A Day-off Too Late

Jul 18, 2011
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Here’s a eulogy for Miss Cawi Nei Mawi. A day off seems so little to ask, but we know it can make such a difference to maids cooped up for too long. 

Cherry Hmung, a Burmese from Chin State in western Burma, worked in Singapore as a domestic worker from 2002 to 2009. Through reading the papers, particularly The Straits Times forum page, she came to understand the opinions of employers about their domestic worker. Wanting to tell their side of the story, she started blogging just before she returned home. By posting, she hoped to contribute to a better understanding about the situations of domestic workers.

“I want to assure them that granting them some freedom is not dangerous as some employers think.” Cherry wrote the following article when a Burmese domestic worker committed suicide in Singapore in April 2011. She sent the article to The Straits Times which did not pick it up. Cherry offered it to TWC2 to try and explain to Singaporeans why a day off is such an important part of working as a domestic worker in Singapore.


1076 A prison for overworked and underpaid domestic helpers - A typical HDB block in Singapore (Photo by Kin Mun Lee on Flickr)

April 22, 2001 was Good Friday. This is the day Christians around the world commemorate the death of Jesus. Our church in Falam, a small town in the Chin State, held the commemoration service at noon. Around the same time in Singapore, FCFS (Falam Christian Fellowship, Singapore) also had a rather peculiar service in the presence of an honoured guest. It was the first time Cawi Nei Mawi had come to the church to meet her friends.

Sadly, it was also her last.

Cawi had died a week earlier. Preliminary investigations indicated she had died from suicide.

On Sundays, there are usually 30 to 50 people who meet for the worship service. On special occasions like Christmas, more than 100 may turn up. Since two-thirds of its members are domestic workers, it is difficult for them to get a day off, especially during weekdays. But Cawi had touched and drawn many people, so about 100 people came to bid their farewell on that gloomy Friday.

The fifth of seven siblings, Cawi came to Singapore to work as a domestic worker six months earlier. She did this after her home in Burma was consumed by a raging fire, injuring her mother. A second blow befell the family as her brother had passed away on March 29. Cawi must have gone through a very difficult time.

In the Chin Christian community, if someone passes away, people come to accompany the bereaved family through the whole night. They would sing hopeful songs about life after death to soothe the pains of the bereaved. After the funeral, relatives and friends would stay with the family for weeks. Coming from this closely-knit community, grieving alone for the loss of her brother in a foreign country might have been too much for her to take.

she wrote a great deal about her family: how she missed them, how she worried about them.

Whenever a domestic worker commits suicide, the first thought in many people’s minds is that she must have been treated badly by her employers. Contrary to this opinion, Cawi wrote in her diary that she was treated well. But she wrote a great deal about her family: how she missed them, how she worried about them, and how she wished there would be more love and care in the family. She filled her diary with her anxieties, worries, loneliness and sadness. She also wrote words to three of her favourite gospel songs.

What happened on that fateful day of April 15 I don’t know, but I can offer some thoughts.

When I was young, my mother told me about her brother. He had been troubled by tapeworms for a long time. After he failed to get rid of them, when he couldn't tolerate them anymore, he took poison to kill them all giving his life as the price. Did Cawi try to end her misery like my uncle? For her case, it was not to end physical but mental pain. In her darkest hour, did she felt like Jesus on the cross, suffering alone?

For FCFS, this is the second tragedy. The first happened in 2005, when I was working in Singapore myself, as a domestic worker. Aanei, a girl I knew since she was a little girl, jumped to her death from the tall apartment building where she worked. That night, I was shocked. Unable to sleep, I kept pacing in my room, grieving for her. If an outsider like me felt this way, I could not imagine the sorrow and pain of her family, especially her parents, who must be racked with guilt for letting her work in a foreign country.

What drove these young women in their 20s to commit this terrible thing? Even if the individual circumstances are very different, there is one common denominator: Both women were confined in their employers' house, cut off from outside world, from their family and loved ones. They had nobody to tell their troubles to. There was nobody to comfort them. Wanting to understand them better, I tentatively put myself in their shoes but quickly withdrew, afraid of what I might find if I bored too deep into their thoughts.

My own memory of the time I started work as a domestic worker in Singapore is still vivid, although it is nearly nine years ago. I was shocked to find myself amid strangers, in their house as their servant. There were so many things to learn at once. I made lots of mistakes and kept forgetting. There was also a language problem. When we could not communicate well, the situation worsened. Because of the day's work, my whole body ached badly at night and I couldn't sleep. On those sleepless nights I wished the night would never end, fearing to face the anger of my employer and to get a scolding again in the morning.

When I looked out of the window, as I gripped the grill, I felt like I was a prisoner. I longed for a walk outside, to meet friends and laughter. I missed my cosy home so much. But when I thought of going home, the debt, the money I borrowed to come to work in Singapore weighed me down. If I went back, how was I to pay it back? To make matters worse, my employer announced she couldn't accept my performance and demanded another maid. The agent couldn't find a replacement just yet, so I was stuck there.

As I sampled the taste of hell on earth, luckily, I got a call from Nueng. She is a friend who helped contact the maid agency. Just after I started work, I called Van, my brother who was also working in Singapore, to say I was okay. When there were no more calls after two months, he was worried about me and asked Nueng's help. Nueng rang my employer and pretended to be my agent so I was allowed to talk with her. She asked how things were going. I poured everything out. She was sympathetic and understanding, since she had worked as a maid before. After listening patiently to my troubles, she in turn told me about the hardships she had gone through as a maid.