SINGAPORE: When her employers took off on a recent vacation, they left half a can of luncheon meat, some dumplings, eggs, noodles and onions for Paulene, a 28-year-old foreign domestic worker (FDW) from the Philippines.
Paulene, who is using a pseudonym, said she was also given S$20 for the week they were gone. The money, however, was also for groceries for her employers' daughter, who did not travel with the family.
“Her daughter came home one of the evenings and she wanted me to buy food. I bought grapes, fish and vegetables. That left S$9 for three days,” said Paulene.
She said that as long she has rice she can cope, but added that sometimes she has had to use her own money to buy enough food.
She is one of the 250,000 foreign domestic workers employed in local households.
As many families leave for their year-end vacation over the December school holiday period, some FDWs have posted concerns about whether they will be able to eat well when their employers are away on over a dozen threads on Facebook groups that give FDWs advice and support.
On one of the biggest groups with more than 26,000 members, close to 300 comments were posted on threads relating to concerns about food when their employers are overseas. Paulene said that these concerns occur throughout the year and are also something experienced by some of her FDW friends.
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And it's not just when employers are away that FDWs have concerns about eating properly.
Raquel Mondarte, a 47-year-old FDW from the Philippines, had the help of her neighbours and friends when she did not receive proper, full meals.
She added that her former employer was “great” but was “very stingy with food”. That employer often would not even provide vegetables or meat for her meals.
“Some of my neighbours or friends would come and give me some food. Sometimes it’s food that’s already cooked. Sometimes it’s canned food,” Ms Mondarte said.
“But mostly I will just buy food with my own money,” she said.
Local non-governmental organisations Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) said they are seeing more complaints from workers about inadequate or poor quality food. Concerns about food and nutrition are one of the top five issues raised by FDWs.
This is despite the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) requirement that employers have to provide FDWs with three meals a day and these have to be enough for a female engaged in moderate activity.
This includes four slices of bread with spread for breakfast, and rice, cooked vegetables, a palm-sized amount of meat, and fruit for lunch and dinner.
However, a TWC2 spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia the organisation has seen an uptick in complaints from domestic workers having inadequate food.
“Our case numbers have come down over the last few years, but our social workers around four years ago reported that they were hearing more complaints from workers about inadequate food in general, such as having rice and some cheap green vegetables for meal after meal,” the TWC2 spokesperson said.
While the NGO is seeing fewer FDW cases after a shift to focus on supporting male construction workers, it continues to hear similar complaints about food from FDWs.
The Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE), which is NTUC's advocacy group for FDWs, said about 4 per cent of over 2,400 cases it has attended to since 2016 were about complaints of not having enough food.
HOME, which provides food and shelter for FDWs in distress, said that about 40 per cent of the 800 women housed at their shelter complained about inadequate or poor quality food.
Its advocacy and communications manager Stephanie Chok said these complaints are of FDWs being given leftovers, stale or insufficient food, or food that they are unable to consume due to dietary and religious restrictions.
Ms Chok added that in many cases, these workers are afraid to voice their concerns to their employers for fear of being reprimanded or have their employment contracts terminated.
“In other cases, employers may make comments like ‘Why is the food finishing so quickly’ that may cause the FDW to eat less than what she requires to perform her chores,” Ms Chok said.
Some employers have even resorted to installing surveillance cameras in the kitchen, sometimes directed at the refrigerator, to monitor what is being eaten.
Indonesian domestic helper Suri, who has worked in Singapore for five years, said she lives in a household with such cameras. She said that she is only allowed to eat certain foods. Eggs, for example, can be eaten but “not much, maybe one a day”.
“I still remember what sir said: ‘You can’t eat fish because the fish is so expensive. That’s only for grandma and my kids’,” Suri said (not her real name).
“If I cook and the children are not eating, they will ask me ‘You cook for who? Did you take from the fridge?’ I said no, this is meat that I bought with my own money and they will be quiet,” she said.
HOW MUCH TO GIVE
While some domestic workers face issues in having enough for their meals, others have free access to the refrigerator and store cupboard when their employers are gone. Some FDWs Channel NewsAsia spoke to say they are given a sum of money and have the freedom to decide how they want to spend that money.
Indonesian domestic worker Margaretha Gole, 33, said her employer usually leaves her with between S$50 to S$70 when going away for about a week.
With the budget in mind, she plans her meals for the rest of the week. Her trick is to buy a whole chicken and divvy it up into four to six portions. She also shops for vegetables at the supermarket clearance section.
“Buying a whole chicken costs about S$7. If I make curry chicken, I will buy eggs or potato to add in, instant curry paste and coconut milk. In between, I buy canned food like sardines or luncheon meat,” she added.
Ms Gole said that this freedom to decide how she wants to spend her own food allowance makes her feel trusted.
“My boss did not tell me the limit of how much I can spend, she just made sure that I have enough to eat. Because of this trust and care from my employer, I don’t take advantage to spend it all,” she said.
“Actually if the employer gives freedom to the maid … I’m sure the maid is more confident and will know how to manage her spending. Sometimes maid just wants to spend more because an employer is stingy,” Ms Gole added.
Last year, a couple was sentenced to jail for starving their Filipino domestic helper for 15 months, causing her to lose almost 20kg.
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MOM said that employers are required to provide adequate food and fulfil all obligations relating to the employment of a FDW, regardless of whether the employer is in Singapore or overseas.
Its spokesperson added that beyond legal protection, all first-time FDWs attend a mandatory programme which advises them on what to do if they face well-being issues.
Those who feel that they are not given adequate food should speak to their employers or their Employment Agencies, or contact MOM or the CDE, the spokesperson added.
TWC2 said that employers often say their domestic worker "is just like one of the family", and this could be a gauge for how much to provide for their domestic worker.
"Maybe a good starting point would be to ask how they would provide for an unwaged family member who they have to leave behind when they went on holiday. The chances are that they'd make a rough calculation of what would be needed, stock up on the necessary goods, and then hand over cash to cover any extra purchases that are needed," a TWC2 spokesperson said.
CDE executive director Shamsul Kamar said that when employers go on holiday, they should ensure that there is enough food consisting of bread, biscuits, rice, protein, meat, and vegetables that can last the FDW for the entire duration that the family is away.
Alternatively, provide the FDW with a sum of money that is sufficient for her to buy all her meals during this period.
"The FDW should not be paying for the food using her own money," Mr Shamsul added.
"Our FDWs are migrant workers who came to Singapore to earn a decent wage and deserve to be treated with respect, compassion and care. Having mutual respect and understanding strengthens the employer-employee relationship. This, in turn, will motivate FDWs to do their best for the families they work for," Mr Shamsul added.