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'Invisible' Domestic Workers In Singapore

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A church in Singapore where some migrant workers worship. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

A church in Singapore where some migrant workers worship. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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A child labor victim from Myanmar closing the door of a shelter in Singapore for migrant workers who have run away from their employers. The address of the shelter is hidden from the public for the safety. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

A child labor victim from Myanmar closing the door of a shelter in Singapore for migrant workers who have run away from their employers. The address of the shelter is hidden from the public for the safety. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Judy, who is from the Philippines, reporting to her agency in Singapore. Often operating unregulated, many agencies collect thousands of dollars from migrant workers in return for getting them jobs. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Judy, who is from the Philippines, reporting to her agency in Singapore. Often operating unregulated, many agencies collect thousands of dollars from migrant workers in return for getting them jobs. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Rubina, 43, is from the Philippines. She told the photographer that her case is different from that of many of the other women, because her employers were good to her and treated her like a human being. She regrets being separated from her children for 21 years, but said that if she had not left she would not have been able to feed them. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Rubina, 43, is from the Philippines. She told the photographer that her case is different from that of many of the other women, because her employers were good to her and treated her like a human being. She regrets being separated from her children for 21 years, but said that if she had not left she would not have been able to feed them. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Runaway migrants helped Judy with her luggage inside Far East Shopping Center, where her agency is located. The center is filled with employment agencies. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Runaway migrants helped Judy with her luggage inside Far East Shopping Center, where her agency is located. The center is filled with employment agencies. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Judy and other runaway migrants taking a bus to the shelter. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Judy and other runaway migrants taking a bus to the shelter. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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A pool in one of Singapore’s affluent condominiums. Most condominiums in Singapore ban domestic workers from using their pools. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

A pool in one of Singapore’s affluent condominiums. Most condominiums in Singapore ban domestic workers from using their pools. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Karamjit, a 45-year-old Indian migrant, wept as she she shared her story with other runaways in the shelter. She has been staying in the shelter for three months. She told the photographer that she was physically abused by her employer but that she wants to continue working in Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Karamjit, a 45-year-old Indian migrant, wept as she she shared her story with other runaways in the shelter. She has been staying in the shelter for three months. She told the photographer that she was physically abused by her employer but that she wants to continue working in Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Nelyn Formon, 30-year-old migrant worker from Philippines, checks her appearance before she goes to the compulsory computer class provided by the shelter to help prepare runaway workers for reintegration in the society. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Nelyn Formon, 30-year-old migrant worker from Philippines, checks her appearance before she goes to the compulsory computer class provided by the shelter to help prepare runaway workers for reintegration in the society. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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23 is the legal age for eligibility of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, but some domestic workers give false ages to qualify. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Twenty-three is the legal age for eligibility of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, but some domestic workers give false ages to qualify. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Runaway migrant workers practiced a song inside the shelter to stay active despite their painful situations.Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Runaway migrant workers practiced a song inside the shelter to stay active despite their painful situations. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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 One woman from India, who preferred not to be named, told the photographer that she ran away from her employer after he sexually abused her and the police told her that there was no physical proof of her accusations. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

One woman from India, who preferred not to be named, told the photographer that she ran away from her employer after he sexually abused her and the police told her that there was no physical proof of her accusations. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Migrant workers waiting for the train in Orchard, Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Migrant workers waiting for the train in Orchard, Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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A runaway domestic worker packed her bags inside the shelter. She is finally returning home after months of waiting. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

A runaway domestic worker packed her bags inside the shelter. She is finally returning home after months of waiting. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Runaway migrant workers shared a meal inside the kitchen of the shelter. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Runaway migrant workers shared a meal inside the kitchen of the shelter. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Nre Nie Win, 26, and Phoo Phoo, 25, both from Myanmar, watching a film on a phone. They told the photographer that in addition to being denied holidays and wages by their employer, they were not allowed to use cellphones. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Nre Nie Win, 26, and Phoo Phoo, 25, both from Myanmar, watching a film on a phone. They told the photographer that in addition to being denied holidays and wages by their employer, they were not allowed to use cellphones. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Nutarseh, 45, is a domestic worker from Indonesia. She suffers from memory loss and the shelter is investigating the cause of her condition. An Indonesian volunteer in the shelter told the photographer that Nutarseh’s employer left her on the streets until the police found her. She is now back in her home country. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Nutarseh, 45, is a domestic worker from Indonesia. She suffers from memory loss and the shelter is investigating the cause of her condition. An Indonesian volunteer in the shelter told the photographer that Nutarseh’s employer left her on the streets until the police found her. She is now back in her home country. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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A construction site in Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

A construction site in Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Mr. Haque receiving acupuncture on his back for his injury. He told the photographer that he can only attend his therapy sessions at the hospital if his back is not causing him too much pain. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Mr. Haque receiving acupuncture on his back for his injury. He told the photographer that he can only attend his therapy sessions at the hospital if his back is not causing him too much pain. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Mr. Haque leaving the doctor's office after his physical therapy session. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Mr. Haque leaving the doctor's office after his physical therapy session. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Mr. Haque heading back to the dormitory where he stays as he waits for his medical assessment to determine if his claim is deemed valid. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Mr. Haque heading back to the dormitory where he stays as he waits for his medical assessment to determine if his claim is deemed valid. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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A workers dormitory in Jurong, Singapore where Mr. Haque and his friends live. The dormitories are provided by companies that hire construction workers. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

A workers dormitory in Jurong, Singapore where Mr. Haque and his friends live. The dormitories are provided by companies that hire construction workers. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Sohag Faslul Haque, a construction worker from Bangladesh, injured his back while working. After he had a check up with a doctor, his employer sent him back without compensation. He has filed for work injury compensation, but has been out of work for months. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Sohag Faslul Haque, a construction worker from Bangladesh, injured his back while working. After he had a check up with a doctor, his employer sent him back without compensation. He has filed for work injury compensation, but has been out of work for months. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Mr. Haque and his friends enjoy a simple meal in Singapore. Roti prata, a fried flat bread, is their meal of choice because it is cheap. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Mr. Haque and his friends enjoy a simple meal in Singapore. Roti prata, a fried flat bread, is their meal of choice because it is cheap. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Migrant construction workers on their way to work at 5 am in the morning. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Migrant construction workers on their way to work at 5 am in the morning. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Migrant workers spending their day offs in Little India, Singapore. Construction migrant workers are usually from South East Asia and are paid less than locals for their work in Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Migrant workers spending their day offs in Little India, Singapore. Construction migrant workers are usually from South East Asia and are paid less than locals for their work in Singapore. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Xi Feng, center, lines for free meals with other migrant workers. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Xi Feng, center, lines for free meals with other migrant workers. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Mr. Cheng massaging Ms. Feng's hand. He also suffered from a hand injury when a blade cut his finger at work. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Mr. Cheng massaging Ms. Feng's hand. He also suffered from a hand injury when a blade cut his finger at work. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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From left, Zhang Yong Cheng, Ms. Feng and Huang Mei Xing making dim sum. The three of them are migrant workers who came to Singapore from Ji Lian province in China. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

From left, Zhang Yong Cheng, Ms. Feng and Huang Mei Xing making dim sum. The three of them are migrant workers who came to Singapore from Ji Lian province in China. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

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Ms. Feng, 42 is a noodle factory worker. After suffering from hand injury at work, the agent responsible for her her work in Singapore refused to return her agency fee. She had been working for only 25 days in Singapore when she was injured. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

Ms. Feng, 42 is a noodle factory worker. After suffering from hand injury at work, the agent responsible for her her work in Singapore refused to return her agency fee. She had been working for only 25 days in Singapore when she was injured. Image by Xyza Bacani. Singapore, 2016.

When Xyza Bacani first tried photographing migrant workers at a Singapore shelter for women who had fled abusive employers, the man in charge was not interested. He told her of previous experiences where journalists stayed barely long enough to get the photo, and that they did not really care about the women.

But Xyza wasn’t like those other photographers. Her mother had been trafficked to Singapore as a domestic worker in 1996 and has worked for a wealthy woman in Hong Kong for the last 19 years. Xyza — only 8 at the time — was left to care for her younger siblings in their rural village in the Philippines. Xyza followed her mother’s path and became a domestic worker in the same Hong Kong household for seven years.

Her own story opened the door to the shelter. Once inside, she forged deep connections with the women who lived there. She had been one of them. She saw them.

“Migrant workers are invisible people,” Xyza said. “We are like air. People need us but they don’t see us. We exist to please them, to serve them, but they don’t really see us as part of the society. We have voices — it’s just that no one is listening.”

Xyza has dedicated the last three years to documenting the plight of illegally trafficked workers in Hong Kong and New York, making sure their stories are told and their voices are heard. Last year, she turned her attention to Singapore, where her mother first worked.

There is one question that she is always asked by the women she photographs: How did you feel about your mother leaving you to be a migrant worker and growing up without her? While she collects their stories, Xyza shares her own journey:

Her mother, Georgia, who only has a sixth-grade education, was the village washer woman. One day, a recruiter came to town promising a lucrative job in Singapore that could lift the family out of poverty. Her mother left Xyza to care for two younger siblings while their father, Villamor, worked construction jobs and was home only on weekends.

Georgia was illegally trafficked into Singapore on a tourist visa, but there was no job waiting. She was held in a small room with 10 other Filipino women and not allowed to leave. After four days, an employer picked her out of the group and brought her home. She said she was treated poorly, to the point that she was only allowed to go out 3 times in the first two years. Georgia fled Singapore and found employment in Hong Kong working for an affluent woman who was kind to her.

Back home, Xyza essentially grew up without a mother, since Georgia only visited for two weeks every other year. All she had of her mother were photographs she sent home depicting what seemed like an extravagant lifestyle. Xyza did not know her mother well and “always had the feeling she left me for money and good food and was having a good time,” she said, while Xyza took care of her siblings.

“I always tell migrant workers that it is really important to tell their children the real situation,” Xyza said. “To tell them that you’re not here having a great time, but that you are working for their future.”

Xyza was 19 when she decided to go to Singapore, too, so she could help her younger siblings get an education. Her mother urged her not to go because of her own bitter experiences there and instead asked her to join her as a domestic worker in Hong Kong, where they worked side by side for the next seven years.

“It took us four years to mend the relationship and for me realize that she never did anything for herself because she was saving money to send to me and my siblings,” Xyza said. “I found out it was hard to be a migrant worker.”

After several years, Xyza started taking photos on her day off. They were, she said, for her mother’s benefit, since Georgia rarely ventured outside her neighborhood. Xyza turned out to be a talented street photographer, and her work caught the attention of fellow Filipino photographer Rick Rocamora, whose enthusiastic mentoring led her to be featured on Lens in 2014. She soon turned her attention toward women who had been trafficked in Hong Kong. In 2015, while she studied as a Magnum Foundation Human Rights fellow, she photographed women who had been trafficked as domestic workers in New York.

Last year, she began a hard look at Singapore, where her mother’s journey as a domestic worker started.

“Singapore is really beautiful physically and economically successful, but underneath that are these migrant workers,” she said. “It costs a lot of money for migrant workers to go there and then they are tied to these contracts and cannot find any other employment.”

There, she discovered that the wearying toll of illegal trafficking, sexual and physical abuse, and unscrupulous employment agency practices leads many migrant workers to run away.

After documenting the women’s shelter, Xyza broadened her coverage by photographing Southeast Asian men who toiled as migrant laborers in the booming construction industry. Their stories echoed Xyza’s father’s experiences as a migrant construction worker in Saudi Arabia 25 years ago. When her father’s employer refused to let him leave after his two-year contract ended, he fled and returned to the Philippines.

Xyza zeroed in on Sohag Faslul Haque, a Bangladeshi man who was injured at work and was trying to navigate the government’s complicated workers’ compensation system. She also produced another photo essay on three Chinese workers who had been injured while working in Singapore but banded together to help each other through their ordeal.

All these stories remain important to her, not just to tell the world of the ordeals faced by the migrant workers, but to show that one-time migrants like her can go on to make a difference.

“It makes them hopeful that they can be somebody else or their children can be somebody else,” she said.