More than three decades ago, Filipina Janet Remia Aclon Peremne dreamed of becoming a broadcast journalist. While in her second year at Northeastern College, where she was studying for a Bachelor of Arts in English, she even dropped out and later became a deejay at a radio station.
"The only thing I have in mind is to help my parents, because we are eight siblings," said Peremne, who is the eldest child. Her mother worked as a housekeeper, while her father was a bulldozer operator in a logging company.
And so she put her dreams aside, even though she didn't do much household chores then and didn't even know how to fry eggs. She set off for Singapore, promising to buy her father a house one day. "It is very lonely," recalled Peremne of her early days in Singapore. "You have no one in the country. You don't have friends, you don't know anyone, you work with the family that you didn't even know."
Today, having worked for 10 families – some good, others awful – over 33 years, the 56-year-old returned to the Philippines for good in April. She is running SioMai King and TokTok franchises in Manila and planning to set up a third.
She did buy that house – a condominium unit – but her father never got to see it. He passed on in 2003.
And while her journalism dreams never came true, Peremne is now focusing on entrepreneurship. She declared, "If there's a redo in my life, not even a single moment will I change. I (would) still work as a domestic helper. Domestic helper brought me to where I am now."
'Change is constant'
Speaking over the phone to Yahoo Philippines, Peremne, who is single, said she had been planning for her retirement from domestic help for the past five years.
"I was thinking, this will be my last employer," said Peremne of the British family who employed her for the last 14 years and was good to her. "I have fear that I will be nothing, I will be going home bankrupt, like many of the OFWs going home without savings. I didn't want to be like that, so that's why I prepared."
And so she took up entrepreneurship courses with Aidha, a non-profit in Singapore that offers courses for helpers. Graduating from them was one of her proudest moments.
It was a far cry from her first assignment in Singapore, when she had a nine-month salary deduction and was eventually allowed only one day off each month. Things got so bad that she broke her contract with her first three employers and went home early. "It's one thing when you have no one in a strange country. (If) you don't have day off, I think it will get crazy."
But the city-state gradually became a second home to Peremne, with laksa and satay becoming favorite dishes. She also enjoyed visiting East Coast Park, located near the home of her last employers, as well as Gardens By The Bay and Marina Bay Sands.
Treat us like human beings
It was telling that, when asked what her highest point in Singapore was, Peremne said, "When I found a good employer who respect and treat me as their helper, and when I graduated entrepreneurship."
Conversely, Peremne said of her lowest moment, "The lowest thing as a human being, when your employer, they put you to the lowest, they insulted you in public."
One employer, a Singaporean-Scottish family would scream at her in public and tell her things like "You’re just a helper, so you have no right to say anything". This caused Peremne so much mental stress that she lost 8kg in a month.
Another employer, a Japanese-British couple, verbally abused her to the point that in 2008, she sought refuge at a shelter run by HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics), a non-government organisation that advocates for helpers.
Peremne later became a volunteer with HOME, where she encountered "brutal treatment" by employers, as well as "not reasonable" helpers. "I always said it's not (about) being treated as a princess, but as a human being. We came to Singapore to work, but it doesn't mean we don't deserve day off or good treatment," added Peremne.
Advice for helpers and employers
Peremne has much in common with domestic helpers, whether from Indonesia, Myanmar or the like. "I think they have many different reasons, maybe there are few of them who give up their dreams. But mostly domestic helpers, their reason is to give a better life for their families, a better education for the children."
She advised prospective helpers to "think 100 times" before venturing abroad, and to build trust with their employers. "Everyone is thinking 'I want to go there to earn money, give a better life for my family'. But it's risky, you don't know what to expect overseas. You have to be vigilant."
As for employers, she urged, "More communication with their employee, it's vice versa for me. Respect their helper as a human being."