Marifel: The Woman Who Left Her Children Behind to Look After Mine

Women who sacrifice a lifetime with their families to find work overseas deserve respect, but they don’t often get it.

Photography by Tom White (www.tomwhitephotography.com)

Domestic workers keep Singapore ticking and in return,
they get very little back.

Marifel’s goodbyes are now very well-drilled — before she leaves home she kisses her three children goodbye outside her small house in the Barangay of Patria on Pandan Island, on the northern tip of Antique. She hugs her dad, brother, nieces, nephews, and jumps on the back of her husband’s motorbike, placing her bag between them.

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Getting Daen and Juno ready for a swim. Marifel has worked for 11 years in Singapore and is moving to Hong Kong in August. (Photo by Tom White)

This trip is slightly different in that Marifel is travelling back with her employer: me.

I hired her back in 2010 when I moved to Singapore with my wife and baby to work as a journalist. She first started working in Singapore 11 years ago. The decision to leave her family and move overseas wasn’t made by choice, but necessity. Daily life had become a struggle for her family: on occasion they ran out of milk and food for their children; sometimes they couldn’t pay their electricity bill. In the end, something — or rather someone — had to give.

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We lived in a condo in Singapore called The Aberdeen, which is in Boon Keng, just off Serangoon Road. (Photo by Tom White)

I have asked myself this many times over the last few years: how do you tell your children that you’re going away when you don’t know when you’ll be coming back?

To make her leaving home easier on the children, amid the sobbing and wailing, Marifel told them that she was heading off to buy them some toys. She didn’t return. Her youngest son was just six months old when she left. The next time she laid eyes on him he was nearly three years old.

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Paper planes in flat No.11 (Photo by Tom White)

The agent we dealt with to bring Marifel into our home was, in some small way, responsible for shaping that attitude. “To some local families, domestic workers are treated like furniture,” she told us, “but the years they spend with them are good training… and eventually they will ‘graduate’ to an expat family like you.”

We weren’t perfect — no employer is — but we promised to support Marifel in any way we could, to give her every chance of one day going home or, at least, going on somewhere better. Some people said that made me “soft” — susceptible to exploitation — or that I was a typical guilt-ridden expat. I was neither of those. I was simply grateful.

In the age of Lean In and the global movement to empower women, how does Singapore — the wealthiest nation on earth, where they are currently trialling driverless car technology — still justify its approach to labour rights
for women like Marifel?

In my five years here I have interviewed government officers, CEOs, MDs and a host of other people who have all paid homage to Singapore’s wonderful growth story. It is a place where “they decide what they want to do, and they get it done,” one person told me. That is very true. All of the glowing accolades for the late Lee Kuan Yew praised his meticulous, ‘no nonsense’ approach to cultivating a society which would famously leap-frog ‘from Third World to First’.

How can a government so rigidly focused on building a city of the future, be so obtuse towards the people who work to support that growth?

Marifel gave everything up to come here, to chisel into my children the values she would have bestowed on her own. She brought them joy, laughter and a tiny hint of a Filipina accent. It was her who potty trained them both, helped them to swim, taught my son how to sing ‘Hey Jude’ (below). She gives, we take. That is unashamedly how the Singapore system works.

“The sufferings and afflictions that we encounter are not signs that everything is over, they are signs that God has prepared something better for us and he was just giving us a choice on which path to take. There are no impossible dreams, there’s nothing that we can’t achieve. All things are possible to those who trust and believe.”

I wish I could believe that myself, but Singapore has taught me that the system is in no hurry to allow domestic workers to fulfil any of their dreams. At the very least I can leave here knowing and respecting what Marifel gave up to come here. That helped me appreciate the impact she has had on my fairly selfish life. And for that I am grateful I met her.

Writer & producer at Balance of Zero. Former journalist. Father of two. "I am not interested in anything that doesn't have a genuine heart to it." ~ Nick Cave.

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