You are not allowed to have boyfriend!

Employment agencies play a vital role in assisting migrant domestic workers and employers manage their relationships. In fact, many employers turn to agencies for ‘expert’ advice on how to do so. But many agencies seem to assume the worst of domestic workers, reinforce negative stereotypes and violate their rights. Such oppressive practices are poorly regulated. Indonesian domestic worker (Siti) was told to sign off this list of rules which she was expected to obey. Among the list of instructions in this document, titled ‘Working Rules in Singapore’ are the following:

1)   Don’t pray or fast unless employer has given permission

2) Must always work hard, initiative and automatic. Don’t be lazy and don’t tell lies.

3) Don’t sleep in the afternoon or go to bed early. All work must be finished before got to sleep.

4) Must work hard (wholeheartedly), honest, don’t steal and always respect your employer and employer family members.

5) Don’t argue and don’t fight back with employer or beat up employer’s children.

6) Must work fast, clean, neat and tidy. Don’t understand, ask employer, avoid spoilting employer’s things.

7) Do not smoke or drink beer.

8) You are not allowed to have boyfriend.

View the full document here:
Working Rules in Singapore

Warned not to sign

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.

H.O.M.E Academy Graduation, July 2014

By Pablita Patricio The first semester of H.O.M.E Academy 2014 came to a close in July with graduation ceremonies for the 589 students who had completed courses in subjects ranging from English and IT to Baking, Sewing, Caregiving, Aromatherapy and Cosmetology. Guests at the graduation ceremonies were entertained by student performances and guests of honour included the new Philippine Ambassador to Singapore, Mr. Antonio A. Morales, and the Founder and CEO of H.O.M.E Sister Bridget Tan. The graduation of the H.O.M.E Academy 3 group was celebrated together with Indonesian National Day and Hari Raya. academy1 Whilst graduation marks the end of schooldays for the students, for many this is just the beginning. It is the start of their journey to fulfil their dreams as they continue to reach for more. Many go on to enroll in other courses and proudly use what they have learnt at their employers’ homes, proving that they use their day off wisely. Each of them hopes to be somebody when they go back home to their countries. academy2 Academy Update Semester 2 is now well underway with new English classes for women from Myanmar and Financial Planning classes for those wish to save more or are looking to open their own businesses when they return to their home countries. Registration for Semester 1 2015 will open in November with lots of new and exciting courses on offer. For more information contact Sisi on +65 6333 8356

Send a letter to your MP today for a victim-centred bill!

Dear Supporters of our joint #StopTraffickignSG campaign, please send the letter below to your MP to ask her/him to support the key recommendations identified by the #StopTraffickingSG coalition for a victim-centric bill.

The 2nd reading of the bill is scheduled for 3 November 2014. This short window of opportunity between now to next Monday is crucial to making the anti-trafficking bill an effective one in protecting the needs of trafficked victims so that they are empowered to report and testify against their traffickers.

Please send the letter today, if you can.

The Letter

Dear [name of MP],

My name is [name] and I am a constituent in [name of constituency]. I am writing to ask you, as my elected representative, to support StopTraffickingSG!’s campaign recommendations when the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, which MP Christopher de Souza has tabled, is discussed in Parliament in early November.

The StopTraffickingSg campaign advocates for the inclusion of victims’ rights in the proposed bill. Its three core recommendations are that

Victims have the right to accommodation, food, counseling services, legal aid, medical treatment, compensation and social support while their case is ongoing.
Victims are not prosecuted for being an undocumented immigrant or for working ‘illegally’ or for any illegal immigration infractions inadvertently committed while being trafficked; and
Victims have the right to work and a decent income while their case is ongoing.
Ultimately, in order to combat trafficking in persons, we should be empowering victims of trafficking to report their own cases. Currently, the fear of reprisal from immigration authorities, police officers, and their traffickers, discourage trafficked victims from reporting their cases directly to the police. victims do not make police reports because they are afraid of the reprisals they stand to face from immigration authorities, police officers, and their traffickers.

Moreover, as a constituent, I want to express my concern about the huge extension of discretionary powers to police and non-police enforcement officers. These powers allow such officers to arrest and forcibly gain entry to premises without warrant, and to be armed with batons and accoutrements “as are necessary”. Trafficking raids are extremely violent and may result in the secondary traumatisation of vulnerable trafficking victims. They are also counterproductive as traumatised and disempowered trafficking victims are actually less likely to contribute to successful prosecutions of traffickers.

As you know, Singapore is currently classified as a Tier 2 country in the US government’s trafficking watch list. This means that while Singapore has made efforts to comply with its minimum standards for protecting victims of human trafficking, but has not yet met those standards. I believe that Singapore could do more to protect such vulnerable people, and that the recommendations provided by StopTraffickingSG! are clear and straightforward.

Thank you for reading this letter and addressing my concerns as a constituent. I look forward to hearing your response.

Best Regards


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


Empowering foreign workers to report Human Trafficking Crimes

#StoptraffickingSG Press Conference


Yesterday’s press conference presenting #StoptraffickingSG’s reaction to the proposed Bill, and the discussion afterwards, provided an unique opportunity to hear the combined voice of six influential Singapore’s NGO’s. What was their message? That without a clearly defined victim-centred approach, this Bill that aims to combat human trafficking, will not be effective.


HOME’s Jolovan Wham kicked off, by giving an in-depth explanation of the joint campaign’s point of view on the proposed Bill. He stressed that one of the most important rights that victims of Human Trafficking need, is the right to work during on-going investigations. In many cases seen at HOME, foreign workers ask ‘can I work if I file the complaint?’ When the answer is negative, many decide not to proceed with the case. They simply cannot afford to, as they have a family to feed. In HOME’s experience, investigations can take up to two years, or more, to be concluded. In that time the foreign worker is often completely dependent on charity, being fed, housed and cared for by NGO’s that receive no government funding.

Another important right that foreign workers need is the one not to be prosecuted themselves. Traffickers are very much aware of the fear that foreign workers have for the authorities, and use this effectively to deter them from filing complaints. According to Jolovan Wham, employers will threaten: ‘If you file a case against me, you will go to jail yourself, or get the cane.’

These examples aim to show that the Bill should not be just about the prosecution of perpetrators, but about incentivising victims to come forward.

This point was further stressed by Vanessa Ho from Project X, who not long ago witnessed a raid on suspected traffickers in the sex industry. A large group of police officers, armed with batons and tasers, surrounded the area and rounded up suspects in a loud and violent way. Raid likes these are known to cause secondary trauma to victims. As Vanessa put it ‘it is important to empower foreign workers to report crimes, rather than to break down doors to find them.’

Maruah president Braema Mathi added that the Bill makes a mention of the word decency, and asked whether raids like this, which are violent and often rather public, could be considered decent when it comes to safeguarding the victims? She was relieved to see that not only sex work, but also forced labour has been mentioned in the proposed Bill, but stressed that many points in the Bill need more clarification, before there can be any way of knowing whether this Bill will be good enough.

Campaign leader Peck Hoon Tam explained how the Bill seems biased towards victims of sex labour, just like many people think of ‘the perfect victim’ of human trafficking, a girl deceived and forced into prostitution. Reality is much more complicated, and in Singapore often concerns forced labour or domestic workers. It is important that the Bill reflects reality.

Outreach to foreign workers, by means of NGO’s and hotlines to make foreign workers aware of their rights, is an effective way to get victims of trafficking to step forward, especially if the government provides them with shelter, the right to work and protection from prosecution.

Vivienne Wee from AWARE spoke about the issue of deception, and the root cause of trafficking in persons: the profit that the trafficker makes. It needs to be clear that profit is not always a direct payment, but can also refer to other ways in which the trafficker profits. These can be illegitimate salary deductions, non-payment of salary or many others.

Another important issue that was stressed by many of the NGO’s is that while the Bill focuses solely on Singapore, human trafficking is in fact an international problem. John Gee from TWC2 explained that human trafficking is an on-going process, and usually not committed by one person but by a chain of people that crosses borders. The end user is complicit as well as the recruiter.

International aspects also need to be addressed when victims of human trafficking go back to their home countries. Someone may wait for them on their return, their families may be threatened, and victims that are in debt are often re-trafficked.

All NGO’s present agreed that key terms in the proposed Bill, like ‘forced labour’ and ‘deception’, are not defined clearly, and that it must be made clear which indicators will be used in identifying potential victims of trafficking.

HOME hopes that the debate in Parliament will further clarify all issues mentioned, and that the representatives of the press present at the meeting will help raise questions in Singapore society.

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