Home Bookstore Sample Chapter from The Word for World is Work: The Life of Women

Sample Chapter from The Word for World is Work: The Life of Women

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When the house was halfway built, Sor’s husband got greedy. He nearly stole her land and house. He went around telling people that his wife who is working in Singapore never sends him any money. When Sor was told about her husband’s actions, she became quite cautious and anxious. Sor’s sister received a letter from the land title office regarding Sor’s house; it was changed to her husband’s name. She was shocked and told Sor about it. Sor realized that he was going after her money and was not truly in love with her. She shared this troubling tale with us. We encouraged her go back home to settle the problems and get back the title to her property. Sor engaged a lawyer to claim back her title deeds which her husband had changed. She managed to get back the title deeds of her house and land—and she divorced this man of greed.

Sor was single again and worked with us for another four years. Her house is built and beautiful with the modern sanitation and kitchen equipment of which Sor had dreamed. She told us several years ago that she was ready to go back home and take care of her house. Perhaps she would also start a small business for which she had saved money. Her ambition clearly went beyond just her new home. Sor decided to return home in June of 2017. Together with her sister she had made realistic plans. They did start their own business. Of course, we have missed her—as our dear friend. We have given her our blessings and have told her that she is welcome to visit us anytime. Market exchange was overshadowed by social exchange in this story of FDW work in Singapore. As we will see, this is not always the case.

Sending the Money Home

Through my work and social encounters, I have come to know many women (Indonesian, Filipinas, and Indian) who are working in Singapore, some with local employers and some with expatriate employers. As I reflect back on my conversations and interactions with the FDWs, I found that most of the women felt that they preferred to work for expatriate employers—because they treat the women well and pay a higher salary. Income is critical given that many of these women are working hard to support their family members. One of them. I will call her Tala (not her real name), had worked in Singapore for more than twenty years with expat employers and families. She suffered cancer in her uterus about which she did not even know until just before her death. Tala was single and had to go home for treatment. Her family members refused to help her financially after having taken all her money. She had little or no savings for herself. Sadly, her expatriate employer did not help her or provide for her initial treatment even though she had worked for them for more than six years. Her good friend, Benilda (not her real name), also from the Philippines, sent money (from her own savings) to help Tala with payment for her treatment. During the last week of her life on earth, Benilda’s employer allowed her to go back home to spend time with Tala.

I knew of another Indonesian woman many years ago, whom I will call Sukma. She had always sent all her money home to her parents. Sukma had a daughter for whom her parents provided care while she worked in Singapore. When her daughter met with an accident, and one of her toes was crushed, the parents contacted Sukma, asking for money to pay for the hospital and doctor bills. She had to get an advance on her salary so that she could cover these medical expenses. Her employer did not renew her contract and Sukma went home. After three months at home, Sukma became sick; however, her father would not give her money to see a doctor. Since she knew me, Sukma called to ask for financial assistance: could I help her by sending her two hundred Singapore dollars. Sukma promised that she would come back to work and pay me, which she did.

These are several of the many troubling stories of how families treated their FDW daughter or wife. It was as if this hard-working woman were their ATM machine that churned out money. It seems that abuse can occur in both the homes of the FDWs employers and the homes of their own families. Abuse in either setting can have psychological and medical repercussions—as seems to be the case with Sukma. Tragically, these stories of home-based abuse are not confined to the culture and social structures of Indonesia. Women in many societies are asked to be all things to members of their family (close or extended). We find this kind of story playing out in the life of the domestic workers featured in The Help, as well as in Stephanie Lands’ account as a Maid.

We wonder about the life at home when the Mill Girls or Harvey Girls journeyed back to the world from which they had escaped. Was their new-found voice and enriched life experience welcomed back home? Or were they punished for no longer being silently compliant (Belenky, et al, 1986). Was the money being sent home truly appreciated by those receiving the revenues? Were these funds instead viewed with some suspicion and even envy by parents and siblings? Benefactors are not always grateful recipients. We may find that a toxic mixture of resentment, guilt and shame is being brewed. It might be served to the Mill Girls or Harvey Girls when they return home. We might find that this brew is also being mixed and served in many of the local communities where these women are working. How do residents of their community feel about the arrival of these “foreign” or “uppity” women? Are women residing in these communities threatened in particular by the arrival of these women of work—especially if these laboring women stay around and try to fit into the local community.

Back to the abuse initiated by their own families. I knew one Indonesian woman, whom I will call Citra, who told me that when she was young her father was suffering as an alcoholic. When he was drunk, he would throw the empty bottles at her, and at times hurt her. Citra told me that she was and still is very frightened of her father. As an FDW, she sent home all her monthly salary to her father—hoping that he would provide food and care to Citra’s daughter. As a single mother working in another country, Citra needed all the help she could get. However, her father used the money to drink liquor. He did not care for Citra’s daughter, so Citra had to send her daughter to an aunt who agreed to provide the care. Citra now had to send money both to her father and her aunt. Citra worked very hard. She even labored on Sundays in exchange for money—instead of taking time off and leaving the home where she was working, Citra remained dedicated to the welfare of both her father and her daughter. For her, there was no World other than Work. What were the psychological and physical costs for her?

Once on the plane from Singapore to Surabaya, Indonesia, I met a woman who was going back on home-leave. I struck up a conversation with her (I will call her Putri), and told Putri that I was an employment agent, and would help her if she encountered problem at immigration or customs. I indicated that I would stand behind her when we arrived at immigration. Putri shared with me that when she had finished her first contract of two years, she had planned to return home for good, and that she had one daughter.

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