A while back HOME blog wrote about Warning Letters, which are issued by the Police informing domestic workers that they ‘have been issued a stern warning in lieu of prosecution.’ Such warning letters may sound harmless, but the consequences are not. It presumes guilt when the case is not even tried in court. The implication of this for migrant workers is significant. Their work permits may be revoked and they are blacklisted. Recently, HOME saw another case involving a warning letter. This time, with the help of one of HOME’s pro-bono lawyers, the ending was much more happy.
Grace comes from a poor family in the Philippines. She had to stop her education for lack of money, and when she got offered a job as a domestic worker in Singapore, she was happy to take it to support the family’s income. Grace spent the day looking after a baby boy whilst the employer and her husband Harry worked irregular shifts.
The family shared a single bedroom in an apartment they inhabited together with several other families. One day, as Grace was in the bedroom with the baby, Harry came back early from work. He had lost his keys. Harry banged the door, harder and harder, but Grace, who did not expect anyone and had closed the door because the baby was sleeping, could not hear him. Harry rattled the grille, shouted, until at last Grace heard him and let him in.
Harry kept on shouting at Grace, using nasty swear words, and accusing her of taking his keys. When Grace went out to the rubbish chute with the garbage, he kept shouting at her, and started shoving her. Back inside he showered her with strong blows. Grace tried to defend herself using her arms, but Harry was bigger and stronger, and he struck her hard in the eye.
Grace hid behind a table, but Harry kept coming for her. Desperate to defend herself, she grabbed a bottle from behind her and hurled it at her attacker. Soon after that another tenant of the building arrived, stopping any further violence.
Harry immediately denied that he had hurt Grace, but her bruised and swollen eye proved otherwise. Neither he nor his wife wanted to help Grace, and eventually she borrowed some money to go to a doctor on her day off.
When she got back, one of the tenants told Grace that Harry had gone to the police. Grace worried about what he had told them, so she decided to go to the police herself to give them her side of the story. The police interviewed Grace, took pictures of her swollen eye, sent her to the hospital and eventually referred her to HOME. After two months of investigations, Grace was still not told what had been concluded. Instead, she was served with a ‘letter of warning’ for causing voluntary hurt. Grace knew about these letters, as a friend of hers at the HOME shelter had signed one not long ago. She knew, that if she signed, she could not work in Singapore again.
‘I refused to sign the letter, because I want to work. I am abused myself, so why do they issue me with a warning letter?’
The police told her she should have used her arms to defend herself, and not a bottle. She was also told if she did not sign the letter, her case would proceed to court.
‘My uncle is bigger than I am, how could I defend myself with my hands only?’
After Grace refused to sign the warning letter, HOME assigned her a pro-bono lawyer, who made representations to persuade the Attorney General not to proceed with any charges, or issue the ‘letter of warning’ that would have huge implications for Grace. The lawyer stressed that Grace was in fact the one who had been abused, and that she had had no choice but to defend herself. Also, importantly, Grace’s actions had not in fact seemed to have caused any harm to Harry.
In the end, Grace’s charges were dropped. She has found a new employer, and will start her new job shortly, thanks to the efforts of the pro-bono lawyer supplied by HOME. Fortunately for Grace, her bravery to resist signing the police warning letter allowed HOME to make representations on her behalf to the AGC. It would have been difficult to quash a warning letter that has already been signed. But not everyone is lucky or as plucky as Grace. Without access to lawyers, most just succumb to pressure. In HOME’s other cases, workers have informed us that they were threatened with jail terms if they didn’t sign, and were discouraged from taking their cases to trial. It is also a fact that workers who are facing prosecution are not allowed to work to support themselves or their families. Under such circumstances, many end up signing such warning letters against their will.