A Worker’s Gamble

By Kirsten Han

35-year-old Thu Zar Myint looks small and diminutive in the hospital bed, dwarfed by the padded sling for her left shoulder and the casts on her legs. Her right arm is about the only thing she can move freely without much pain, but even that arm has a big bruise and a dressing on it.

Thu Zar Myint came to Singapore in August this year. Her friends, already working as domestic workers in the city-state, told her that it would be a good opportunity. She wasn’t aware that Myanmar had already imposed a ban on sending Burmese women to Singapore to work as domestic workers.

She thought of her teenage son. “He’s doing well in school, so I wanted to earn more money to give him a better education,” she said through a Burmese translator. Her husband earns a modest living as a motorcyclist carrying passengers in Yangon. Working in Singapore would give her boy a better chance of going to university.

She found a recruitment agent in Myanmar who would help her get to Singapore. She was trained in childcare, and told that she would earn S$464 (approx. USD364) a month working with a family with a seven-year-old child. She asked to be placed with a Chinese family – she had been taught to cook Chinese dishes, and had learnt a few words of Mandarin to help her communicate.

One month into her training in Yangon, her agent told her that there would be seven months’ worth of salary deductions to pay her recruitment fees, one or two months more than she had expected. Thinking that she was already halfway through her training and would have a steady wage in Singapore, Thu Zar Myint accepted the increased cost. She had no idea that this decision would lead to her lying in hospital just months later, her body battered and broken.

Once in Singapore, Thu Zar Myint was not placed with the family she had expected. She was instead employed by an Indian family with no young children. She signed a contract in English – a language she cannot read – where her monthly salary was stated as S$434 a month. The agent then deducted S$404 a month, leaving her with S$30.

She asked to be transferred back to the agent after 10 days of work. She wanted a new employer; she had trouble communicating with the Indian family because she barely speaks English. Frustrated with her inability to understand, her lady boss verbally abused her. This lady boss would sometimes also raise her arm as if to hit Thu Zar Myint (she never actually did).

Thu Zar Myint was fed three times a day, but said that sometimes there wasn’t enough – she would only eat the family’s leftovers, and sometimes portions were small.

“I never asked for more food,” she said. “My employer’s wife didn’t seem like someone who would be willing to give me good food. She just asked me to keep the leftovers in the fridge. If the food was good they would keep it for themselves, and I just ate the leftovers they didn’t want anymore.”

She was never transferred to a new employer. In fact, Thu Zar Myint claims that when she asked to be transferred, she would get locked behind a partition at night, separating her room – a small bed in a windowless storeroom – from the rest of the house. She says her employer did it about three to four times over the course of almost two months. She was told that if she tried to leave she would have to pay back her agent’s fee, or that the police would arrest her if she ran away without proper documents.

There was no day off. Thu Zar Myint was told by the Burmese agent that she wasn’t entitled to a day off during her salary deduction period – a lie, as Singapore’s law now stipulates that domestic workers should have a day off a week (although employers are still allowed to pay them in lieu of off days).

Her day would begin at five in the morning. She would wash her employer’s two cars, clean, cook, move flowerpots in and out of the sun and make beds, among other chores and duties. She would eventually go to bed, tired out, at 10 or 11 at night. There was never any time throughout the day to return to her room for a break.

Things came to a head on 13 October. “My employer said that they might send me back to the agent, but weren’t sure when,” she said. Her employer took her work permit and the S$30 that was all the money she had earned in Singapore. But she never went back to the agent that day. She said she was locked behind the partition that night.

At two in the morning, Thu Zar Myint took things into her own hands. Her only exit was a window in the toilet next to her room; she could not get to the main door beyond the locked partition. So she went out the window, five storeys up.

She slid down a drainage pipe the first two storeys. But then she fell.

She now lies in a hospital bed at the National University Hospital, better known as NUH. Burmese-speaking volunteers take turns visiting her, so that she’ll have someone to talk to. Nurses told her that she’s damaged her spine. She has a scar on her right leg from an operation and a steel rod in her left foot.

The cogs continue to turn in Singapore, and like so many other migrant workers Thu Zar Myint has been caught up. Efforts are now being made to send her home. She told volunteers on Friday that she had been asked by hospital staff to sign a document consenting to being sent home to Yangon, where she would then be admitted to a Burmese hospital.

“They told me to try to go home,” she said. She signed the document, but still isn’t clear about what will happen to her – the document had been in English and she hadn’t had a translator.

On Saturday morning she was told that they were going to send her back on Monday.

“I want to stay here to complete my treatment before going home,” she told the volunteers. “I’m still in pain.”

It’s unclear if she’ll get her wish. HOME, an NGO for migrant workers’ rights, is appealing to the Ministry of Manpower on her behalf, as well as trying to raise funds for her medical care once she’s back in Myanmar.

But regardless of HOME’s success or failure, one tragic fact remains: Thu Zar Myint’s gamble – leaving her home and family in the hopes of better opportunities for her son – has not paid off.

If you wish to donate to Thu Zar Myint, please click here

 

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