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SINGAPORE: Domestic Workers Profit From Financial Education

Prime Sarmiento

SINGAPORE, Jan 28 2009 (IPS) - Filipina domestic worker Emily Alson spends her weekends cooking and selling snacks. This venture brings in additional income and also helps Alson learn the ropes of entrepreneurship.

“I want to go home for good one day and start my own restaurant,” she says.

Alson came to Singapore in 1996 to help her poor family and also save some capital to start up a business back home. It used to be difficult for her to set aside money as she spent the bulk of her salary on remittances to her parents and shopping for clothes.

But thanks to her employers – Swedish expatriates – who encouraged her to attend workshops on financial education and livelihood training, Alson learned how to save and invest. Alson now owns some properties in her hometown in Iloilo, southern Philippines. She is also busy saving up for her dream business.

Alson is just one of a growing number of domestic workers learning the value of saving. This is thanks mainly to various non-government organisations (NGOs) in Singapore which hold workshops on business management, computer literacy and livelihood training.

Singapore is home to over 150,000 domestic workers, most of them from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Some of these workers end up with abusive employers and such cases have been widely documented in the international media.

But the biggest problem that most of these domestic workers face is the inability to save enough money that will allow them to go home for good, according to Saleemah Ismail, president of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Singapore. This in spite of the fact that many employers in this affluent city state pay decent wages (about 200-300 US dollars per month).

A study commissioned by UNIFEM – Singapore in 2001 revealed that migrant workers have two specific goals for working in Singapore. They want to save enough money to return home and also pick up new skills.

According to Saleemah, domestic workers cannot save money because they end up remitting most of their income to their families, not even leaving a small amount for themselves to save and invest for future. Their families, instead of investing this money by putting up a business or buying property, squander it.

“They (domestic workers) feel guilty. They think that since they earn well, they should support their families,” Saleemah said.

Joy Romualdo, a Filipina domestic worker and a UNIFEM volunteer, said that it is difficult for domestic workers like her to deny family members money. “I sent my niece to school. If I stop remitting money she won’t be able to graduate from college. I’m the only one supporting her,” she said.

This is why it is considered important to educate migrant workers on the value of money management. “When you know how to manage money, you know how to mange your life,” Saleemah said.

Indeed, a study on migrant remittances issued by the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) in 2005 noted that one of the ways to improve the situation of migrant workers is through financial education.

“Without personal time and being less knowledgeable of their rights and options generally (including with respect to remittances), greater education would be of great value to immigrants as it would improve their ability to make more informed social and financial decisions,” the AsDB said.

In 2006, UNIFEM provided 16,000 Singapore dollars (about 10,000 US dollars) in seed money for a newly-created organisation called Aidha.

Aidha is the only organisation in Singapore which is solely dedicated to providing financial education to domestic workers. Aidha’s founding president Sarah Mavrinac said that educating workers about entrepreneurship and money management will help them gain a livelihood once they decided to return home for good.

Aidha is staffed by volunteers who conduct workshops on basic accounting, entrepreneurship, effective communication skills, computer literacy, time management and improving self esteem. Aidha charges each student a nominal 25 Singapore dollars (16 US dollars) per course.

Mavrinac believes that financial education is more crucial now that the economic crisis is making everyone worried about their jobs. Domestic workers who are usually the breadwinners of their families need to learn how to manage money to keep their families secure.

But more than attending these workshops, Mavrinac said it is important that domestic workers put what they learn into practice.

“This is a huge issue – this need for a behavioural change,” Mavrinac said. ‘’It’s not enough to attend a class on money management, but “you must also open and maintain that savings account.”

Mavrinac said Aidha spearheaded the formation of a peer-based savings club called the Financial Compass Investment Club. Members of this club meet a life planning coach each week to discuss savings goals and priorities; calculate the monthly savings required to meet these goals; and develop the budgets needed to realise goals.

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