Rest time empowers for Filipino helpers in Singapore

by Arlene Burgos,

Posted at Mar 25 2014 12:18 AM | Updated as of Mar 25 2014 05:51 PM

SINGAPORE – They gathered in pretty much the same fashion that those flash mobs would when readying to break into a sing-and-dance number in a public place.

Yet this is not your ordinary flash mob. These are mostly Filipino household workers on their once-weekly rest day gathering in a public square just off the Lucky Plaza mall along Orchard Road, a major shopping district in Singapore that houses shops ranging from Hermes to Giordano.

Filipinos have made a picnic ground of the sprawling pathways outside the Takashimaya Shopping Center that leads to the SMRT, Singapore’s premier multi-modal public train. The dancing part is not to entertain the crowd, which would mostly gather round the Filipinos and take pictures; it seems more like Filipinos’ way of entertaining themselves.

Many Filipinos who come here belong to the household sector, which comprises about 40 percent of the 160,000 migrant workers from the Philippines. The rest are in the professional and services sectors of restaurants, IT and banking.

Sundays are a respite. Apparently, the time is not just to rest, but to engage in sports, do volunteer work, and, yes – dance.

In a few hours, the Filipinos would break off and go their separate ways, bringing with them their packed dinners, soda cans and speaker for an MP3 which hours earlier blasted dance music only another Filipino would recognize from memories of karaoke bars or appliance shops along downtown Manila’s Avenida or Santa Cruz streets.

Rose, 35 years old, danced to a few tunes before sitting down on a bench to catch her breath and watch her compatriots do a seemingly choreographed dance.

She came to the picnic in the jersey she wore from a volleyball match she went to earlier. Rose said she has been attending volleyball leagues for quite some time now.

She beamed with pride when she spoke of volleyball competitions she has participated in.

The native of the central Philippines island-province of Siquijor tried her luck in Singapore 11 years ago to earn more than the PhP 5,000 monthly salary (about US$111 in today’s exchange rate) she was getting as a worker in a shop that does outdoor advertising signages.

“Amo ng kapatid ko ang nag-recruit sa akin… Hindi ko kilala ang employer ko rito (My sibling’s employer recruited me… I did not know who was going to be my employer here),” Rose said.

Eleven years after, Rose has studied caregiving and a computer course. She said she was “self-supporting” when she did this, meaning she went to school during her free time, and paid her way to school.

Jo (center) flashes a peace sign at HOME, where she volunteers in teaching other workers how to bake.

Jo, a 40-year-old worker who has been watching the dance from one of the benches, was luckier: one of her employers paid for her schooling, allowing her to get a Certificate of Proficiency in Baking from the Baking Industry Training Centre, a specialty school in Singapore.

She has been in the city-state for 22 years after coming here fresh out of high school from Pangasinan in the northern Philippines.

Now Jo “gives back,” volunteering every other Sunday at the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) – an anti-trafficking organization that helps migrant worker acquire skills that could open employment opportunities for them.

Jo teaches advance baking at HOME, but she does not collect fees for this.

The picnic ground off Lucky Plaza across the Takashimaya shopping center has become a center stage not just for dance moves but for stories similar to Jo and Rose’s.

Jo and Rose say they entered sports, baking, took on additional courses, used their free time and available resources to empower themselves.

Someday they want to come back home to the Philippines.

Rose, when asked, hesitated on what she would do when she is able to come back home. Finally, she said she wants to put up her own business; does not matter what, as long as it is hers.

For Jo, the choice is clear. She will put up a bakery.

(The author is an ABS-CBN journalist and currently a 2014 Fellow at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University)