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Sassy Mama Supports: Uplifters, Empowering The Lives Of Domestic Helpers

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Meet Uplifters, a new NGO supporting domestic helpers through financial empowerment.

The latest labour force characteristics from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Development shows that there are almost 400,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, with the vast majority coming from the Philippines and Indonesia. These migrant workers are overwhelmingly women (there are currently about 6,000 male domestic helpers) and are more often than not, the breadwinners for their families they have had to leave behind. Stroll through any public space around Hong Kong on a Sunday, and it’s easy to get an idea of how many of these women help keep Hong Kong running. Life in HK is not always plain sailing for foreign domestic helpers – or their employers – with both often finding it difficult to delicately manage a professional relationship in a personal space.

When I first met the women behind Uplifters, Founder & Director, Marie Kretz Di Meglio, and Development and Communications Officer, Marion Déchy, I knew that Uplifters had to be featured in our latest edition of Sassy Mama Supports. The mission? To transform lives through online education. Uplifters believe that women empowerment, education and community-based projects have the power to eradicate poverty. It uses social media and online tools to support (both helpers and employers) and teach financial literacy, professional skills, personal health and wellbeing, and much more.

I was blown away by their passion and commitment to empowering women and their big plans for Uplifters in Hong Kong. So I talked to Marie about how it all began, how they are helping change lives and how you, too, can get involved.

Tell us the story behind Uplifters and how it began.

I [Marie] started to work on the project in the last quarter of 2017 and Uplifterswas officially launched in March 2018. Uplifters came from my experience of running an online learning centre in France, followed by working for an NGO offering financial literacy courses to migrant domestic workers in Singapore (Aidha).

I was moved by these amazing women, who come to study on their only day off, always with a smile on their face. I could not have imagined the hardships and sacrifices they have endured before they told me. Their courage and resilience are truly inspiring. I witnessed the impact that financial literacy courses had on their lives. I wanted to make these tools available on a larger scale through online education and felt my expertise in online education could help make a difference and that it would have been selfish not to try. We all deserve an education, we all deserve hope.

I am also a mother of two young children (2.5 years and a 3-month-old baby) and two years ago, I hired a domestic worker. The discussions we had really encouraged me to create Uplifters. I guess Uplifters is also my way of saying thank you for the big sacrifices she makes, leaving her family to take care of my children.

During the first year, I concentrated on creating the content for our first free money management and personal growth programme and pilot-testing it. I am lucky to be French and to have received an almost free education up to MBA level in one of our top business schools to which I added later out of personal interest a bachelor degree in Psychology (through distance learning!). The part [of the course] about managing one’s salary, understanding and avoiding loans and scams come from my management degree. My psychology degree helped a lot with the personal-growth side. It’s totally useless to know how to budget if you don’t know how to say no to your brother if he asks you for a motorbike! Managing your money well is very much related to your self-confidence, personal accountability and capacity to plan your future.

I started the project alone but now I have a team of about 15 volunteers helping with student support, content editing, digital marketing, web design, etc. We also have 30 alumni students trained to help new students. My vision for Uplifters is to make it a community and it’s heart-warming to see it happening. I am truly grateful for all the support I have got since I started the project. I could not have done it alone.

In the future, we want to offer more free life skills courses but also fee-based vocational courses to help domestic workers better meet employers’ needs. We are currently creating a baby care online course with a paediatrician. We also want to help employers build healthy work relationships with their domestic workers.

Can you tell us more about what classes helpers can sign up for? What are the learning outcomes?

Uplifters offer free online money management and personal growth programmes which teach domestic workers how to budget, save, avoid loans and scams and also help them to develop personal development tools (self-confidence, communication skills, personal accountability).

Our online education platform is mobile-optimised, user-friendly and classes are interactive with videos, quizzes and practical exercises. However, the most important thing is that the students are never alone. They join small support group chats on Facebook Messenger with daily interactions with other students and mentors to whom they can ask all of their questions to.

There are three modules on our free existing money management and personal growth programme:

  •  ‘Dare to Dream’ covers money management basics. Students will learn how to make a budget and track expenses monthly, understand and avoid loans, make better investments and avoid scams. It also includes self-development techniques to help them develop a positive mindset, set and reach long-term goals and communicate better with their families back home, especially about money issues. This is a three-week online programme.

It can then be followed by a one-year coaching programme:

  • Make it happen’ monitors their progress and how they stay on track of their financial goals. This way, we can have a long-lasting impact on their lives.

Uplifters believe in community-based projects and leverage the power of peer support. Domestic workers can take an active role in empowering other students after going through our final module:

  • Become a Leader’ is for alumni students who want to ‘pay it forward’ and mentor new students. Students are never alone and will get support from a peer who is speaking the same language and is trained specifically through this module. This module takes two weeks to complete.

The programme is in English, so it also helps them improve their language skills. The Consulate General of Indonesia is currently helping us to add translations [to the course materials] in Bahasa and we plan to add Tagalog shortly afterwards.

Your motto is ‘Dare to Dream’ – why did you choose that?

All human beings have dreams but not everyone feels allowed to even utter them. How can you prepare for the future if you don’t even believe a better future is possible? ‘Dare to Dream’ is the name of our core programme because, during this course, we ask our students to express their dreams and what they want to achieve in life, plan and even more importantly, how to act now.

What is one thing you wish more people knew about the lives of domestic helpers in Hong Kong?

There is a misconception that because they earn much bigger salaries than in their home countries, they save and accumulate wealth. But on average out of a 2-year contract, newcomers have to take out a four-month salary loan to pay their agency fees. And after repaying their initial loan and debts back home, they send all their salary to their families for their daily needs. No money is saved or invested in productive assets. So their sacrifices only enable them to maintain a subsistence income. It also makes them very vulnerable as they can’t afford to lose their jobs. This goes on for 20 years on average with little to no wealth being created or accumulated.

Raising awareness is now the job of Marion, who joined me in September, 2018. She worked for four years in an ethical employment agency in Hong Kong and crossed the path of many domestic workers who shared their stories, their dramas, their mistakes. She realised that a lot of employers were not aware of the issues faced by their domestic workers. By just explaining to them [the employers] where they [the helpers] were coming from, why they chose to migrate for work, Marion noted that the relationship between employers and employees improved as they came to realise the difficulties faced. Somehow, that seemed to make them become more tolerant and understanding. Marion facilitates our Facebook Support group for employers and writes our newsletter where she gives useful tips to employers.

Can you tell us more about why you’ve chosen to provide digital resources?

There are already traditional, face-to-face courses for domestic workers, but so far, nothing else existed online. Due to the digital nature, it makes it possible for us to follow up on domestic workers for a longer period of time and ensure a sustained impact. Plus, there are over three million migrant domestic workers in Asia, and with Uplifters being online, we’re also able to easily reach out to other organisations. So we really see it as an opportunity to work complementary and discuss with other related NGOs ways on how to collaborate better serve this community. For example, Enrich, the leading Hong Kong charity promoting the economic empowerment of migrant domestic workers, very kindly agreed to support us and work with us.

We chose Facebook to reach domestic workers because that’s where they are. They don’t know about web browsers, have no email address, and are unlikely to download any fancy apps. So they enrol and access our platform through our Facebook Messenger chatbot. We also created a Facebook group, ‘More than just a Maid‘, a year ago, and as of today, the group has more than 4,000 domestic workers and is a good way for us to share educational content and events from other NGOs on a daily basis – so don’t hesitate to share the link with your domestic worker!

For employers, we also created a Facebook support group, where they can get advice and ask questions about their domestic workers in a safe, non-judgmental environment. It’s an easy way to get quick replies and help from other people!

What feedback have you received about your courses?  

We have already pilot-tested our free money management and personal growth programme and trained more than 250 domestic workers. We have a 100% satisfaction and recommendation rate and can easily increase our impact thanks to our dynamic Facebook group.

Our next step is to scale and reach thousands of domestic helpers. Here is a short video of our students saying what they think about our course:

The programme has been fully operational since August 2018. We have an ongoing impact assessment survey that will precisely tell us the impact our courses have on domestic workers’ savings and investments in productive assets a few months after completing the programme. But our students already say that our courses change their lives, help them acquire tools to increase their well-being and manage their income better! We want to create more courses and are raising money to accelerate the process.

How can a domestic helper (or an employer) get started with Uplifters? What are the first steps?

To join Dare to Dream, our free money management and personal growth course, she just needs to go to our Facebook Page and then click ‘Send Message’. Domestic workers often share with us how grateful they are to their employers who encourage them to study and prepare for the future. We start a new Dare to Dream session at the beginning of each month.

How can Sassy Mama readers get involved and support Uplifters?

As a young NGO, we are very grateful for all the support we can get. First and foremost we need funds to keep going. We are in the process of applying for grants but until now, Uplifters has been self-funded. In January we have our first speed funding campaign. The campaign is just launching today and you can help us kickstart it

Our goal is to quickly raise at least $80,000 to scale up and fund the scholarship of 1000 domestic workers. By donating $80 (US$ 10) to Uplifters, you will sponsor one domestic worker to get access to one online financial literacy course. The money raised will be used to cover the cost of our platform and an employee dedicated to student support.

You can also donate your time and can find more details about our volunteering programme on our website. We will make sure to find the project suiting you the most.

Finally, an easy way to help us is to join our community and share our campaign! To make sure to be in the know about what’s going on at Uplifters, subscribe to our newsletter

All images are courtesy of Uplifters.

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