By Jade (as told to Filzah)
The conversation was in Malay and English. The conversation has been edited for readability and length.
F: Hi Jade, thank you for agreeing to speak to me. Our theme for this blog series is on income inequality. So let’s start with your work history first lah. When you did you start working?
J: 15 years old, at a book printing factory, just to support my sibling. I went to Sec 1, but only half-way. Because I have to stop school first, my mother not around, my father cannot afford to care of us, so I have to take care of my siblings.
I liked my time at the book factory. I know how to handle the machine. If the book becomes stuck, everything I know how to do. Just don’t get your hand caught only lah. If get caught, finish. For overtime, I always raise my hand. OT is another 2 hours lah, to complete a full 12 hours of work.
I was working, working, and working. My mother never come home, my father working, so he also never come home. Poor thing my younger siblings. So I was thinking, am I obsessed with money or my family? I should be more obsessed about my family, right?
But if I don’t work overtime, I will get marked. If you don’t work overtime, that means you don’t show that you are a good worker, they will give you a red mark. It would mean you are lazy and that you are not serious—immediately, bye bye. This is the same case in oil factories, computer factories… all the supervisors will get angry if you don’t OT. If supervisor ask if you want to OT, you must always raise your hand. In a week, at least 3 days you need to raise your hand. Also, if you come in late, they will dock $2 to $5 off your pay, if I’m not mistaken. Break time also have to be fast, come in late will also be very bad.
F: So from the age of 15, you started working at the factory. Then you continue working lah? Never stop?
J: Yes. If I stop working also, I will immediately find a new job.
F: No rest?
J: No. 15-16 years old, I find work that is 2-3 days a week, paid in cash money. When I was 17, I work as a cleaner. My salary is $750 only, cleaner at a primary school. Then I went into prison for public nuisance. After I come out, I work at the hospital as a hospital assistant. I’m the youngest ah. Everyone else are aunties, I’m the youngest.
F: Last time when you work, can you have savings?
J: Last time cannot because even though prices were cheaper than now, my pay also cheap. Last time I work as cleaner, I bring home $750. My father owe a lot of money, my mother like to go in and out of prison, so I have to pay water bill, conservancy fees, the flat. I have siblings to feed. At work, when I’m hungry, the other cleaner aunty will treat me.
|Home – $100|
Water bill – $100
Conservancy fees – $50
Groceries – $300
Give to mom – $200
Last I work was in 2014, as a cleaner. $1,100. My husband also a cleaner, bring home $1,400.
F: Your husband gets more?
F: Even though it’s the same hours?
J: Same hours, because both of us work at the condo, same work. Because it’s the same right, a cleaner’s work. But he brings home $1,400, I bring home $1,100. The difference is that men carry the dustbin, but women don’t.
F: Why can’t women carry the dustbin?
J: Cos it’s heavy. The green dustbin.
F: But if women cannot carry the dustbin, they can do other things?
J: Since I’ve been working here, it has always been like this.
F: Do you think it should be equal? Equal pay?
J: Of course. When we come home from work, we must cook some more, even more tired. If equal pay, it’ll be better. The cleaner aunty who works underneath this block gets $800, work from 8am to 12pm. The uncle cleaner gets $950. It’s just because of the dustbin. I asked for higher pay before. But they say wait lah, how many years, how many months. My husband also tried to ask as well.
F: So did he get a pay raise?
J: $50. The government said that for cleaners, every year will increase pay. Where got? It is based on the company. Big company, see lah, who can increase or not. But if small company, like my husband’s one, you want to ask? Wait long long lah.
Just now I got a call for a job interview for food packing. I ask for part-time. I don’t care if it’s food or groceries packing, 3-4 days work, I don’t care so much lah. At least can cover milk, pampers, travel fare. My kids have a lot of appointments, I told them honestly during the interview. But they say, sorry we only have full-time. How will I send my kids to school, appointments, and cook? Everything is so chaotic. For women, finding work is very hard. Because I have a lot of appointments. Very stressful.
F: Why do you think it’s harder for women to find work?
J: Because women need to take care of the children, their schooling, suddenly the child falls sick and appointments lah, mostly. Tomorrow I got two appointments already, 2-3pm. For my two kids, speech therapy. Each kid takes 45 minutes to 1 hour for the development check-up. They have slow development. Got a lot of doctor’s memo.
This year my daughter had some difficulty. Every year she pass, but this year her Math and Science grades fell to 28 and 22. Oh my god! I exploded, so angry! I buy assessment book, watch her study. I don’t know what is wrong lah. She is also under speech therapy. Teacher complain and complain, but I tell the teacher: How? What to do? The father is not educated, the mother is okay-okay only. I just try my best, give her tuition from my sister and brother. But sometimes, I feel very weak also lah, because myself as a mother, I’m also not smart. It’s sad lah.
F: The last time you worked was in 2014. Why did you stop working?
J: Because I became pregnant. I work until 6 months. Actually, I didn’t want to stop working. I thought I wanted to work until 8 months, then after that rest for a while, then go back to work. But cannot, my boss don’t allow, because pregnant. He scared wait got anything happen.
F: No maternity leave?
J: There’s no such thing. I also wanted to know if there was a procedure if I became pregnant, if got maternity leave or not. They say you pregnant, we need to terminate you. Didn’t give maternity leave. Last time with my first child, I worked until almost give birth, still ok. But that was in factory, people didn’t see, my stomach still small. Like that lah. Have to do secretly.
F: Then during the 2 years you work there, did they give you a pay raise?
J: No. They say is already enough for you to get like this. I bring home $1,100. They say my work is simple, one building only.
J: Yes. Only my husband get pay raise. Increase $50 lah, like I say just now.
F: That one must ask? If don’t ask, don’t get?
J: Don’t get. Then the next time when my husband wanted to ask, he got admitted to hospital, got heart problem. I asked his boss for a light job for him. People with heart problem, don’t give them heavy work lah. I pity him also. That’s the only work he knows. But they don’t take him, giving an excuse that he got heart problem. Just say that you don’t want him anymore.
That’s why I want to take a course, to help him. I was thinking he should just be a stay home dad. Because he is sick right, better just stay at home. But to the SSO, he still can work, so go and work.
F: Oh SSO say he still can work? How old is he?
J: 60 years old this year.
F: Not retired?
J: There is no retirement, unless our CPF have a lot of money or our savings is a lot. You see my father, 74 years old, just come out of the hospital for eye surgery, but he still want to work.
My husband work as cleaner, no education, get this kind of pay, then when we ask for help, the organisation say you are stable. Pay is $1,400. They think $1,400 is like $14,000. That’s the problem with this government. When they want to help, they always check that you have CPF or not, stable job or not. If you have stable job, they say you are financially stable, difficult for them to help you.
F: SSO didn’t help?
J: SSO officer give $100. I want to cry! When change to a different officer, ok. Get $300, thank God. Then after that, back to the same officer, $100. I don’t know where to report, a lot of people don’t like that officer. So frustrated. I want to scold, I want to curse, but cannot, because I am asking for help.
They include the financial help that I get from other organisation as well. It’s unfair, seriously, they made me cry, shit.
The problem is that they count everything but they don’t count how nowadays the expenses in Singapore are increasing. Only if got offer/promotion then I go and buy. Although, sometimes even when things are on offer it is still the same. Now you see, the price of fish and vegetables are going up due to COVID. Kids’ biscuits and snacks also go up.
I cried. The SSO still didn’t help, I ask all the social workers, my FSC still say “Cannot lah this time for you”. Ok lah, I just keep quiet. I was in a bad mood, so frustrated and lost, you know. Until I had to visit my psychiatrist recently.
“What are you going to do… I’m helping, I give you a lot of memos. But this ComCare, why they cannot help you? This is the first time I hear like this.”
“I don’t know what to do, doctor. I’m stressed. What should I do? I already tell them that my husband salary like this.”
They don’t know that we here are suffering on a daily basis. We have to be positive but sometimes these organisations… all these organisations need to change, asking for help is so hard.
F: You want to go to MP to ask about what?
J: Ask about assistance and ComCare. I have complained about the SSO officer before. I said I would like to complain about this officer. I don’t know why she always give me $100, $200, I don’t understand. I already give 6-7 memos. Every time they ask me for the memos, I have to photocopy again and pay money again because have to photocopy at the shop.
F: What is the average income in Singapore?
J: Oh, I think must be $2,000. Because now MOE say we can only help families with household income not more than $2,000-something.
F: Do you think we should have a minimum salary?
J: Yes. How much we have to spend on each kid, our salary is not enough, seriously.
But the government is clever. I scared that if we want our salary to be $2,000 for cleaners, wait there is no more financial help.
For HDB, if our pay goes higher than $1,500, we need to pay rental fees between $350-$450. Now my rental is $61. Last time, I had a neighbour, a makcik. When her child started work, immediately their rental increased to $450. Because exceed $1,500. They just wanted to start a stable life, but they suffer because each month they need to pay cash $450.
That’s why a lot of people work odd job. If our pay increase, HDB will increase the rent.
F: How much do you think you need for your family?
J: Let’s say our pay is $3,500. I think $3,500 is enough for my family, enough lah if I start working. But the problem is even for $3,500, we have to pay water bill, conservancy fees, expenses for 4 children, student care for 4 children, rainbow centre, doctor’s appointment some more. $3,000 gone already. Then what about future expenses. My kids don’t need to use handphone yet, but when they need to use handphone, then how? Now everything is online.
Will be enough lah, if HDB doesn’t increase the rental. We can save if HDB doesn’t increase the rental. This is the problem. Very hard to save. Give people who just started working some time to stabilise their family first.
Last time my father work, $800. Then my sister started working, $1,200. The rent increased to $350 and they were asked to purchase a flat. Oh my god! That old man is already 70 years old, how to buy a flat? He was so angry! He stopped working. So the rental went back, now $61.
Difficult ah. I don’t know lah. I’m so tired of crying already. So tired.
Jade is a mother to 4 young children. She hopes to be able to work as a caregiver one day.
Filzah is a team member of Beyond the Hijab.
Illustration by Elisa Tanaka