Today, we decided to give my helper WiFi. It is something that we take for granted every day, something that does not cost us anything extra to give and strictly speaking it is not something that is essential, since domestic helpers in the past also do not have such access. Yet, looking at how happy she is when I told her our decision triggered some reflection. Although you might say that we should have given her access without even considering it, things, in reality, are not as simple as that. I have to consider my parent’s feelings and expectations, as well as consider if this would affect her settling in, and whether she would take it for granted if the privilege have came too early. Since I started to hire a domestic helper to cope with the extra workload that comes along with my child’s condition, I realised that managing a helper very much relates to management skills at work. Often, there is a confluence of factors involved and sometimes, even as we like to do certain things, we are unable to, because of the different factors at play and the different stakeholders involved. For instance, I used to have a helper who is rather proficient at work but displays a bad attitude. For me, it is within my tolerance, but other family members that work with her more frequently than I do would prefer someone who is submissive. In the end, the relationship does not work out.
This brings back to mind one of my first employment experience. As a young chap, I was quite straightforward in the way I communicate and it inevitably caused some friction at work. In the end, it cost me my job. I would think that it would be nice if we give young people some space to mature and learn, but not every environment provides that. Today, as a manager myself, I try to be a little understanding when my younger subordinates fail to act in a manner that is expected of them. I try to share with them my experience and hopefully, they understand how bad things can become if they try to push their luck. At the same time, I also hope we don’t have to that extent. Today, culture is shifting. The generation now has more options and they are no longer held hostage by many things. Somehow, although it is a good thing that they can no longer be held ransom by their jobs, it also makes me wonder if they will fail to learn some of the invaluable lessons that you learn when you have no choice.
Sometimes, the issues can also be due to the different generations. My parents and grandparents hire domestic workers at a time when there is no internet and people can just leave behind their families and put their hearts and soul at work because they had to survive. Today, things are very different. There is more awareness of mental health, work-life balance and other aspects that we neglected in the past, such as employee rights. Other factors such as the work culture in other countries also shape Singapore. For instance, if workers know that they can have a better life working the same job in another country yet being respected, treated well and given a lot more benefits, they will go there. At the end of the day, it boils down to bargaining power – who needs who more? Singaporeans should refrain from acting as though we are one class higher just because we happen to be born in the right place. Many of these foreign workers may be as talented and hardworking as us and I think there should be mutual respect. That being said, there are also domestic and foreign workers who try to game the system. I used to have one who came and request to change employer after one week. We had to bear additional costs for her decision while it doesn’t seem that there is any cost on her end. But I also understand that because they are usually the more vulnerable group, the government had put in place some measures to protect them. Then we have disgraceful cases where domestic workers are being abused as well. It is a fine balance. As employers, we should do our part to exercise leadership, management and care. As employees, one must be humble, respectful and dedicated.
Different families also have different ways of managing their helpers, as well as different cultures. I hate it when an outsider comes and make comments on how I should be managing my helper, especially in front of my other family members, comparing my domestic helper with theirs. When they leave, their remarks continue to affect the working relationship between different stakeholders in the family although they may be making certain remarks casually. So refrain from doing that when you visit someone’s house.
All in all, managing a domestic helper at home is often like managing at work. Sometimes, those who have the right leadership skills do not have political power. Sometimes, the interests of different parties do not align, nor do their perspective. Sometimes, it is a legacy issue where precedents and history have an impact on the present even as it is not the right thing to do today. One of my former coaches told me that he would move someone who already manages a family quicker than those who don’t. Because if one can manage a family, he/she should be able to manage people at work. Although we should, in theory, judge someone purely based on work performance, I can understand where he is coming from when he said that, as I discover for myself over the past years how complicated it can be just managing a few people in the household.