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Football provides escape for female migrant workers in Singapore

  • April 05, 2023

Walk past the Kembangan-Chia Chee Community Hub situated about halfway between Changi Airport and Singapore’s iconic Marina Bay on any given Sunday and you may come across an unusual sight – migrant women kicking around a ball.

The lives of the estimated 245,000 domestic workers in the city state may not always be easy but the beautiful game is now helping to bring some of them together for a couple of hours a week. A growing number of these women from Myanmar, India, Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, who spend most of their time working as domestic help or caregivers, are playing football. 

One of them, Aye Aye Aung, told DW that she was last able to visit Myanmar, in 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 coup in which the military siezed back power,” 

She misses her family, whom she calls on a weekly basis, but football is now offering her some comfort. 

“I don’t have many friends in my hometown, but I have more in Singapore who support us at our matches and on social media,” she said. “I have played football before but this is my first time playing in a league and it feels special.” 

Especially last month, when she helped her team, Golden Myanmar, become the first-ever champions of the Migrant Domestic Workers (MDW) League.

The MCW League

The MDW League, made up of eight teams of 13 players, was launched in September 2022 by D2D Sports, a sporting-event management company. 

“It is tough to say [if it has been a success] because Singaporeans are not exactly the most expressive bunch and are quick to criticize,” D2D Sports’ executive director, Rasvinder Singh, told DW. “I am pleasantly surprised however at how well it has been received.”

Young women playing futsal in an indoor facility
MDW League teams compete in futsal, a form of indoor football Image: Rasvinder Singh

For years women have arrived at the wealthy city state from poorer parts of Asia in search of work. While there have been many reports of some being the victims of ill-treatment at the hands of employers, long hours and hard work are the very much the norm for all. Days off are especially precious.

However, the players DW spoke to for this story were generally positive about their employers, who they said were quite supportive of their new pastime.

Ching Ching Kipgen told DW that, like most others, she came to Singapore to support her family, who live in Tamu Township in the northwest of Myanmar. 

“Of course I miss my family but I am scared to go back home due to the situation,” she said, referring to the 2021 coup in her homeland. She also said that playing in the futsal league had helped her settle in Singapore.

“I think my employers are really proud of me for coming this far, like everyone else, they treat me kindly,” she said.

For her part Aung, said she was also happy with her current employers, who she’s been working for since 2020. 

The Ladies Eagles team pose with their Fair Play Award
The Ladies Eagles team were recognized with the Fair Play AwardImage: Rasvinder Singh

“My employers are okay with me playing and sometimes I need to change my day off because of a match, and they understand,” she said. “I always update them about my games, and they wish me good luck.”

Positive social impact

Lolita Torate Fabroa, who arrived in Singapore from the Philippines in 2008, values the social aspect of playing in the league. 

“Due to my broken marriage, I decided to come and work here as a domestic helper so that I can give a better future to my only son,” said Fabroa, who has been working for a local Chinese family for the past six years. 

“At first my life here wasn’t easy because being apart from my family made me homesick,” she said. 

Now she enjoys playing football for the Ladies Eagles. 

“For me it is just a social activity, it keeps me motivated as well as being good exercise.”

Striving to become a better player

Aung, though, is a little more ambitious. 

“At first I joined the league just to play, and I learned new skills,” she said. 

But that was before she was identified as one of the best players in the league and named to a team of selects who are hoping to play other teams in Singapore in full 11-on-11 friendlies. 

Aye Aye Aung with the championship trophy
Aye Aye Aung emerged as one of the league’s top playersImage: Rasvinder Singh

If the momentum gathered in a short six months or so can continue, there may well be more opportunities for promising players like Aung. In the short term, though, the objective is simply to keep the fledgling league going. 

“We would like to have at least two divisions with promotion and relegation,” Singh said. “It would be a dream if, through this league, we can find the means to improve the livelihood of these players.”

Singh also spoke of the possibility of expanding the project beyond Singapore’s borders. 

“We would be open to playing against workers in other countries and having international competitions. We would be happy to organize and facilitate a similar league in the Southeast Asian region.”

Whether such dreams are realized or not, so far, the project seems to have been a positive experience for all involved. 

Lubis Ratno, one of the volunteers who helped get the MDW League off the ground, says a big part of it is about respect. 

“I wanted the public to know that these ladies are human just like everyone else,” Ratno said. “The only time we should look down on them is to give them a hand up. They have hopes and aspirations, just like (the rest of) us.”

Edited by Chuck Penfold.

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