Sunday, 4 May 2014

Have you taken your helpers for granted?

How many of you have heard these words from the people around you?

"Taking care of kids is okay what. Why are you so stressed?"

Then you find out that the person who said that has a maid.

"Why do you keep taking leave for your parents? You're not the only one with sick parents, you know. My parents are old too, but look at me! I am handling it well without taking leave. You must be more professional! Don't bring your personal problems to work."

Then you find out that the person who said that has a maid.

Apart from maids, other helpers who have suffered the ignominy of being treated as though their contributions don't matter are parents, parents-in-law and siblings.

If you do a Google search on caregiving in Singapore, you'll find that there are a great number of articles. Some are inspirational stories about the trials and tribulations that caregivers have to go through, some are letters or speeches by doctors, heads of Voluntary Welfare Organisations, members of Parliament, urging the government and society in general to provide more structural support to caregivers.

However, after GE2011, while hot-button issues like housing and transport have taken centre-stage, it seems that few people in Singapore are interested in what happens to caregivers.

We should be. Home caregivers play a vital role in our social system, which is built on self-reliance. The government does little to help us care for our family members. Without home caregivers, other people like you and I will not be able to go to work with peace of mind. Without home caregivers, the queues to enter old folks' homes will be longer than they already are. Without women who leave their jobs to care for their kids, the childcare centre crunch will be worse.

There's another reason why we should care about caregivers: the preventable tragedies - such as this one - that took place because family caregivers who could not tahan (tolerate) anymore decided to take what they thought was a quick-fix solution. Or this one, where a maid who couldn't tahan the scoldings took drastic action that will most likely cause her to be condemned to the gallows.

Unfortunately, the dialogue at the beginning of this post is all too common in Singapore, especially when speaking with people who feel that they have achieved something of worth in their careers. Many Singaporeans feel proud of the fact that they are able to perform their professional roles even while their family is going through a crisis; they effectively hand over their family responsibilities to their maids, yet after that, claim credit for having done a great job of juggling work and family.

They have done nothing, except fork out the cash to hire the maid.

Let's be clear. I have nothing against families who hire foreign maids. (Although my parents could not afford a maid, I did grow up with one who was hired by my relatives. She took some valuables from the house when she left, but overall, she was a good maid who did all the chores.)

It's certainly not a problem - in fact, it's extremely good and lucky for you - if you have family members who will help with your sick parents or your active kids.

But I do have a problem with people who treat the contributions of these helpers like they are nothing.

Every extra pair of hands, counts.

I have friends without maids who shared that they find it tough to juggle work and family - the result is that they were frequently criticised for not doing enough both at work and at home. Their colleagues wanted more commitment from them. Their family members thought they should do much more for the old folks or the kids. In the end, the frustration mounted as they felt that they were simply inadequate in all their roles.

I have friends who shared that their colleagues with maids and family members helping out at home told them unapologetically that caregiving should not affect their work commitments, as based on their personal experience, it's really not a big deal. The people who took leave because of home commitments then became deemed as "unprofessional".

It simply has not occurred to those self-congratulatory people that the only reason why they were able to continue being "professional" is that they have out-sourced what ought to be their responsibility, to someone else.

Their maids and other family members are providing vital help to them. Without such help, they would not have been able to carry on with their work normally.

Disbelieve this? Try sacking your maid. Ask your parents or in-laws to go for a much-deserved long holiday overseas while you take over full responsibility for your kids.

Humans don't only exist to work. We also have other commitments in our lives. I feel that there is a discordance between our stress on self-reliance and our disdainful attitude towards caregiving. It just doesn't gel that while the government is trying to convince us that our family members are our own responsibility and the government should only play a limited role, we have such prevalent attitudes, even in the civil service, that people who spend time on their family members are lesser employees.

Based on what I know from the people of my generation, such attitudes are causing Singapore's workforce to shrink prematurely. Eventually, in our lives, all of us will have to face some family issues, be it a parent getting sick or a kid who needs more attention. The unsympathetic view of caregivers has already pushed many highly qualified young and middle-aged men and women out of full employment to take on less productive work so that they can manage their family commitments.

Even if they do not leave their full-time jobs, these caregivers are frequently passed over for promotions and salary increments as their absence from work is viewed unfavourably by their superiors - never mind that they still managed to finish their projects.

Just because people are physically present at the office doesn't mean that they are being productive.

To the self-praising people in the workforce, if you have taken your helpers for granted, I suggest you give them a holiday and take over the responsibilities of caregiving yourself 24-7 to experience what it's really like.

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