On Sundays, women buzz through City Plaza, queueing at remittance services, inspecting SIM cards at mobile phone shops with the sharpness of housewives at a wet market, and fanning themselves to ease the turgid heat as they hang out at employment agencies.
Here, employment agents have situated themselves in the hopes of attracting business from experienced domestic workers searching for a contract with a new employer: unlike the convoluted back-and-forth involved in hiring new workers from Indonesia or the Philippines, the matching and facilitation of new contracts between employers and workers already in Singapore is a much quicker process.
At Oei Aisoen’s Faith Maid Agency, there’s always a nostril-tickling pot of something hot on the table, nudged by a stack of plastic plates. Half the shop is dominated by a glass counter, showcasing the latest phone models. Women sit on plastic chairs and chat, drifting in and out, or simply relax in the air-conditioning while tending to their own phones.
Domestic workers help themselves to a spread of Indonesian food at Faith Maid Agency.
Aisoen started off as a phone shop owner at City Plaza, but has extended her business to an employment agency which focuses on transfer workers.
Aisoen has good reason for maintaining this hybrid shop: for domestic workers, mobile phones and new employers are complementary goods.
She has owned a phone shop in City Plaza for over 13 years. One Sunday, a worker entered and began surveying the phones on sale; a casual chit-chat turned into a heart-to-heart discussion.
“She had some problems,” Aisoen remembers. “She wasn’t feeling good. The work was so tiring, the employer always angry. So I gave her some counselling. The maid is Indonesian, but I understood what she was feeling and saying, because I was born in Indonesia.”
The worker felt so uplifted by Aisoen’s advice that she suggested that Aisoen start an employment agency of her own. The idea first took Aisoen aback: “I don’t want to sell humans! Sell product can already.”
The worker volleyed by saying, “You don’t sell humans, m’am! You don’t sell me! What I mean is, can you find me a good boss?”
After some deliberation, she turned half the phone shop into an employment agency, specialising in transfer workers and ex-Singapore workers.
Aisoen was born in Indonesia but has lived in Singapore for over 15 years, and considers herself well-poised to act as a cultural broker between Indonesian workers and Singaporean employers.
On Sundays, she transforms her shop into a social space for workers by offering free food and a place to rest. But Aisoen is running no charity—by making her shop a comfortable space for workers to relax, she’s tapping on the social networks of existing domestic worker clients to build connections with prospective new customers.
Born in Indonesia, Aisoen considers herself well poised to work with Indonesian domestic workers.
On Sundays, City Plaza--where Faith Maid Agency operates--is a popular migrant enclave for Indonesian migrant workers.
First and foremost, Aisoen is a brisk businesswoman.
To pre-empt problems, she creates her own ‘motivational’ training sessions for the domestic workers managed by Faith Agency. Instead of focusing on cooking classes or household chores, these training sessions take on a different approach.
Based on theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the training sessions emphasise self-examination and self-governance. Workers write down their hopes, fears, loved ones, and sources of faith on prepared worksheets, after which they discuss their answers with one another.
“For maids who have turned ‘haywire’, this is like a wake-up call for their brains,” Aisoen says.
Aisoen characterises Indonesian workers as especially responsive to overtures of emotion and affection. This, she says, is the key to a successful worker-employer relationship. “It is a good thing that they have too many feelings. If you take their heart, then your burden is a lot lesser. They care a lot. For the maids, you don’t touch their money, you don’t touch their brain; you touch their heart. The employer happy, maid happy, business will automatically come in.”