Ever since she was young, Janet Aclon Peremme has dreamt of being a broadcast journalist. The child of a bulldozer operator and laundrywoman from Isabela, life wasn’t easy for this eldest of seven children. But the Cheche Lazaro and Inday Badiday fan chased her dream anyway, and was bent on taking up Mass Communications in college.
Along the way, however, the Mass Comm course in Manila didn’t pan out and Janet ended up taking up AB English in the meantime back in her hometown. The plan was to shift to her intended course later on. But after two years, her father told her to just complete the English degree.
Janet was understandably disappointed, but eager to still pursue her dream of working in the broadcast industry, she decided to apply as an apprentice at her favorite FM station in Isabela, DWIP. For three months, she trained to do radio assistant work, learned to be adept in music genres, to play and cut music, and cue commercials. There were even times she was asked to read the news. Eventually, she was hired as a regular employee and was happily living her dream. The only downside: she was earning too little to help with the family income.
After working in radio for over a year, an aunt informed her about an opportunity to work as an OFW in Singapore. “Ano ang magiging trabaho ko?” she asked curiously. Her aunt replied: “Domestic helper.”
Off to a new world
Expectedly, Janet hesitated. Taking on the DH job would mean letting go of her dream career. But she also couldn’t bear the fact that her family could hardly make ends meet. To make things worse, at that time, her other siblings were about to enter college which meant more expenses.
So the then-24 year old decided to ditch her ambitions and try her luck in Singapore: “Sabi ko, ‘I can go back to [fulfilling] my dream anytime.’” While she was not very good at housework—her father teased that she can’t even cook rice or fry an egg—Janet was determined to learn. “Sabi ko sa father ko, natututunan naman lahat. Subukan ko lang. kung hindi ko kaya, babalik ako ng Pinas. Babalik ako sa broadcasting.”
A month after saying yes to her aunt, she was enroute to the Lion City. “Andun yung excitement at kaba. Kasi pupunta ako sa isang bansa na kung saan wala akong kakilala,” the Pinay recalls to ANCX. “Then when I saw the sights and surroundings, I got excited. Ang ganda pala sa Singapore.”
But it didn’t take long before she saw the ugly realities she would eventually face herself as a domestic worker. “Doon pa lang sa agency, nakita ko na agad ang discrimination. Paano binu-bully ang mga bagong saltang domestic workers. Sinisigawan ng employer,” she recalls. Janet heard stuff like “katulong ka lang,” “wala kang karapatang magreklamo,” “kainin mo kung ano ang ibinibigay sa iyo.”
She had a hard time adjusting to the first household she served. The biggest challenge was the amount of work she needed to do daily. “Five AM pa lang gising na. Tapos late na matulog. Walang day-off. I was so tired and stressed. Super hirap,” she offers. But since she still needed to pay for her placement fee through her monthly salary, she decided to stay on for nine months. “[After nine months] nagpaalam ako. Sabi ko, hindi ko kaya. Mabait naman ang amo ko. Pinayagan akong umuwi.”
In her 33 years as a DH, Janet has worked in the homes of Singaporeans, Australians, Scots, British nationals, and Japanese. Once she finished her contract with a family, she would apply to another, or sometimes a former boss would refer her to another employer. But there were occasions she would just run away. “There was a time when I only stayed with my employer for two months, kasi grabeng physical at mental stress ang dinanas ko. In two months, I lost weight—from 45kg to 37 kg.” She tried talking to her employers, pleading they just let her go if they’re unhappy with her service. But they insisted she finish her contract.
“Hindi na ako kumibo. Naisip ko, kailangan ko na’ng humingi ng tulong sa Philippine Embassy,” Janet recalls. She left the home of her employer at 2 in the morning, with only a few pieces of clothes and two Singapore dollars. Thankfully, a taxi driver agreed to take her to the embassy even if she didn’t have enough money. “May na-meet akong mga Pinoy. Tinulungan nila ako. Nag-contribute sila para lang makauwi ako ng Pilipinas.”
Back in Manila
Janet worked as a yaya and a cook in Manila for a while. Having raised some money, she decided to go back to Singapore, still as a DH. A seemingly nice couple took her in, but the honeymoon was over soon enough. After a few months, she requested to be allowed to return to her agency. Says the Filipina, the mental stress was just too much to bear.
Still, the employer requested for Janet to stay until a replacement was found. But the replacement never came. So in March 2008, the Isabela native sought refuge at Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (H.O.M.E.), a Singapore-based charity dedicated to helping migrant workers who experience abuse and exploitation.
While at the shelter, Janet rendered volunteer work and on her days off looked for a job. She was eventually hired by a British family who became her 10th and last employers. Here, she ended up staying the longest: 14 years.
As a way of giving back to HOME for taking her in during her time of need, Janet decided to devote her Sundays in Singapore doing volunteer work for the agency for the next 13 years. She would man the help desk, answering calls and giving advice to fellow migrant workers. Sometimes she accompanied victims of abuse to the police station. “Merong pinlansta, binuhusan ng mainit na tubig, ni-rape,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief, terribly sorry for fellow Pinays who were sadly not as fortunate.
Working with different families for years taught Janet many valuable lessons. She realized the kind of employer she should have looked for—someone who would treat her right, give her time to rest and unwind, someone who doesn’t make impossible demands and impose unrealistic expectations. “Para sa akin, it’s not just about money,” she says now, looking back. “Mas importante ang physical and mental health.”
Under her last employer, work started at 8AM. Once she’s done with housework and the kids were in bed, she could take some much-needed rest. She took days-off on Sundays and public holidays. She was able to go back to school, using her days off to attend classes.
She was planning to take up a Journalism course online but since it would incur a big expense, she opted for a one-year entrepreneurial course in a school called Aidha, which teaches financial literacy and confidence development to foreign domestic workers and Singaporean women with lower income. Aidha is a Sanskrit term which means “that to which we aspire.”
When Janet completed her course and was already starting to create business plans, she realized her ambitions have changed. “Yung dream ko before [na maging journalist], binago na ng panahon.”
While still in Singapore, Janet was able to plan on her retirement. She started to invest in a couple of businesses—a Siomai King franchise and a Toktok delivery business. She bought a condo unit, which she says will be her retirement home.
“After my last employer, parang hindi ko na nakikita ang sarili ko na magtrabaho pa sa iba,” says Janet, now 57. She said goodbye to the British family last April. The parting was bittersweet. “When I started working with them, the eldest child was only two years old, the youngest was two months old. When I left, they were 15 and 14,” she says, wistful.
On their last dinner together, the family reminisced about Janet’s time with them. “Tinanong ng mag-asawa ang mga bata kung ano daw ang fondest memory nila with me. Sabi ng mga bata, kung paano ko daw sila i-hug kapag umiiyak sila at kung paano ko sila mahalin kapag wala ang parents nila.”
Some people may scoff at Janet’s decision to abandon her dream in favor of working as a DH abroad. But she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Kung may pagkakataon na i-redo ang buhay ko, pipiliin ko pa din ang maging domestic helper kasi it made me who I am now,” she says. “Madami akong natutunan. Nakapagtapos ako ng pag-aaral dahil sa pagiging DH. Natamo ko ang contentment na hinahanap ko at kung ano ang mayroon ako ngayon.”
[Photos courtesy of Janet Peremme]