Finding the father: Rohini’s quest for justice

Rohini*, a domestic worker from Sri Lanka, met Sandeep, a Singaporean of Tamil descent, on the Internet. They chatted frequently, and Sandeep courted Rohini, wowing her with promises of love and marriage, and a good life in Singapore. When they finally met in real life, Rohini fell in love.

‘Day by day he was closer to my heart, and gave me hope of marriage.’

One day, Sandeep told Rohini he would like her to meet his parents. Happy to meet her prospective in-laws, Rohini followed Sandeep to his family home, only to find the parents absent. There, Sandeep argued forcefully that since they were getting married soon, they should consummate the relationship. Rohini preferred to wait, but eventually gave in.

A few weeks later Rohini found out she was pregnant. Sandeep was happy when he heard the news, renewed his promises of marriage, and took her to see a doctor. As Rohini was struggling with her tasks as a domestic worker, he suggested she go back to her parents in Sri Lanka to rest, for the benefit of the child. Sandeep sent her some money, but not nearly enough to support an expecting mother. She had to borrow money to pay her medical bills. Last November, Rohini gave birth to a little girl, Marika.

‘It is difficult to live in this society with a fatherless baby.’

Soon after Marika was born, Rohini never heard from Sandeep again. His number had been disconnected. Being a single mother is not easy in a conservative society like Sri Lanka, especially as Rohini’s family is poor. With a young baby to take care of, Rohini could not find a new job to pay off her loans. She decided to return to Singapore to find the child’s father and force him to take responsibility for her. Rohini filed a case with the Singapore Family Court for maintenance for his daughter.

‘My intention is to find him, marry him, and give my innocent daughter her father’s protection and love.’

Rohini still had hopes to marry Sandeep. But when the Court tracked him down, it turned out Sandeep had a wife already. HOME arranged for Rohini to be assisted by a pro bono lawyer, and eventually a financial settlement was agreed on.

‘If he rejects to marry me, I have no choice expect asking him for compensation.’

Rohini is happy with the outcome of the case. Even though she has not managed to convince Sandeep to marry her, her immediate financial problems are now solved. But she still has to face the shame of being a single mother, and raise her daughter alone. Just before being driven to the airport by Sandeep, she told HOME she was glad about her ‘happy ending.’

‘I am happy, I can give my daughter a future now.’

Rohini did not realise that under Singapore law, domestic workers are not allowed to marry Singaporean men without authorisation from the government. Pregnancy results in immediate deportation, and domestic workers often feel pressured to undergo abortion just to keep their jobs.

Rather than repatriate foreign domestic workers when they become pregnant, Hong Kong grants ten weeks of maternity leave to those that choose to return to work after they give birth. In this way the mothers can provide for their young children, which is especially important if they are a single parent.

Even if their partners are willing to ‘do the right thing’ and take responsibility for their actions, Singapore law does not encourage them to do so. Authorisation to get married is difficult to obtain, and living together unmarried is not socially accepted in many communities.

The result is that these children are likely to grow up in poverty, with a mother that is ostracised by society, and sometimes even rejected by her own family. It is in the best interest of the child that fathers are held accountable for their children’s upkeep.

During her stay in Singapore Rohini stayed at the HOME shelter, and was assisted with legal advice, a pro bono lawyer and supplies for her baby. Help HOME help others like her by donating at http://www.home.org.sg/give/donate.html.

* Rohini and Sandeep’s names have been changed to protect their privacy

Law and You: Legal education starts at HOME

 By Sneha Gupta

In 2014, I was part of a team of dedicated NUS Law students who worked closely with HOME to develop a series of workshops aimed at educating foreign domestic workers about their rights under Singapore law. Focusing particularly on employment and criminal law, the workshops sparked a dialogue between the NUS team and the workers about the difference between law on the books, and law in practice.

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The aim of the workshops was to empower foreign domestic workers by improving their understanding of the Singapore legal framework. We wanted to give workers a platform to discuss issues that they confront in their work and lives order to help the workers feel more confident about their position in Singapore. One of the big challenges for us was to explain the relevant law in a manner that was both simple and engaging and to take into account the divide that sometimes arises between law in theory and law in practice in Singapore.

Over four sessions, we talked with a group of around 20 domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia about employment issues like contracts, illegal deployment, salary deductions, rest days, safety issues, transfer and repatriation. We also discussed criminal law and procedure with the guidance of Josephus Tan, Associate Director at Fortis Law. What was especially noteworthy was the fact that the information flowed both ways— we learned a lot from the workers and were impressed by their creative ways of resolving the issues that had arisen for them.

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The NUS team felt gratified with the positive feedback after the sessions and an email from one participant thanking us for our passionate involvement. This project widened our perception of FDWs and their problems. It entailed a steep learning curve, as we were involved in all stages of preparation and presentation of the course. We came to appreciate the close relationship between law and society and how a little knowledge conveyed over a few sessions can go a long distance in making workers feel more secure in their workplaces.

Moving forward, we have realised that there is a need to reach out to foreign domestic workers who cannot take a day off to attend these sessions, as well as those who speak other languages. We plan to create an online portal to allow workers to access the answers to commonly asked questions about their rights and responsibilities living and working in Singapore.

To support HOME and NUS’s project to expand the reach of the Law & You course, please get in touch or make a donation here (www.sggives.org/home), specifying “Law & You” in the comment field.

HOME would like to thank NUS Law students Sneha, Jude, Daniel, Zhi Ying, Amelia, Sanjana and Yi Zhen and Professors Jaclyn and Sheila for their commitment and contribution to the project.

The power of education

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HOME could not do the work it does without a large number of volunteers, many of whom are migrant workers in Singapore themselves. Volunteer Cute, who was a teacher in the Philippines before starting work as a domestic worker in Singapore, spends much of her Sunday off helping and training migrant workers less fortunate than herself. We asked Cute to share her inspiring story.

Migration is not as easy as some people think. Being away from your home and your loved ones is hard, and not even money can cure the loneliness many migrants endure. Every migrant worker has a special story. This is mine.

In the Philippines my teacher salary was not enough for my family of eight siblings to survive, and life got even worse after my father got sick. Most of my siblings were still studying, so I decided to find work in Singapore.

Being a domestic worker is a really tough job, and during my first few years I had no day off. I had to pay eight months of salary to my recruitment agency, work 18 to 20 hours a day, and did not have adequate food. My faith in God as well as my determination to let my siblings finish their degrees made me strong, sacrificing even my own love life. My father always told us that the only wealth that he could give us was our education, and that no one could ever take that away from us. I took that lesson to heart.

It’s been 21 years since I left my beloved country, the Philippines, and the house I call home, where my siblings live and my father passed away. I miss him dearly. I did not get to see his face one final time, because my employer told me it would not give him his life back if I went home.

Having a day off is important for migrant workers. We can rest, unwind with friends, or learn new skills that help us prepare for our reintegration in our home countries. I believe my own involvement in HOME was the will of God. My feet brought me to the 6th floor of Lucky Plaza, where I met Sister Bridget, the founder of HOME. She welcomed me heartily, and told me about the mission of HOME. HOME gave me the opportunity to attend trainings, and teach seminars myself where I can share what I have learned. I had some great experiences though HOME. I even escorted Sister Bridget to Geneva, Switzerland, to witness the adoption of the International Labor Organisation’s Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers, an achievement that I’m very proud of.

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My contribution to HOME has the full support of my American employers. I have led the HOME ROSES group for 6 years. The HOME ROSES team is a group of domestic workers that assists HOME with migrant health issues, and gives training and workshops on HIV/ AIDS. I have also contributed to HOME’s newsletter ‘My voice’.

When Sister Bridget opened the HOME Academy, a Sunday school for migrant workers, I was keen to get involved. This year, I attended a special training given by the Philippine organization ATIKA, where I was trained to teach other migrants about financial planning. Attending this class will prepare them for a successful reintegration in their home country, so that they will live happily ever after.

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HOME gives a shelter, a hope and a home to unfortunate migrants, whether it is a woman or a man, regardless of their job, religion and nationality. I pray that HOME will exist forever, and can continue to help us.

GOD BLESS HOME and all the volunteers who devote their precious time, their talents & kindness.

WE LOVE YOU ALL

Sincerely

S.S. Rotelo (better know as Cute)

How can we protect Myanmar domestic workers?

HOME held a consultation session in Yangon with civil society groups there and the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation (MOEAF) last month. It was co-organised with MWRN (Migrant Workers Rights Network) and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, in anticipation of a Memorandum of Understanding that will soon be signed between the Association of Employment Agencies Association Singapore and MOEAF. The outcome of the consultation resulted in the following recommendations:

 Recommendations from Consultation Session

26 August 2014

Karuna Daw Clinic, 167 Kyun Taw Road, San Chaung, Yangon, Myanmar

Attending Organizations

  • Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation
  • The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society
  • MWRN (Migrant Workers Rights Network)
  • Myanmar Maritime Workers’ Federation
  • Myanmar Trade Union Federation
  • Lin High Power Employment Agency
  • Danish Church Aid
  • Phan Tee Ain
  • Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME)

General Recommendations

  • To set up information centres on migration and overseas works across Myanmar by Ministry of Labour
  • To provide holistic information about the domestic work (including the respective ministries’ regulations for domestic workers and the do’s and don’ts for both worker and employer) as well as information on available help and services for migrant workers in receiving countries – to be done in collaboration between Ministry, MOEAF and migrant & labour rights organizations
  • To create job opportunities domestically and to set minimum wage for workers as soon as possible
  • To lessen or simplify the procedures needed for migration, migrant work and finding job opportunities in foreign countries.
  • To include migrant workers and seafarers under social security protection for workers
  • To strengthen the collaboration between respective government departments in case of migrant worker issues
  • To start education about migration and related issues in the schools
  • To implement the measures systematically as set out in the policy papers
  • To start SMART Card System as a measure to prevent illegal sending of domestic workers
  • To find (other) measures to prevent sending of domestic workers by illegal and un-registered agents
  • To seek assistance from media and CSOs in raising awareness about foreign domestic worker issues
  • To find ways to send the domestic workers’ needs and demands to the respective government departments
  • To draft, and to try to pass the law which can effectively protect the rights of domestic workers in foreign countries
  • To include domestic workers’ demands and feedback in drafting the MoU between MOEAF and AEA(S)
  • All stakeholders to participate in changing the public (mostly negative) attitude towards domestic work in foreign countries

Points/Clauses to be included in MoU between MOEAF and AEA(S)

  • Accountability and responsibilities of respective employment agencies are to be stipulated in detail in the MoU
  • Care centre and facilities for domestic workers are to be set up by AEA(S) and MOEAF with the help of respective ministries and embassies
  • SMART Card is to be issued only to those who completed the pre-departure training by registered agencies or training centres
  • AEA(S) to propose to Ministry of Manpower Singapore to issue IPA/Work Permit only to those who can submit the SMART Card issued by Myanmar side

Points/Clauses which MOEAF will consider to be included in MOU

  • To add clause which will prevent contract substitution in Singapore
  • Employment contract is to be written in both Myanmar and English
  • To add clause which will ensure that employer provide culturally appropriate and adequate food for domestic worker
  • To add clause which will ensure the basic language (English) training is adequately provided in pre-departure training
  • To add clause which will ensure the worker’s freedom to pray and other religious rituals
  • To add clause which will ensure the worker’s right to use mobile phone freely
  • To add clause which will prohibit the employer from asking the worker to do any work during her rest day or day off
  • To add clause which requires employer to give minimum one month notice for termination of employment contract

Recommendations for Singapore Government

  • To include domestic workers in Employment Act and Work Injury Compensation Act
  • To enact legislation that domestic workers will not be charged for placement fees
  • To allow domestic workers freedom to switch employers without employer’s consent

Repatriated without due process

Gita*, who comes from a rural village in India does not speak much English. But as the main breadwinner for her family, she decided to apply for a job as a domestic worker in Singapore. Gita worked for her Singapore employer for a year, but was not very happy. One day, according to Gita, her employer slapped her and twisted her arm. Gita told her employer that he had to stop this abusive behaviour, or else she would report him to MOM. A day later, he put her on a plane back to India.

Still in need of money, Gita decided to put her experience behind her and return to Singapore to work for another employer. She got her ‘In Principal Approval (IPA) from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and boarded the flight the Singapore. When she handed over her documents at customs, the Immigrations and Checkpoints Authority took her aside. Gita was handcuffed and arrested.

Gita struggled to understand what was happening to her. She was being accused of using her employer’s credit card without permission. The amount that she allegedly stole is unclear. Gita admits to having handled the card given to her by her employer to buy groceries, and some personal items. She insists that she had permission to do so, and that the money she spent for herself was deducted from her salary. It is Gita’s word against her employer’s.

Gita stayed in HOME’s shelter while investigations continued. Gita was not charged, but was this week instead issued with a ‘Letter of Warning’. The letter was written in English, and stated that investigations had been completed and that the police had decided that ‘a stern warning would be administered to [Gita] in lieu of prosecution.’ Gita was told to sign the letter. According to her, it was only translated into Tamil after she had signed it.

HOME has met many domestic workers and foreign workers whose work permits were revoked even though they have not been convicted for any wrongdoing but were issued a warning letter which they were unable to challenge. These workers are usually not allowed to return to Singapore to work. Gita was not given any information about the reasons for the warning letter or her options to appeal it.

Foreign workers’ entitlement to due judicial process has been the subject of discussion in the past. In the context of the Little India riots in 2013, the Ministry of Law stated “a foreign national who is subject to repatriation… has no right under our laws to challenge the repatriation order in court.” However, when such repatriation is based on evidence that is not independently tested by a court, and carries consequences similar to a criminal conviction (such as a ban on returning to Singapore to work), is it right that a worker who maintains her innocence would not be given the opportunity to defend herself?

Gita has less than a week to leave Singapore. As she has not been able to work and make any money in Singapore, HOME is raising the money for her ticket back to India.

To help HOME help Gita and people like her, please donate to our fund for repatriating migrant workers in distress here. Include the name ‘Gita’ in the comment field.

* Gita’s name has been changed to protect her privacy

Domestic work is work, not slavery!

“We’re not goods for display,” said Cezile Oyao Revila, a domestic worker leader with HOME.

Al Jazeera recently reported on the unpalatable treatment of domestic workers by employment agencies in Singapore. They were seen mindlessly doing household chores, such as pushing another employee on a wheelchair, outside the agencies. Advertisement collaterals flashed promotions of these workers on “special discounts”, suggesting that they were commodities to be traded.

HOME organized a forum to discuss these issues. The event kicked off with Jolovan Wham, executive director of HOME, showing these pictures taken at Katong Shopping Mall and Bukit Timah Centre. As he presented on the pictures, resounding ‘yes’ from the floor could be heard. Most of the people who attended the forum were domestic workers.

The parading of domestic workers outside the office is strictly prohibited, Ms K Jayaprema, who was one of the speakers at the forum stated clearly in her speech. In her capacity as the President of the Association of Employment of Agency (AEA) in Singapore, she authoritatively specified that advertising materials should not refer to promotional rates, fees, and racial stereotypes of workers. Every week, the AEA submits unsavoury pictures to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

But how should these agencies that parade and display domestic workers be punished? Ms Anja Wessels, a research consultant with HOME, also asked if anything could be done to encourage agencies to adhere to good standards.

AEA responded that the agencies will receive demerit points and could lose their licenses if they disobey regulations. Ms Jayaprema’s main point is that to help themselves – domestic workers have to choose accredited agencies. They must go through licensed agencies listed on their embassy website and observe those rules. By doing so, the embassies would have the authority to punish employment agencies that flout regulations and mistreat workers.

Directing it to the domestic workers, Ms Jayaprema said, “you’re not forced into it, you have a choice.”

Despite her emphatic reassurance, Ms Shelly Teo from TWC2, disagreed. What Ms Jayaprema said does not square with reality. Ms Shelly pointed to incidents when passports of domestic workers were withheld even though MOM’s regulations prohibit such behaviour. Once that happens, they are left with no choice but to comply with the demands of employment agencies.

Moreover, there were cases when employees faced contract substitution. Upon arrival in Singapore, they were given another contract to sign after having signed one in agreement with the recruitment agency back home. Once domestic workers have been employed, they are unable to change employers on their own will; employers hold the power to make this decision. The lack of freedom of mobility restricts domestic workers from making choices. They are working in poor conditions and regulations do not provide adequate protection.

First secretary Ms Htwe Hteik Tin Lwin at the Myanmar embassy, Sukmo Yuwono, counsellor at Indonesian embassy and Vicente Cabe, labour attaché at the Philippines embassy who were speakers at the forum recapped their country’s regulations. They largely differ in terms of pay structure and mandates on agency fees. Their presence provided the opportunity for domestic workers to air their concerns.

High agency fees dominated the discussion. Agency fees up to eight months of the workers’ salary was charged to the workers at times, although only up to two months of deduction is allowable under MOM’s regulations.

Ms Jayaprema reemphasized the importance of working for licensed employment agencies, and that the workers have a choice to make the right decision starting from when they have decided to embark on this job.

“It starts from home,” Ms Jayaprema said.

Another issue raised has to do with the extra costs required to secure their worker insurance. Domestic workers are required to purchase insurance worth about Rp. 300,000. The workers have to return home every two years to renew the card.

However, only selected cities provide the service. As the location is inaccessible, the workers would have to travel for a day just to make the card. Enok Sunani, an Indonesian worker, said that she spends her precious vacation on the road and away from her family, again.

The local insurance company does not compensate the traveling costs. If they fail to renew the card, they are disallowed to cross the customs in Indonesia, unless they pay ‘special fees’ – and even if, fortuitously, they happen to do so, leaving Singapore’s customs would be impossible.

Mr Sukmo Yuwono replied that only their colleagues in Indonesia are able to deal with this problem.

Though answers were not always satisfactory, the forum provided a space for authorities, domestic workers, employers, and interested parties to engage with each other in a dialogue. It was a precious opportunity to understand one another’s views. The forum concluded with a dance number by HOME Nightingale who held out placards reminding us to ‘protect workers’ rights’.

Addressing gender inequality crucial to ending human trafficking

Jaya Deshpande is a volunteer at HOME. She recently worked on the preparation of a shadow report to the United Nations on China’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. Here, she shares her insights.

As a woman growing up in the 21st century, I like to think sexual discrimination is on a decline, and that finally the world is coming to terms with the fact that women are equal to men. Sadly, we all know this is not the situation that we face, and in fact women are still being exploited and trafficked at astounding rates.

The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international human rights convention that came into force in 1981. It defines discrimination against women, and requires signatory countries (like China and Singapore) to take action to stop it. Reports by non-Government organisations like HOME are an important part of monitoring countries’ progress and compliance with their obligations under CEDAW.

In Singapore alone, many women are brought into the country under false pretences every year. A number of them are from China. HOME recently assisted a woman from rural China who paid more than $5000 for a job as a singer in Singapore. She had very limited earning capacity in China and her husband’s salary alone was not enough to pay for their sick daughter’s medical treatment. However, when the woman arrived in Singapore, she was forced to provide sexual services to customers. She faced threats and violence at the hands of her employers. Both her employers and her agents made a lot of money from her suffering.

It is important to note that the term trafficking encompasses not only forced prostitution, but also forced labour, debt bondage and servitude. Whilst the Government has acknowledged the problem and established the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons to address it, our research for the CEDAW report highlighted that tackling the issue is a huge challenge, given women’s specific vulnerabilities. Employment agencies in Singapore and overseas continue to exploit inequalities between men and women in less developed countries. Although men can be victims of trafficking just like women, women in some countries are put at an extra disadvantage in life through their lack of education, access to employment and continual discrimination within the work place. Addressing these vulnerabilities is crucial to reducing the trafficking of women.

Working on this report opened my eyes to the extent of the problem of women being trafficked from China (and across the globe) to countries like Singapore. My involvement encouraged me to become more vigilant about human trafficking. It made me realise that we need to spread knowledge about the variety of forms of trafficking and stop the stigma attached to sex trafficking. Most importantly, we need to continue to work to address the discrimination and lack of opportunity that makes women and girls so vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.

Support HOME’s anti-human trafficking efforts. Sign our petition for the comprehensive protection of the rights of trafficked persons in Singapore, read case stories and join the discussion here.

Photo by Juliana Tan.

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