Ms Yoon Wai Wai Khin, a 31-year-old domestic helper, used to earn a monthly salary of S$500 in 2021 and would send nearly all of her earnings back home to Bago each month, occasionally leaving her with just S$10 in the bank.

Her father, the other breadwinner in her family who drives for a living, was unable to work due to the Myanmar government’s restrictions, and Ms Yoon was forced to borrow money from her employer to help her family of five survive.

The picture painted by Ms Yoon of the familial pressure to give almost everything they have to their loved ones is a familiar one to FDWs, regardless of their nationality.

“The main reason (for being in debt) is our family needs in the Philippines,” said a 33-year-old domestic helper from Nueva Ecija, who wanted to be known only as Ms Jane.

She had borrowed from a total of five different moneylenders and a loan shark to pay for her son’s hospital bills in 2018 after her employer rejected her request for a salary advance.

Not being able to repay her debts, she was repeatedly harassed by moneylenders through text messages which contained many “nasty words”.

But Ms Jane felt that she did not have any other choice back then.

“We want to support them even though we don’t have anything here. We try our best to give them what we have, without even realising that we are the ones who fall into trouble,” she said.

Both Ms Jane and Ms Monette managed to find support with Blessed Grace Social Services, which enrolled them in a “debt consolidation programme” where a third-party company helped to pay off their existing loans.

FDWs under this programme would then be able to repay monies owed to just one party, as opposed to many, on a more manageable schedule.

Reflecting on what they went through over five years ago, both women said that they have learned to turn down their family’s requests when they do not have the means to help, even if it is tough to do so.

“We have very strong family ties. Even my nephews, I have to (pay to) send them to school. I have to help my sister’s family, my brother’s family. That’s our culture. Even if they don’t ask for money, we will give,” said Ms Monette.

She added: “Now if I don’t have money, I say no … I’m very thankful that I don’t have debt (now), and I have money for emergencies, something to take out from my bank.

“As much as possible, we want our fellow domestic helpers to learn financial literacy … and that it’s okay to say no if we don’t have (money) – we cannot give everything.”

NOT BY FINANCIAL LITERACY ALONE

Such anecdotes from FDWs, which almost always outline familial pressures to send large portions of their salary home, are indicative of just how financially vulnerable these domestic helpers are.

The occasional family emergency further adds to their susceptibility of getting into debt or being preyed upon by businesses. 

It is important to address the root cause of why FDWs are getting into debts, said Assistant Professor of Sociology Shannon Ang from Nanyang Technological University, as Singapore has an obligation to care for the well-being of migrant workers who contribute substantially to society.

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