I gave up my dream of being a journalist to be a domestic worker in S’pore & I’d do it all over again

Janet Remia Aclon Peremne was a domestic worker for 33 years. She reflects on her life and how she wouldn't change a thing.

Mothership | July 12, 2022, 10:00 AM

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PERSPECTIVE: “Treating your domestic helper well, it doesn't mean that you treat them like a princess. No, you just treat them like a human being, you know?”

Janet Remia Aclon Peremne came to Singapore when she was 24 years old to support her family, leaving behind her dream job of being a broadcast journalist.

She shares about her experience working in Singapore for 33 years, what she learned about employer-employee relationships, and how, if she were to live her life over again, she wouldn’t change a thing.

By Janet Remia Aclon Peremne, as told to Jane Zhang

I was born in Jones, Isabela. I came from a poor family. We are eight children in the family too, and I am the eldest.

My mother was working as a housekeeper for one of the rich families, and my father was working as a bulldozer operator in a logging company.

The only dream of my parents was that all eight of us would finish college. That was the dream, because they always believed that the only riches that they could give is education.

Dreamt of becoming broadcast journalist

It was my dream to become a broadcast journalist. I wanted to study mass communications, but [I found out that] enrolment for the course was over, so I couldn’t enrol anymore.

So my dad told me, “Why don't you just take a preparatory course like Bachelor of Arts and major in English? Just take the course for two years and after two years, then you can move to your dream, like mass communications.”

Then I said okay. I finished until my second year, but then I talked to my dad and said, “I want to move to Manila to take that mass communications course.”

And my dad said, “Why don't you just finish your Bachelor of Arts?”

I was disappointed, because it was my dream to become a journalist. But what I said was “Okay, I continue,” and I continued that course.

Until one day, I heard one of the FM radio stations announce that they need a newscaster who could be a graduate of any course.

“Oh!” I said, “So I don't need to be in mass communications to be a broadcaster!”

I was only in the second year of college at that time, so I decided to enrol in a short course on computer programming, for six months.

For those six months, I didn't tell my parents that I didn't continue the [Bachelor of Arts] course, because they wanted me to finish it. What they knew is I was still going to school with my uniform, but when I was outside, I had to change my uniform into normal clothes.

And then after six months, I graduated that course. I went to the FM station and said, “Do you accept apprentices?”

Sacrificed dream for family

I was an apprentice for three months, and eventually, they hired me.

It was like, this is it! I'm about to live my dream!

But sometimes, you think the dream that you have is your life already. But I always said, change is a constant.

I was already working as a disc jockey, but the salary was not that much. It was only for myself. I didn’t have much to give for my parents.

One of my aunties came to me and said, “Do you want to go to Singapore?” So that was in 1990.

And then I said, “What will be my work in Singapore if I go?”

My auntie said, “Domestic helper.”

I said yes, with hesitation. I was not sure whether I'll be okay as a domestic helper. And I was hesitant, because [being a broadcast journalist] was my dream.

But I couldn’t help my parents financially. I saw how my parents worked hard. I saw the hardships they had, for me and my siblings. I couldn’t take how my parents were working so hard.

I was 24, and that’s what I was thinking that time.

I said to myself, “I can always go back to my dream. But to support my family, it can't wait. I have to work for it now, to help my family. I can't afford that my family is suffering.”

My dad asked me, “Are you sure you can work as a domestic helper? You can't even cook fried eggs. You don't even do your household chores at all. So how can you be a domestic helper?”

And then I said to my dad, “Everything can be learned. I might not know how to cook right but everything can be learned.”

Then I said yes [to my aunt], and I think within one month, I was ready to go to Singapore.

Working in Singapore was very difficult

The first day I was in Singapore, I had to cry. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to start cleaning the house. I had to deal with the kids, deal with washing, ironing, cooking, and sending the kids to school by myself.

My life that time was so stressful. That’s why every night I had to cry.

Plus, I had homesickness. Homesickness was really hard to deal with.

No day off. I had to work every day. I had a nine-month salary deduction. I think the day-off rule in 1990 was that you can have a day off after you pay nine months’ salary, then you can take once a month day off.

And that nine months was so long for me to wait.

So I finished my nine-month salary deduction, and I decided to talk to my employer and said, “I want to go home.”

My employer let me go, and then while I was back in the Philippines, I started applying again to work in Singapore.

I think I came home three times without finishing my contract because every time I got my employer, I realised it was not the work I wanted because I had no day off, I couldn’t go out… I was thinking like, no, I can't do this.

And then one day, I said I wanted to go back again to Singapore and my auntie told me, “Okay, this is your last time. If you won’t finish your contract, then I won't help you anymore.”

So no matter how hard it was, I had to put in my mind that it would be my last chance of working.

With that employer, a Singaporean family, I had the freedom to go out anytime I wanted, after I finished my work.

That’s why I finished my contract. I believe that you can't keep a person. Give freedom, you know? That's what I was looking for in an employer.

Maybe people misunderstood “freedom” sometimes. When I say freedom, I mean the freedom that I can also unwind, because I'm in a strange country where I don't know anyone.

Because if you keep your domestic helper and they can't go out, it's like… We are not a slave. We're not a prisoner of you. We do our job.

So yeah, I got that freedom from that employer of mine and I finished my contract with them.

And then after two years, I moved for another employer which is an Australian employer.

I worked for eight years in one house, but four different families. Because they are the Australian Navy. Every contract is only two years, so when the family moved, they referred me to the next family.

After those four families, I decided to go home for good. I put up a small business, but the return on investment was too slow. So I stopped the business and decided to go back to Singapore again.

Verbal abuse and difficulties with employers

I worked for a half-Singaporean and half-Scottish family. The guy is Scottish and the lady is Singaporean.

I was verbally abused. They didn’t treat me well. They screamed at me when we were outside in public.

And verbal abuse can cause weight loss, because it’s mental torment on a helper. I lost weight while working with that family. I went from 45kg to 37kg.

They said to me, “You’re just a helper, so you have no right to say anything.”

For me, that’s a red flag. So I said, “Oh, no. This is not the family I want to work with.”

That’s degrading, discrimination. I don’t like it. So I had to leave that family.

I talked to both of them and said, “If you're not happy with me, then just send me back to my agency or send me back home. You don't treat me like a human being.”

And I remember the the lady employer said to me, “I won't send you the agency. I don't want you to find a good employer.”

Because I have this strong personality, I said, “Oh, so you know that I can find a good employer.”

I ran away from that family, because they wouldn’t let me go. The only choice I had was to run away, so I went to the Philippine Embassy.

My employer called the Philippine Embassy and begged me to return. And I said, “No, I made up my mind. I'm not returning to you. I'm not that stupid. I'm going home.”

Then after a week, I came back again to Singapore and I found a new employer.

The lady was Japanese and the guy was British. It went well for my first month. And then my second month, it happened again.

The lady was having breakfast in the kitchen. I had to collect all the laundry, so where shall I pass? The kitchen, right? So, when I passed there, you know what she said? “I don't like you. I don't want to see you.”

I didn't answer back. I moved from the kitchen and I went to the main door. And from the main door, I went to the back door. So that's the routine I was doing: Go out the house, go back to the back door, and just don't pass her. So okay, I did that.

Yet still, everything I was doing, I was not doing right [in their eyes]. Everything I did, it was all wrong.

So I called my agent and said, “Find me a replacement. I can't work with this family.”

They said “Okay, okay, we will find you a replacement.”

But one week later, I still didn’t have that replacement.

So I called my agent and said, “If you won’t bring my replacement, then I will run away to HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics).”

They ignored that, so I ran away to HOME.

Found employer of 14 years who treated me like family

When I was at the HOME shelter, I didn't waste my time. Instead of enjoying my life outside, I spent my time looking for an employer.

I'm glad I found my employer, who I worked with for 14 years until I retired.

I think I had three interviews that time, when I was at the HOME shelter. Two families were giving higher salary, like S$1,000. It was very high. And my question in my mind was, if you have a high salary and if you are good, why are your helpers leaving you?

My employer, that I ended up choosing, she only offered me S$450. Very low compared to my previous salary, because my salary before was already S$700.

But because I'm a person who doesn’t go with money — I go with if you treat me well — that's what I wanted.

I had only one question, that my first Australian employer taught me to ask in interviews with employers: “What are your expectations on me?”

When I asked [my future employers], they said the important thing is their kids. They don't care if the house is dirty. They don't care if ironing is overflowing. They don't care if I can't wash clothes. They don't care, as long as the kids are already fed, have a bath; that’s what was important to them — the kids.

That's why I chose them. I told my agent, “I want this family.”

“But they can only give you S$450,” my agent said.

“It's okay. I'll accept the S$450.”

My agent was shocked, and even my employer was shocked why I accepted the S$450.

And I believe if the employer is good, they can increase your salary anyway. That happened to me.

You have to prove it first before you ask for your salary. You have to be proven that you’re worthy of every increase of your salary.

So that's what happened to me. I accepted S$450, but really, the first salary they gave me was S$550. And then the next year, they increased my salary again.

Treated like part of the family

The difference between those not-good employers and my employer for 14 years is they treated me as one of their family.

Peremne with her former employer's family.

I mean, me and my employer is not perfect. We also argue, but because they treat me as one of their family, arguments is just like, you know, when you're in a family arguments is normal.

This employer of mine, I think they had an open mind. My employer always asked me, “Are you okay?”

The communication was there. They were asking, “How are you?” They know when I'm not happy. They know if I have problems.

If they know that I'm not really happy, they make a coffee for me — you seldom find that in an employee-employer relationship —and then they say, “Let's sit down and talk about the matters.”

You have to be understanding as an employer. Once in a while, you have to ask [your domestic worker] questions, like how are they? Sometimes maybe they have a problem on their family that you don't know. Sometimes they can't do their work because of the problem back home.

So the best thing is that employer step down and ask how’s their employee, right? Like for me, I can open up because they always said, “We are always here for you, if you have a problem, you can come and talk with us.” They opened the door of communication.

I think sometimes people misunderstood what we mean about treating us well. Like sometimes I read people on the internet saying, “Oh, these domestic helpers, they want to be treated as a princess.”

No! That's not the way domestic helpers want it.

Treating your domestic helper well, it doesn't mean that you treat them like a princess. No, you just treat them like a human being, you know?

It's not only inside the house — even in companies, right? You have to treat your employees [well]. Treating someone nicely and treating them well as a human being is always a must.

Giving advice to other domestic workers

I started volunteering at HOME’s help desk in 2008. After I ran away to HOME during the Japanese and British employers, I went back to the Philippines for five days only.

Then after I came back, I went to the HOME office at Lucky Plaza just to say thank you for all the help that they gave me.

And then I said that I can come and volunteer every Sunday. The following Sunday, I went there to volunteer at the help desk. I did this until 2021.

To my fellow domestic workers, because I volunteered with HOME’s help desk, I always tell them, “Build the trust. Always build the trust.” You know, an employer won't just anyhow trust you, right? So you have to build the trust with them and start communicating.

Unless their employer is really, really bad, and no matter how you try your best, still your best is not good enough for them. And I always advise my fellow domestic workers, “If you cannot take it anymore, then don't force it. It’ll affect your health and your mental health, so if you can't take it anymore, leave. It's not about money. Money, you can always find.”

Took entrepreneurship courses to fulfil promises to my parents

When I was with my 14 years employer, I decided to take courses. I decided to take entrepreneurship courses with Aidha.

When I had taken up the [radio DJ] apprenticeship, I had to tell my parents because of course they would hear me on the radio. At first, I could tell they were disappointed.

But I told my parents before, I can always go back to college anyway, since that's their dream. I promised my dad, I can always go back to college.

So when I was working in Singapore, I remembered the promises that I made to my dad, I have to do it. So since I had the chance of taking the entrepreneurship courses, I did so. That was around 2015, 2016.

But by that time, my dad had passed away already in 2003. So every dream that he wanted, he didn't see. It's a bit sad.

The success that I also promised him before that — I'll buy you a house — but because he's not here anymore, so he will never see that again.

But I know he will be proud of me. He will.

When I started in Aidha, I learned to become financially literate. They teach me how to manage my money. That’s the time I really managed my salary.

I said, “Suffer now, enjoy later.” I said, save, save, save, save, save; invest, invest, invest, invest; and then those investments, those savings that you kept, you’ll be enjoying it after you retire.

I finished the course that I promised to my dad. I handled my finances very well. And I bought a condo unit here in Manila.

Saying goodbye to my employers

My employers moved back to England [in April]. I told them earlier already that they would be my last employer. I already told them that when they go back, I will go back home also.

It was really hard [leaving them]. I had a hard time. Because [my employer’s family] also had a dog. When our dog went to doggy care before he had to fly back to England, I cried hard.

My dog is already my buddy for seven years. I miss my dog. The attachment of the dog to me is like, oh my God, it's like a human being.

Peremne with her former employer's dog, her "buddy for seven years".

My last dinner together with the family, we reminisced about the first day I worked with them — the eldest kid was just two years old and the youngest was two months old. And now they're 14, 15 years old.

It was really hard to say goodbye. For 14 years, I've been with them.

Leaving Singapore for life back in the Philippines

I left Singapore on Apr. 11.

Peremne's last day in Singapore was spent hanging out with a friend over her favourite laksa, from 328 Katong Laksa.

If I were to redo my life again, I would never change anything. I’d still work as a domestic helper.

Domestic work is work. Many people, sometimes they look down on domestic helper. But if I were to go back on my life again, I still choose to be a domestic helper. Because working as domestic helper, it brought me to where I am now.

Sometimes your dreams change. I’m happy that I made it as a broadcaster for a few years. I’m happy for that, that at least I achieved that. It's fulfilling that I fulfilled my dream.

But the dream that I have now is having my own business. That’s all I want.

I’m planning to retire in Manila, but I still want another business for another source of income, that can sustain me while I’m here in the Philippines.

I still have some more investment. I’ll be fine. But money is easy to be gone.

I have plans for putting up another business. I already have two franchises. One is Siomai King, and the second franchise is TokTok delivery.

I have to relax first, relax for a while, spend time with family. I'm still enjoying life. I want a life balance now. That's what I want. It's not that very stressful life anymore. I don't want that anymore.

If my dad were still alive, I'm sure he will be very proud of what I achieved.

All article photos via Janet Remia Aclon Peremne. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.