No safe place for foreigners

Day off: Foreign women congregating along a walkway between Lucky Plaza and Tong Building in Singapore. — The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE: Before Lucky Plaza became a popular hangout for Filipino maids, there was “Gulong Park”, where they gathered on weekends.

For more than a decade, the field behind Orchard MRT station where Ion Orchard now sits was a prime spot for Filipino maids to meet.

“Gulong” in Tagalog means “to roll around”, hence the maids’ name for the place.

“Maids went there for picnics and also to meet their boyfriends, ” says Leonila Incillo.

“Back then, Lucky Plaza wasn’t so crowded. But more and more shops selling Filipino food and products opened at the mall and so more Filipinos headed there.”

The 62-year-old is among the 1,365 Filipinos who had set foot in Singapore to work as maids in 1995.

There were already close to 100,000 foreign maids working here then – a number which climbed to 227,100 in 2015 and then to 250,000 today.

In 2015, there were about 70,000 Filipino maids here. Since then, the number has climbed to 80,000, estimates Philippine Embassy in Singapore’s labour attache Saul T. De Vries.

Yet, it seems public spaces for these workers have failed to grow

in tandem – with many settling

for pavements outside Lucky Plaza to spend their days off – until

last Sunday’s horrific accident, when a car rammed into a group picnicking on a pavement, killing two maids.

It was the same spot where Incillo would meet her 30-year-old daughter, who came here to work as a maid last year, for breakfast or lunch every Sunday.

“Now, I realise it’s not safe. I used to think it was the safest place. What happened really opened my eyes. I was wrong, we really shouldn’t be sitting beside the road, ” she says, recalling how her daughter was shopping in Lucky Plaza when the tragedy occurred outside.

Incillo says: “We used to gather inside the mall. But we were accused of overcrowding the mall and were chased out. This happened many years ago.”

In 1998, Lucky Plaza management was reported to have chased away Filipino maids, accusing them of vandalising the building.

The management said the Sunday crowd, which could swell to 10,000, was a threat to safety, adding that the crowd blocked fire escapes, walkways and escalators.

In a circular to shop owners, the management said the “cleanup” was necessary.

Madam Incillo says: “So we had to move to the sidewalks outside Lucky Plaza. Many of us went opposite to Wisma Atria and outside Orchard MRT.

“Very quickly, Filipinos set up makeshift stalls outside Lucky Plaza, providing manicure and pedicure services to fellow Filipino workers. There were also massage services, and some were selling clothes. The sidewalks were turned into a mini flea market on weekends.”

Following a dip in business, some mall tenants complained to the management, and maids were gradually welcomed back.

From restaurants and pubs to remittance firms, many businesses at Lucky Plaza targeted mainly maids.

The variety of Filipino products and services offered also made them feel at home, says Incillo, explaining why Lucky Plaza has become a “Sunday enclave” for Filipino maids.

There are few other places offering such amenities.

Dr Satveer Kaur-Gill, an instructor at National University of Singapore’s Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre, says Singapore is not planned in a way that offers more accessible options for migrant workers to congregate on their days off.

“Locals, too, have not always been welcoming of low-skilled migrants in both public and private spaces patronised by them, ” adds Dr Kaur-Gill, citing examples of maids being asked to leave shopping malls or prohibited from using the swimming pool and barbecue pits in some condominiums.

Even though non-profit organisations have organised more activities for foreign maids, there are still not enough facilities to cater to the 250,000 of them here.

So, it is inevitable that many of them would head to public places such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens and beaches, or just sit along pedestrian walkways in Orchard Road, during weekends.

Some people have written to the media to complain of how foreign domestic helpers are a nuisance when they play music loudly, sing and dance in the streets.

Dr Kaur-Gill says: “We have ended up with a model where migrant workers have to negotiate with different stakeholders (mall tenants, local patrons, businesses) who see them as individuals who need to be kept watch on or prohibited from public spaces. This does little for integration and only creates segregationist sentiments.”

Ethan Guo, general manager of migrant worker advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too, says there is insufficient public space for migrant workers to hang out.

Unlike male workers who stay in dormitories that are mostly self-contained, female domestic workers do not stay in dormitories, and a common option would be to go to the malls, Guo adds.

While Filipino maids flock to Lucky Plaza, Myanmar workers have been heading to Peninsula Plaza and Indonesian workers to City Plaza.

Dr Kaur-Gill feels migrant workers should not have to negotiate for safe and accessible spaces on their days off.

“Migrants enrich Singapore’s identity in multiple ways. The cultural resources they offer (food, socio-cultural activities and economic opportunities), in fact, can only enhance our public spaces if we can also plan with them in mind.” — The Straits Times/ANN

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