Games, great food, and the hula

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Have you ever had the pleasure of seeing Jolovan, HOME’s executive director, dance the hula? I did, at HOME Family’s Labour Day picnic, and I can assure you; it was quite a sight. Amidst a dozen swaying domestic workers from our HOME Family, who elegantly mastered the curvy dance, he more than stood his ground.

The hula was not all to be done at HOME’s Labour Day celebrations at East Coast Park. There was plenty of good company and food, brought by everyone that attended, resulting in a diverse spread of delicacies from many different countries.

After food, drink and dance it was time for games. A group of students from St Joseph’s Institution entertained us with their student dorm games. First, we could see longer and longer strings of contestants waving around the park for the crazy tag game ‘bacteria.’ For my own children ‘musical statues’ was the highlight of the day, especially when my six-year-old son proved one of the winners, gobbling his prize of M&M’s proudly with his sisters. Then, people started to really lose themselves in a game of ‘grab the slipper,’ and I imagine the laughs and screams could be heard for quite some distance.

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HOME’s Labour Day picnic was held on Sunday 4th of May, 3 days after Labour Day itself. Unfortunately many domestic workers in Singapore are not given time off on National Holidays, so many of our HOME Family members had, in fact, to labour on Labour Day. HOME advocates that domestic workers should be covered by the Foreign Employment Act and be granted regular Sundays off as well as all National Holidays.

Karien van Ditzhuijzen was at HOME’s labour day celebration picnic. Photo’s by Dominica Fitri

HOME Responds to the Proposed Anti-Trafficking Bill

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It has been a busy few months for the HOME legal team and their volunteers as they have been formulating a response to MP Christopher De Souza’s private member’s bill addressing human trafficking in Singapore. Currently there is no specific legal framework dealing with this, despite the fact that Singapore is a well-known regional hub for trafficking. The new Bill provides a perfect opportunity to enshrine into law international definitions of trafficking and the requirements to prevent it, protect the victims and prosecute the perpetrators. However, Singapore is not yet a signatory to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children and the legal team is concerned that this opportunity to tackle trafficking could be missed if Mr De Souza’a Bill is not sufficiently robust.

At public consultations held in March and April, the details of what is likely to be in the Bill were presented to representatives from civil society. As the Bill is still being finalized, the legal team has taken the opportunity to submit a comprehensive summary of key points which it feels must be included if it is to really make a difference.

One of the principal points in the submission is the importance of the definition of trafficking. HOME believes terms relating to the ways in which people are trafficked, such as  ‘deception’, ‘coercion’ and ‘abuse of position of vulnerability’ must be defined to include the kind of practices which often occur in Singapore. This means that ‘deception’ must cover deception as to the conditions of work as well as the nature of work, so that workers who are promised certain wages, working hours and living conditions which are then not delivered, will be protected in the same way as women deceived into sex work when they had been promised domestic work. Similarly ‘coercion’ and ‘abuse of position of vulnerability’ must include threats of redundancy and deportation, wage withholding and debt bondage as well as physical restraint and violence. The definition of  ‘exploitation’ is also critical. The UN Protocol definition covers all involuntary work and services extracted by the use of threats and penalties from which the person cannot escape and HOME believes that the Bill must adhere to this definition.

HOME’s submission strongly makes the case that the needs and rights of the victims of trafficking should be at the heart of the Bill and that workers who bring a case against their employers must be protected from intimidation and prosecution, and allowed to seek alternative work whilst their case is being considered. Without these statutory rights for the victims of trafficking, few workers are likely to come forward, prosecutions are unlikely to occur and the Bill will be undermined.

Finally HOME’s submission urges that the Bill follows the UN Protocol and criminalizes attempts to traffic people, accomplices to trafficking and those who direct others to commit trafficking. They believe that liability should extend throughout the supply chain and include companies who knowingly engage suppliers or sub-contractors who use trafficked labour. This may not be music to the ears of a government seeking to attract foreign investors, but would be an important way of tackling trafficking from the demand side.

HOME’s response to the Bill has been submitted to Mr De Souza and we hope he will agree to discuss it further before the final drafting. It is a comprehensive document that sets out clearly how Singapore can meet international standards on tackling human trafficking. Let’s hope all the hard work pays off.

If you wish to read HOME’s submission in full, you can download it here.

The business of making money from ‘maids’

By Jessel

Jessel is a domestic worker from the Philippines currently staying at the HOME shelter. She shares with us her story of her agent, who when she complained about having been deceived with a false contract, send Jessel a text message stating ‘I told you before my business is making money’.

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‘Getting married at an early age is quite difficult. At 19, I gave birth to my eldest daughter, and the following year to my second. Life was hard with my husband having no permanent work. So I decided to apply for work abroad, in Singapore. Applying to work in another country takes time, money and patience. My first attempt failed and I had no choice but to stay with my family. I gave birth to my third and fourth child.

At that point, life got even harder. When my youngest son turned two I decided to apply again to work in Singapore. I had to pay six months of salary to the agent, but my employer let me pay small deductions every month. I was lucky, my employers were good people. I felt at home with them, even if I did not have any days off and they did not allow me a handphone. The first three months were hard. I missed my children. I cried a lot. But I got through that, as my family in Singapore was treating me well. After two years, my contract finished, and I had to find another employer. I did not go home to take a vacation because I wanted to earn money. To transfer I had to pay two months of salary to the agent again.

My second employers were good people too. They treated me as family. When my mam gave birth, I felt like I was having a baby too. After a year and a half, I made a mistake that I regret badly. I decided to go back home. My mam wanted me to stay, and I am now very sorry she agreed to send me home.

Life back home was difficult, as I did not have any income and could not provide for my four kids. I felt so down. I applied for a job in Singapore again. Processing went very fast and after only one month I was back in Singapore. I was very shocked when the agent told me seven months of my salary were going to be deducted as an agent fee. I did not get to see my contract until I had been working for the new employer for three weeks already. By that time I had little choice but to sign it. I felt that I had been fooled. Why had they not told me this when I was still in my own country? They had said that because I had worked in Singapore before, I would be a direct hire and would only get four months of salary deductions, spread out over a longer period. I had trusted them to tell the truth. Another mistake.

This time, I had left for Singapore together with a friend, through the same agency. My friend’s contract stated she would pay four months of salary deductions, and that they were going to be spread out over ten months, just like we were promised. Me, I would not have any money to send home to my family for seven months.

I asked my agent, who had turned out to be my mam’s sister, why my loan was so much higher than my friends. The agent said my friend was different, but when I asked why, she would not answer me. Neither did she answer me when I asked to go home. When I told the agent I was very disappointed in her, she texted me back, saying: ‘I told you before my business is making money.’

I thought I was very strong. I thought I had patience. But now, I started to feel unhappy with my work. Every time my mam raised her voice to her kids, every time I even saw her, I felt nervous. I could not fight the thoughts anymore about my own kids, now I could not send them any money. If I can’t send any money to my kids, they will starve. I was worrying so much I could not work properly. I felt depressed. I wanted to go home. That is why I ran away .’

HOME has managed to negotiate a reduction of Jessel’s agency fee, and she is hoping to find a new employer soon. It is common for domestic workers to find upon arrival in Singapore that agent’s fees are higher than agreed. Since contracts are either substituted, or not signed until after they have arrived at their employer’s house, domestic workers find they have little choice but to accept the new conditions.

 Singapore’s Employment Agencies Act stipulates that agencies are allowed to charge a maximum of two months salary as a fee to foreign workers entering Singapore, yet most workers end up with a debt that is much higher, either knowingly or unknowingly. Singaporean agencies justify charging higher fees by claiming it is not a debt but a loan, or by claiming that they are merely asking workers to pay off fees charged by agencies overseas, for which they have no responsibility.

The Philippines government regulations stipulate that domestic workers should not be charged any agency fee. By allowing agencies to charge up to 8 months salary, and more in some instances, the Singapore government has contravened its own laws and also violated the Philippine government’s regulations.

Deported, not protected

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Selvan and Kalai were deceived by an agent, threatened by their employer and worked for weeks for no pay. Now, they are accused of working illegally. Kalai must leave Singapore this week, empty-handed. HOME has been assisting these workers with their cases.

Living in Sri Lanka, where the economy has been ravaged by years of civil war, Selvan and Kalai were desperate for jobs that would allow them to earn a living. When their best friend Ravi introduced them to an agent who promised them a high paying job at a Singapore hotel in return for $3,000 each, they borrowed money and pawned all of their families’ jewellery in the hope of a better life.

Selvan and Kalai arrived in Singapore to find that instead of the high-paying hotel job promised to them, they found themselves washing dishes at different restaurants for 12 hours a day. They were not allowed any rest, and given only one meal a day. None of Selvan’s and Kalai’s salary ever reached them; the restaurants paid their supervisor, Bala.

After weeks of unpaid labour in such harsh conditions, Selvan and Kalai were overcome with frustration. They asked Bala to send them back home, but their requests were brushed aside and they were instead promised that their salaries would be paid soon.

Unknown to Kalai and Selvan, they were working illegally as they had no work permits. One month later, Kalai was caught by MOM. Upon hearing of Kalai’s arrest, Selvan decided to surrender himself.

Deeply indignant about their plight, both Kalai and Selvan tracked down Bala’s whereabouts and confronted him, only to be met with threats to kill them and their families. Given that Bala knows precisely where they live in Sri Lanka from the information they supplied to get their jobs, even now, Kalai and Selvan live in constant fear that these threats will be realized.

Kalai and Selvan were victims of deception, with the agent in Sri Lanka abusing their financial vulnerability. They were forced to work for no pay, and threatened with violence when they questioned their employer. They did not receive a single cent for their work in Singapore. They say that they did not know that they were not supposed to be working in Singapore and were cheated by their employer. However, Kalai and Selvan have not been treated as victims of exploitation in Singapore. Rather, they have been investigated. Kalai will be deported from Singapore this week for overstaying his visa.

Kalai’s story highlights the difficulties faced by migrant workers who want to report exploitation by their employers. Faced with huge debts, threats, and the prospect of being deported rather than protected, exploited foreign workers like Kalai and Selvan have little incentive to report the abuses they face.

Kalai must leave Singapore this week and will not be allowed to return to Singapore to work for one year. He will leave empty handed. As Kalai says, he has not even paid for the t-shirt that he is wearing. Kalai is left with dreams of a better life shattered, huge debts, and without any justice. He wanted to share his story in the hope that it would stop other workers falling into the trap that they did.

MOM is still investigating Selvan’s case. He may be eligible to continue working in Singapore.

Update: since this story was published, in response to HOME’s referral, MOM recognised that elements of human trafficking were present in Kalai’s case. MOM stated that Kalai would not be treated as an offender and would be allowed to work in Singapore again. Kalai has now left Singapore.

The names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the victims. To donate to HOME, visit www.home.org.sg.

Mother’s Day off

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By guest writer and HOME volunteer Karien van Ditzhuijzen

On Sunday morning I find myself badly hung-over, baking thirty cupcakes for a birthday, preparing a quiche and a pile of salmon cream cheese wraps for a picnic, whilst simultaneously trying, with my hip, to shoo off kids that keep pulling at my skirt for attention. ‘Get out of the kitchen; entertain yourself for a minute, will you. Mama is busy, or do you want to go to school empty handed tomorrow?’

I plod on, head throbbing, and not so silently cursing the fact that there is no time off, ever, for a mother, that we have to work 24/7, with no time to rest and no time to clear our heads from the constant screaming. And that we hardly get any appreciation for all our hard work, only on that once yearly commercial trap called Mothers Day. Downing another panadol I curse myself for staying out too late and drinking too much, and for not doing all this the day before. The day when I had an extra pair of hands around the house.

I could now write that this experience made me understand the fact that some parents do not give their domestic worker a day off on Sundays. But that would not be true. Even in my miserable sick-to-the-stomach state, I realised that it was not all about me. That there is one group of people even worse off than parents: foreign domestic workers. These brave women who travel to a different country, and leave their own kids to take care of those of someone else. They get up before their employers do, to prepare breakfast, and don’t finish until the last dinner plate is washed up and put away. Or later, if the whim of the employer wants it that way. In Singapore, domestic workers are not covered by the employment act, which means there are no laws regulating their salary, working hours, days off, sick leave, annual leave, overtime pay, or any of those things other workers have a right to. A domestic worker is totally dependent on the generosity of her employer.

Sure, there are many employers that treat their domestic workers well. They even call her part of the family. The problem is, a family member, like a mother, has really crappy collective labour agreements. Family, like a mother, does not get paid, time off, sick leave, treated considerately, et cetera. A domestic worker would be better off protected by clear regulations. Clearer than the recent law in Singapore, claiming that domestic workers have the right to a day off, but still leaving a loophole by stating the worker can be offered extra payment in lieu if she does not get one.

So yes, it sometimes bugs me that as a mother I never get any time off, nor the appreciation I deserve. Yet, I feel utterly blessed that six days a week, I do get that extra help that makes my live infinitely more easy. Next Sunday it will be Mother’s Day. But I know someone who deserves to be spoiled much more than I do.

Photo by Jolovan Wham, taken at the HOME labour day celebration picnic, which we had to celebrate on the Sunday after, as most domestic workers were not given Labour Day off to celebrate on the actual day.

Jobs with Justice: HOME’s Labour Day Message

Image courtesy of http://noii-van.resist.ca/?page_id=99

Photo image courtesy of http://noii-van.resist.ca/?page_id=99

As Singapore commemorates Labour Day this year, we call on our   national government, the labour movement and all employers to improve the lives of migrant workers in this country.  Many of our migrant workers suffer gross human rights and labour rights violations on a regular basis. The labour movement in particular, should take an active interest in the rights of domestic workers by advocating with them for better working and living conditions.

The government should also take the progressive step  to include domestic workers in the Employment Act, thereby ensuring that all the rights which are granted to every other employee  (such as limits to working hours, rest periods, annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave, public holidays and over-time pay) are not denied to them. It is deeply disturbing  that such an advanced country as Singapore, which boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world, continues to pay our more than 200,000 migrant domestic workers approximately $1 an hour for a 16-18 hour work day, and other migrant workers as little as $1.50 per hour.

We call attention to the plight of Rinonos Analyn Almoite a Filipino domestic worker whose ex employer Ms Wong Pui Kwan was recently convicted of severely abusing her. Analyn was subjected to severe physical, psychological and sexual abuse. As she was traumatized by her experience, she was not able to seek employment as a domestic worker and stayed at HOME’s shelter for the entire length of investigations and proceedings. After more than a year at the HOME shelter, she was suffering from severe depression and anxiety. Analyn informed the authorities that she wanted to return home and requested the release of her passport, which had been impounded by the police. This was denied because they required her to remain behind to continue assisting in investigations, caused her extreme angst.

The accused finally pleaded guilty to a number of the charges and Analyn was informed that she was no longer required to stay in Singapore. Two years and three months after she ran away from her employer, Analyn finally returned to the Philippines in February 2014. She was finally reunited with her loved ones.  Her employment and subsequent court hearings resulted in her taking no money home to her family after  two and a half years in Singapore. The only motivation for her departure from Philippines was to work here to provide for her family.  Instead, she returned home in an extremely vulnerable and depressed state that, in HOME’s opinion, was exacerbated by being forced to remain in Singapore, against her will, for such a long time. We not only urge the government to mandate improved working conditions for migrant workers but also consider an effective victim protection scheme for all migrants acting as prosecution witnesses.  In this way they are entitled to a decent work environment, effective social and psychological support and ultimately adequate compensation for their suffering and losses should employers act abusively.

Despite pronouncements and some efforts to improve the welfare and working conditions of migrants, many low wage migrant workers continue to suffer systemic discrimination in this country. In all sectors of the economy, wage discrimination by nationality is a widespread problem, and there are no effective policies and laws to address it.  Migrant workers are frequently wrongfully dismissed without right to recourse, and faced with unjust financial burdens due to debt to recruiters. They have minimal rights with respect to the non- payment of their salaries and are almost always denied job mobility.  HOME has seen multiple circumstances where migrant workers have their passports confiscated from them and they are not allowed to switch employers even though they suffer grave abuses from those employers. The government’s policy of forfeiting $5000 from all employers of work permit holders has led to situations where domestic workers are forcibly confined in their homes and other migrant workers forcefully repatriated by security companies. These policies leave thousands of them vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking.

Among the issues that require urgent attention is the inclusion of domestic workers in the Employment Act, bilateral agreements with countries of origin, a more just recruitment and employment system for migrant workers, and the inclusion of migrants in social security and reintegration programmes.

The current crisis in immigration can only be resolved when labour rights and protections are given to all workers. It is in our unity and solidarity that the first step towards genuine change will come. We need to recognise that all workers, regardless of nationality, age, race, or gender face the same struggle— a struggle against an economic and social system that has brought misery to many and privileges to a few. In solidarity, with workers of the world may we in Singapore be resolved to end all contemporary forms of slavery for all workers including migrant workers in the labour force.

Happy Labour Day!

Jolovan Wham (Executive Director)

 

 

‘A maid strong as a tree’ by Marylin

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Marylin (not her real name) is a domestic worker from the Philippines. During a story writing class for women staying the HOME shelter, Marylin wrote about the problems she faced with her employer. She ran away because she could no longer stand the treatment she received. Marylin is currently waiting to find out whether she can transfer to another employer, or needs to return home to the Philippines.

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During the phone interview, when I was still in my country, my employer told me about her family: she said that she was married and had three kids. But when I arrived in their house, I was shocked because there were so many members of the family in the house, which means more people to take care of. More than she mentioned during the phone interview. But even still, I had to accept it and stay, because I was already there.

They let me sleep in the living room without a blanket. I had to hand-wash all the clothes, everyday, hand-mop the floors, and iron everything. I needed to wake up very early to do all this work, with no rest at all until late at night. They did not give me enough food. Every day I felt hungry, until my cousin sometimes bought me food. I thought that if I stayed with them longer and worked harder, they would change, but they did not.

Every time they yelled at me I stayed very humble, obedient, and I did not answer back at all. But I am a human so I do get hurt. I am not a tree that bends and sways, and needs only air and water for survival. Sometimes, if a very strong wind comes, even the tree gets uprooted or the branches will break. How much more will this wind do to a human?

If you throw a bone for a dog to catch, the dog needs to run before catching it, and he does it happily. There is always proper food for a dog, sometimes more than for a human.

Maids, helpers; they will not run away if their employers treat them as a human.

The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) is an anti-human trafficking organisation advocating empowerment and justice for all migrant workers in Singapore