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