friends dance every Sunday. Photo by Rachel Ng.

If they don't have an event or a competition, the group dances from morning till night. Photo by Rachel Ng.

Many of them were passionate about dance before moving to Singapore. Photo by Rachel Ng.

The group choreographs their own routines before performing them at either events or local competitions.

Jonnah (centre) helps to organise and choreograph the group's dances. Photo by Andrew Koay.

"It helps us to less our stress and homesick. It is like our escape for our homesick or our stress. Cause living in Singapore alone is quite stressful."

Top photos by Rachel Ng