The Help

Having domestic help in Asia is the norm. Unlike the US, where domestic help is the stuff of sit-coms poking fun at the rich or tabloid fodder for how out of touch celebrities are with their help, in Asia, helpers can be found in any middle class home. It is part of the culture. Some call them Ayis, some call them helpers, some call them aunties.

And so, there is a strange shift in thinking that needs to take place, like when you come home from the hospital with a new baby and you have to readjust your normal.  You’re not some overprivledged celebrity flaunting your money around as you walk ahead of a lowly peon carrying your groceries. You’re not trying to keep up with the Jones’. You’re just living in Asia where lots of people have hired help to do their grocery shopping.

Just as your newborn can reduce you to tears with the impossible task of parenting laid out before you, this shift in thinking is not easy. It’s hard to feel normal eating bonbons on the couch while a lady wearing rubber gloves sloshes a mop around you. (Kidding! We sit around eating prawn crackers!)

But as you know loyal reader, I was somehow able to overcome my reluctance to have help in Shanghai as we hired our lovely Ayi Jiang. I was simply adapting to the cultural norms of my new home. Then, just as I was growing more comfortable with having this stranger in our family, we decided to move.

“Will you be able to hire an Ayi in Singapore?”

The answer is “yes but…”

The majority of domestic helpers here are foreign workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar so if I want to hire a helper here, the process is far more complicated.

I’m not exactly sure of the process but I know it starts with finding a reputable, licensed agency that is legally bringing women here to work. Then you have to go through the Ministry of Manpower (MOM – Singaporeans LOVE acronyms — story for another blog) who will help to process the work permit for your helper. The MOM website lists 12 categories (some with multiple documents) to read before you even begin looking for a helper including but not limited to: Initial Difficulties, Well-Being, Employment Laws, Disputes with your Employment Agency. Essentially, your helpers permit is tied to your Visa and they become completely dependent on you in some of the following ways:

  • They must live with you.
  • They are not allowed to “sleep out” at a friends or anywhere else for that matter.
  • You must provide for their medical care.
  • They cannot work for anyone but you.
  • If they get into any trouble, legal or otherwise, you are responsible for bailing them out.

It’s like they are another child.

But they’re not. They are grown women. Many with families of their own who they have left in order to provide a better life for them (which I also understand may be a good reason to hire them).

I understand the rules are in place to protect both you and your helper but here in Singapore, hiring a helper seems like quite an undertaking.

And of course, I’ve heard stories. Stories of helpers who are heaven-sent and stories of helpers who were sent from somewhere…less heavenly. Stories of diligent and enthusiastic helpers and stories of lazy and dishonest helpers. Stories of wonderfully generous employers and stories of less generous employers. Based on these word of mouth and completely unverified tales, having a helper seems to generate an awful lot of drama. And I get enough drama from my toddlers.

I know for many, a helper is a necessity. With two parents working, young kids, and a house to keep, there is an absolute need for another pair of hands. And I know that I am lucky to have a choice whether I’d like a helper or not. But for now I’m choosing not. From a completely practical point of view, we don’t have the space to house a helper. (Though I have been told it’s perfectly normal for your helper to live in the bomb shelter. Airy and spacious. We treat them so well!)

Of course, the longer I spend mopping the floor AGAIN (seriously how does it get so dirty so quickly?), I may just peep at some of those MOM documents.

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4 thoughts on “The Help

  1. most singaporeans hire a cleaner who comes in for a few hours 3times a week( or more) and paid on an hourly basis they clean the place and do the laundry too. you might like to chose that option instead of a live in.

  2. My Ayi in Guangzhou was also called Jiang. She was bloody marvellous. I’d have moved her to Bangkok if she was willing. She wasn’t.

    It always makes one sound like a pompous tit when you talk about the nanny or the maid to people at home but my god does it make life easier. That said, some people go a little overboard with embracing the concept of serving staff and start to think they are actually better than them. Always a good sign of someone who has lived overseas a little too long.

    Cheers! 🙂

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