It is the kind of day so hot that the sun sears red through your closed eyelids, but Sam Teo is prepared for the heat. As forty women file gratefully into the welcoming shade of the gazebo, he sets down his backpack and produces a cooler bag full of flavoured jellies.
The women – migrant domestic workers eager to hit the trail on a Sunday hiking trip organised by Sam’s agency, I.Deal Employment Services – pounce on the jellies in relief.
By the lake that characterises Bukit Batok Town Park as the affectionately-christened ‘Little Guilin’, women not resting in the shade are fanning out to expertly position a waving forest of selfie sticks, snapping photographs of themselves against the distinctive granite rock formation in the middle of the water.
Before the hike through Bukit Batok Town Park, Sam Teo briefs the domestic workers about the route they will be taking.
Sam flashes a peace sign in the background of some of the pictures and joins in on the jokes and chatter, but he is also busying himself with filling a trash bag with the debris that workers are unwittingly leaving behind as they trek.
This minute attention to detail, as well as the ability and desire to build rapport with the workers, is a cornerstone of Sam’s agency, which focuses mostly on facilitating local job transfers for Filipino and Indonesian migrant domestic workers in Singapore.
Instead of working with recruitment agencies in countries of origin, Sam relies on referrals from previous or current workers to sustain his roster.
He is a one-man show, preferring to maintain low but consistent placement volumes.
Sam snaps a photo with the women on the trek.
The women pose midway through the trek, with the granite formation of Little Guilin in the background.
To ensure that workers keep going back to his agency when they are looking for new employers – and, subsequently, to recommend their friends and family to his agency – Sam has a number of tricks up his sleeve.
He throws Christmas parties, complete with party games and hair accessories as door gifts; sketches portraits of the domestic workers who are his friends on Facebook; and sends workers video clips of songs that they could potentially perform for talent competitions.
His popularity is evident on Facebook, where workers ‘like’ photographs and articles that he posts, and joke about being “I.Deal girls”, a play on his agency name.
For Sam, the investment of time and effort into these personal relationships doubles as a business strategy.
“That is the way,” he says. “If my applicant feels that my agency is really fair to them, then if they ever have a cousin or a sister who wants to work, then we are most likely the choice agency for them.”
To nip problems between employers and workers in the bud, Sam personally trains workers when they first arrive.
But instead of focusing on the right way to iron or mop a floor, he anticipates and minimises initial tensions by teaching workers the unspoken norms embedded in crowded urban living: lift etiquette, shopping at supermarkets, keeping doors closed and locked, and how to navigate condominium security systems.
Sam brought his son with him to the outing.
Sam also applies his expertise in managing interpersonal relationships to the mediation of conflicts between domestic workers and employers.
“My role is in the middle,” he says, recognising the asymmetrical relationship between Singaporean employer and migrant worker. “I cannot take sides just because somebody is paying me more, or because somebody has more power.”
His personal emblem – being “fair” to workers is more important than being “nice” to them – underscores the way that he manages employer-worker relationships. Being “fair” means that workers are assured of their fundamental entitlements to food, rest, and prompt payment when they are deployed through his agency.
But being too “nice” may mean that workers will be too quick to seek a change in employer instead of working through the bumps of a new employment relationship.
Instead of focusing on the right way to iron or mop a floor, he anticipates and minimises initial tensions by teaching workers the unspoken norms embedded in crowded urban living: lift etiquette, shopping at supermarkets, keeping doors closed and locked, and how to navigate condominium security systems.
“The fees that we earn is not a one-time service, but a service that lasts throughout the two years of each contract,” Sam says. “The story takes two years to end. There may not be anything within these two years, but there might also be many problems.”
The key is to keep lines of communication open with both workers and employers.
“Whatever I think will make them happy, then I will do it for them,” Sam says. “When we start this communication, then if they ever have a problem, the first thing they will think of is, ‘oh, yes, I should speak to my agency’, because we are like friends.”
Images: Amrita Chandradas
Text: Kellynn Wee
Special thanks to So Young Chang