Filipino maids turn trash into couture art
For four hours on one of their Sundays off, about a dozen Filipino maids strutted on a stage at the HFSE International School on Mountbatten Road, wearing dazzling, colourful gowns and dresses made out of what otherwise would have been trash.
On their bodies were bottle caps, sachets, plastic wrappers, reusable shopping bags, newspapers, milk cartons and plastic spoons.
The Nov 26 Trashion Show was about the environment and how man-made pollutants like plastic are wrecking ecosystems and decimating marine wildlife.
But it also called attention to how many maids in Singapore feel like they are still being treated today: invisible, diminished, disposable – like trash.
Ms Raquel Ello, 40, who has been working as a maid in Singapore for five years, said it took her about three months to sew the gown she wore for the show.
It was a simple one – a tapestry of plastic packaging from ice cream sandwiches, potato chips, dips and chocolates, accented with paper flower bouquets and art paper.
But she could not work on it full time as she tends to two elderly Singaporeans.
"Whenever I still had the energy for it, I'd start working on the costume at 8pm and try to continue till 10pm. But then, I had to stop at 10pm because both my employers are elderly, and they need to be in bed by 10pm," she said, adding that she understood the aim of the Trashion organisers.
"There are so many things happening in this world because of climate change. I wanted to show that even though I have a lowly job, there's still something I can do to help."
Ms Juliet Dailmoto, 45, enjoys designing clothing whenever she has time to spare. She works for two expatriates and has been in Singapore for 16 years.
One of the two dresses she created was inspired by baro at saya, the traditional dress or blouse-and-skirt ensemble for women in the Philippines. She made the piece with about 30 bags of discarded coffee sachets, cartons, newspapers and a reusable shopping bag.
"My inspiration was the Filipino farmer, so you have this big hat that provides shade from the sun," Ms Dailmoto said of her creation, which came with a corn-shaped skirt layered with hundreds of sachets and newspapers at the base to create the bell-shape.
Her other creation was inspired by the ethnic craft of basket weaving.
She rolled thin strips of newspaper and magazine pages and wove them in a basket pattern into a knee-length dress with paper flowers for accents and colour. Unlike her traditional gown, which took just five days to make, Ms Dailmoto took three weeks to create the paper dress.
She would at times stay up till 2am, cutting, rolling, glueing and stitching. "I usually limited myself to 12.30am as I have to wake up at 6am each day," she said, adding that her employers were supporting of her project.
"I create out of recyclable materials. I think it’s such a waste if we were to just throw them away when we can make something else out of them. Plastic clogs our drains. By recycling, I can help the community, I can help the world, in my own little way."
And all her effort was not in vain.
On Trashion day, the women modelling her creations were placed in the top five, with the model wearing her paper dress finishing as a runner-up. The paper dress won a special prize for its creative design.
The top prize was bagged by Ms Maricel Carullo, 42.
There is another theme behind the Trashion Show, one that regards trash more as a metaphor than a material thing.
"Migrant domestic workers remain vulnerable. We are looked down upon, like trash. Through Trashion, we want to show that this 'trash' is also skilful. We want to uplift our human dignity," said Ms Jo Ann Dumlao, a coordinator for the group Kaugnay – a Filipino word that roughly translates to kin.
Kaugnay is under the auspices of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), a local NGO that advocates for migrant workers' rights.
Maltreatment and abuse continue to shadow maids in Singapore, said Ms Dumlao.
There were about 268,500 migrant domestic workers in Singapore as at December 2022. About a third of them were Filipinos.
Sometimes, she said, it is low-intensity verbal abuse, as when an employer shouts at a maid and tells her: "I don't care if you jump out a window!"
At other times, it is being handed just the fish head or leftovers after everyone else at the table has had their fill.
But largely, it is the overall helplessness a maid feels because she has less rights than most other migrant workers in Singapore.
"An employer can buy a ticket, take us to the airport and send us home any time," she said.
Home executive director Stephani Chok said the problems causing domestic workers to run away from their employers have not changed.
Home runs a shelter for maids who run away from abusive situations.
"Verbal abuse, overworking, salary issues, illegal deployment, surveillance, not allowed to use their phones – these are problems that we still see. There is still a long way to go in terms of improving the rights of domestic workers," she said.
Dr Chok added that Home hosted about 500 runaways at its shelter in 2022.
TREATED LIKE FAMILY
When schools in the Philippines were shut and classes moved online during the pandemic, her employers provided the laptops and mobile phones her sons. They gave her a loan so she could open a bakery and buy a van, which her husband is now renting out.
Ms Cardoza's employers hosted her sons when they visited during the holidays. "They treat my family as their own. They tell me that they do good in order to receive goodness from other people," she said.
Her employers' daughters, nine-year-old Olivia and four-year-old Sophia, took part in Trashion. Ms Cardoza put together a flower-shaped dress made of milk cartons for Olivia and an accompanying butterfly costume for Sophia.
Mr David James, 51, said: "Joy wanted to do something. She wanted to focus on recycling, and my daughters wanted to get involved. There’s always been talk of recycling in school, and this is a good example to show how it’s translated into reality.
"Joy has really been a part of the family."
Ms Cardoza acknowledged that not all maids are as fortunate.
"But I always tell them to be thankful because they at least still have jobs here. I tell them to do their jobs well, so that the people they’re working with would be happy," she said, adding that depression usually sets in and becomes a problem not because of the work or the employers, but because of the sense of isolation in being away from one's family.
"We can do the work here, no matter how difficult it may be. But once you feel the detachment from your family, that is the worst feeling any OFW (overseas Filipino worker) can feel. You feel like you have no one else but yourself."
Dr Chok said events like Trashion are meant to help ease that sense of being alone. "On Sundays, when they have their events together, they get a sense of community, a sense of empowerment."