Starved into Submission

Editor’s note: After the story was published, the Ministry of Manpower wrote to us that the cases in this article were being investigated. They also informed us that they would investigate complaints from FDWs about inadequate food.

You’re probably sitting down to read this article. At your desk or on the sofa. Somewhere comfortable. For domestic worker Amina, sitting down is now painful. She is so thin that it hurts her pelvis. She weighs a mere 29kgs, 20kg less than when she started work in Singapore. After Amina finally found the courage to run away from her employer, she was hospitalized for 3 days due to severe malnutrition. Amina is now recovering and has started gaining weight.

Amina’s case may sound extreme, but in the last year HOME has seen more cases of domestic workers suffering health problems caused by poor nutrition. In another case seen by HOME, domestic worker Shanti lost 7 kgs in 6 weeks because she was given only one small bowl of rice and one small bowl of vegetable curry per week. She prepared large meals of meat and vegetables for her employers, but was not allowed to touch their left-overs or even food they had thrown away. She was served her food on the floor. As she did not get a day off and received no salary as she was still paying off her agency fee, Shanti had no access to other food. She worked long days on an empty stomach.

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I took this photograph of my employer’s dinner one night.

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This is my food… it had to last me a whole week.

Government guidelines state that employers must provide ‘adequate food’ for their live-in domestic workers. But they do not define what amount, or type of food is adequate. The extent to which employers are taken to task for not providing adequate food is also not known. HOME has spoken to several domestic workers who were never given meat or vegetables, and had to live for long periods on just bread, rice or instant noodles. Many said they regularly went to bed hungry.

Failure to provide adequate food often coincides with abuse and denial of other basic living requirements. In Shanti’s case this included physical abuse by her employer. Amina was given limited access to washing facilities, was not allowed to brush her teeth and was allowed only two showers per week. To save money she was woken in the night to use the condominium showers rather than a bathroom in her employer’s apartment. Her employer, and sometimes even her employer’s husband, watched her shower, in order to make sure she did not use hot water.

Foreign domestic workers are legally required to live with their employers, which makes it hard to regulate their living circumstances. In cases where the employee works seven days a week, and has no opportunity to complement her diet elsewhere, she is left to the mercy of her employer.  Clearer guidelines and regulations on what comprises ‘adequate food’ for domestic workers would help to ensure that cases such as Amina’s and Shanti’s do not occur in future.

Names in this story have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy

She slaved away for nothing

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Maria Luisa, a domestic worker from the Philippines, stayed sixteen months at our HOME shelter waiting for MOM to help her recover two years’ worth of salary (she says it was about S$9,000) owed to her by her employer. As her employer has declared bankruptcy, she has been informed that she will be sent home to the Philippines – with nothing.

A family friend from Maria Luisa’s hometown in the Philippines was married to a Singaporean, and ran a restaurant in Katong. She offered to hire Maria Luisa and bring her – and her son – over to Singapore. Maria Luisa trusted her friend, and arrived in Singapore in early 2009. For almost four years, she worked in the couple’s restaurant – delivering food, preparing sauces, and serving tables – for fifteen-hour shifts at time, seven days a week, for $400 a month.

As her employers were friends of her family, Maria Luisa placed her trust in them and did not know that she should not be working in the restaurant. Her son remained in the Philippines; the promise to bring him over unfulfilled. Maria Luisa has not seen her son since she arrived in Singapore more than five years ago.

Maria Luisa’s employers treated her well at first, buying her jewellery for her birthday and new clothes for Chinese New Year. But they stopped paying her salary sometime in 2011. She was told that there was no money to pay her. But Maria Luisa saw the restaurant still running, and other bills being paid. She repeatedly asked for money to send to her school-going son, but was always rebuffed – even on the happy occasion of her son’s graduation from elementary school.

She couldn’t sleep, and often shed tears worrying that she had nothing to send back to her sister who was caring for her son and their parents. But she continued to work, hoping and trusting that her employers would be touched by her dedication.

“They kept telling me that they would pay me, so I just waited and waited. Sometimes I was too scared to ask them.

In March 2013, two years after her salary payments stopped, Maria Luisa finally filed a complaint with MOM. She was referred to the HOME shelter, and stayed there on a special pass during the on-going investigations.

After sixteen long months, the long-awaited call from MOM came. Maria Luisa’s employer had declared bankruptcy. The MOM officer said it would be too difficult to demand the owed salary from them. MOM was closing the case, and sending her home within 10 days. Maria Luisa broke down.

“How can I go home without any money, after waiting for three long years? I cannot accept it.”

Maria Luisa’s employer has pleaded guilty to several charges of failing to pay her and for illegal deployment, and has been jailed for six weeks as a result. But this is cold comfort for Maria Luisa, who now returns to the Philippines with nothing to show for three years of lost time. While she is happy to finally see her son, it is a bittersweet reunion because of her inability to contribute to her family’s finances.

“I’m not angry with them. But I can’t help but cry every night because I have nothing to bring back to my family.”

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Maria Luisa’s story was featured on the front page of The New Paper on Wednesday 23 July 2014.

HOME’s response to COI’s report on Little India Riot

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Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) welcomes the recommendations made by the COI in relation to the rights and welfare of migrant workers. We are glad that the Committee acknowledges the important role that low wage migrant workers play in contributing to Singapore’s economy and community. However, for their contributions to be properly appreciated and acknowledged, they should be given adequate protection so that they are not abused and exploited.  Singapore needs to go beyond the recommendations laid out by the Committee by introducing systemic changes in order to fully realise the rights of low wage migrant workers. In this regard, our comments on specific aspects of the report are detailed below:

Foreign workers are happy

The COI’s finding that every foreign worker they spoke to ‘testified emphatically that they were happy’ with their jobs and living quarters does not take into consideration the fact that the workers may have given socially desirable answers to the Committee for fear of negative repercussions. This is especially so for interviews with workers who were arrested and deported for their alleged involvement in the riot. It would have been more effective if worker’s rights groups and NGOs conducted these interviews.

High employment agency fees

We agree with the COI that greater bilateral cooperation is necessary between Singapore and sending countries to protect the rights of workers and regulate recruitment fees. Singapore should only approve the work permits of workers who have gone through legal recruitment channels in countries of origin. Even though hefty recruitment fees are paid in countries of origin, large amounts are often remitted to employers and recruiters based in Singapore as kickbacks. More oversight and enforcement in this area is needed in Singapore as the problem does not only reside in the country of origin.

Annual increment of salary for workers

We welcome this recommendation but it will not be effective without legislation or a change in mindset among employers. We agree that being paid adequately and fairly is important but legal protections should be enacted to prevent wage discrimination by nationality. Moreover, current policies such as high foreign worker levies are a disincentive for employers to increase their wages. Levies can go up to SGD$1000 for each foreign worker hired. Many employers are already recovering the cost of levies by collecting kickbacks from workers.

The National Wages Council should also state explicitly in their annual report on wage increases that their recommendations also include foreign workers in order to send a strong signal to all employers to take the wage increments of their low wage migrant employees seriously.

Education on employment processes

While education about rights is important, what is vital is that policies and laws which make it difficult to claim those rights should be changed. For example, the unilateral right of an employer to cancel work permits needs to be curbed and the worker’s right to switch employers freely has to be guaranteed. Without these changes, workers will remain reluctant to file cases of abuse.

Sensitivity in dealing with foreign workers

We agree that more training on sensitivity of law enforcement officers need to be done. Over the years, we have heard many complaints from workers that some government officers are rude and brusque to them. We also urge for these recommendations to be extended to employers, as many of cases of ill treatment and verbal abuse are often caused by errant employers.

Improvements to accommodation

The COI reports that housing available to foreign workers in Singapore ranks well in the world; however, we believe this assessment is only true in relation to dormitories which have been built specifically to accommodate foreign workers. According to media reports[1], there are approximately 150,000 bed spaces in such dormitories out of over 700,000 low wage migrant workers in Singapore, excluding domestic workers. Large numbers of workers continue to live in cargo containers, factory converted dormitories, shop houses, private apartments, HDB flats and temporary work sites facilities, including incomplete buildings under construction. These places are often cramped, unhygienic and full of pests. Their living conditions still fall short of international housing standards.

Role of employers and community support groups

We agree that more resources need to be poured into establishing welfare groups and agree that employer groups should consider setting up and funding support communities for migrant workers. Working abroad in new surroundings can be very stressful for many migrant workers and adequate social support is necessary. In addition, there is an important need for independent representation of workers by unions in order for their interests to be effectively promoted, as only 11% of all foreign workers are unionised.

 

Jolovan Wham

Executive Director

 

[1] See for example: http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20121218-390175.html

HOME through the eyes of an intern

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By Arjuna s/o Segathesan

Arjuna was an intern at HOME in May and June 2014.

Today is my last day at HOME. The past month has been an unparalleled eye-opening experience. Under the constant guidance of the HOME staff, I have learnt much about the plight of migrant workers in Singapore. Interacting with migrant workers, I have discovered how different their lives are from the general public’s perception about them. In my time here, I have noticed that one issue keeps cropping up in all the cases that HOME encounters – the vulnerability of migrant workers.

The workers that seek help at HOME generally come from less developed Asian countries. They are often born into poor families and are drawn to Singapore’s wealth and job opportunities. These workers are seldom prepared for the harsh working conditions that they are subjected to in Singapore. Also, many workers become victims to trafficking.

I had the opportunity to interview Selvan and Kalai (the workers featured in the story ‘Deported, not Protected’).  Their story affected me in a deep personal level. These were workers who were just about my age and yet their lives had turned out to be so different from mine.

Selvan and Kalai, like many other workers who come to Singapore, were greatly disadvantaged by their poverty and lack of familiarity with English. Eager to secure jobs in Singapore to provide a better life for their families, these workers are easily deceived into paying exorbitant recruiment fees to agents, which then render them more susceptible to coercion, forced labour and debt bondage. For example, many workers are forced to sign substitute contracts with less favourable terms, sometimes without seeing the contract in their own language. The workers rely on the information provided by employers and recruiters, and often have limited knowledge of their legal rights. In many cases, these vulnerabilities lead to exploitation by recruitment agents and employers, both in the workers’ home countries and in Singapore.

I am heartened that organisations such as HOME assist workers in Singapore. It is also promising that the proposed anti-trafficking bill seeks to protect migrant workers from becoming victims of trafficking. However, more should be done. It is crucial that the proposed anti-trafficking bill adequately protects vulnerable migrant workers from debt bondage, forced labour and exploitation. Only then will unscrupulous agents and employers be forced examine their recruitment practices and stop exploiting vulnerable migrant workers for profit.

Singapore’s got talent!

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The X factor. American Idol. Idols. Britain’s got talent. America’s got talent. Who does not know them? But Singapore’s got talent, who’s heard of that? The city-state is not known for it’s creative excellence. Does Singapore have talent?

This weekend, I had the honour of being a judge at the HOME Talent Pageant 2014. The pageant is open to a very special group of Singapore residents: Foreign domestic workers. These brave women leave their home’s behind to take care of other peoples homes overseas. They live in their employers houses, have long working hours, and often not even a weekly day off. No wonder HOME felt these amazing women deserved to be in the spotlights for once.

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UWC’s Dover campus hosted the semi finals, the talent part of the pageant hosted by the amazing Pamela Wildheart. With the other judges I sat, slightly nervous, in anticipation of the day’s events. We would have to judge the contestants women from mostly Indonesia, the Philippines and India on attributes including stage presence, uniqueness, skills and emotional impact.

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HOME’s talent pageant not about body shape, age, race, weight. It is about inner beauty. Grace and charisma. Focusing on skills rather than beauty, the pageant hopes to encourage domestic workers develop their talents, and pick up life skills whilst working in Singapore. HOME Talent Pageant 2014 was organised by HOME domestic worker volunteers, giving them the opportunity to showcase their talents off-stage as well as on.

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Embracing my inner Simon Cowell, I sat in eager anticipation of the contestant’s performances in the first category, singing. Just like on TV, not all the contestants managed to hit the right notes all the time, but dedication, beautiful costumes and poise more than made up for that. In the special acts category, we heard declamations about the strife of foreign domestic workers, percussion, even dressmaking and make-up skills were demonstrated on stage. Doling out points became harder with each new contestant. How do you compare a lady dramatically acting despair to one performing a traditional Indonesian chant, or one swirling a hula-hoop on her neck?

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The most popular category was dancing, and wow, these ladies can shake their hips! We saw Shakira, belly dancing, hip-hop, traditional Philippines sarong dances, classical Javanese dance, pop, zumba, tribal dances, and much, much more.

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During the counting of the votes, the audience was treated to performances from fellow judges Gerson Lapid Jr, and Robert ‘Obet’ Sunga. Young music student Neil Chan made the hearts of many contestants’ race, with young ladies swarming around him to get their pictures taken. In the meanwhile I, the writer with the singing capacities of a peanut, hid in a corner.

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Fifteen finalists were selected, each of them demonstrating that domestic workers are capable of more than cleaning washing, or taking care of the elderly. They are women of many talents.

I hope that the HOME Talent Pageant 2014 will teach Singaporeans how unique and special their foreign domestic workers are, and that these women deserve the right, opportunity and time off to further develop their skills and talents.

The HOME Talent Pageant 2014 final will take place on Sunday, the 29th of June 2014 from 1 to 5pm at the Catholic Junior College Performing Arts Theatre, 129 Whitley Road Singapore. Tickets are available at 20 dollars each.

Text by Karien van Ditzhuijzen

Photographs by Tessie Cera and Karien van Ditzhuijzen

Singapore must do more to combat human trafficking: US TIP Report

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Every year, the U.S. Department of State releases a report on trafficking in persons across the globe. The 2014 report ranks Singapore as a Tier 2 country for the fourth consecutive year, as “[t]he Government of Singapore does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking however, it is making significant efforts to do so”. 

The 2014 report highlights the need for Singapore to do more to protect the rights of victims of trafficking. It recommends the introduction of a legally mandated victim-centered approach to investigating and prosecuting trafficking offences, providing protections to victims regardless of whether the case results in a prosecution, and increasing support to organisations assisting victims of trafficking. 

This is HOME’s response to the 2014 report:

Response to US Department of State’s trafficking in persons report

HOME agrees with the issues raised in the TIP report and the State Department’s Tier 2 ranking is correct. The Singapore government has started to take trafficking more seriously and this is a positive sign.

However, measures which ensure the rights of trafficked victims fall short of internationally recognised standards and those of other developed nations. For example, the right to decent work, compensation, legal aid, psychological and social support services is not guaranteed.

We are also deeply concerned that trafficked victims are being penalised for immigration and work related offences. Without an effective victim protection system, it is highly unlikely that trafficked migrants will file complaints and cooperate with the authorities.

Policies which encourage trafficking and forced labour, such as restrictions to job mobility, and the $5k security bond need to be abolished. We are also deeply concerned that trafficked victims are being penalised for immigration and work related offences.

The report mentioned  disagreement between the government and civil society on whether specific cases amounted to trafficking. Indeed, HOME has referred such cases which were rejected by the government, even though our interviews revealed strong trafficking indicators. However, the reasons for not classifying such cases as trafficking are rarely disclosed. Greater collaboration and exchange of information between the government and civil society organisations is needed so that trafficked victims can be more effectively assisted and perpetrators brought to justice.

The 2014 report was released last week. You can read it here:
http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/226848.pdf

Sent away for being hit

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Eva (not her real name), a domestic worker from Indonesia, is staying at the HOME shelter in Batam, Indonesia. She would like to be working as a domestic worker in Singapore, but her previous employers forced her to leave the country. Despite abusing Eva physically and verbally, Eva’s employers were able to cancel her work permit, which meant that she could not stay in Singapore. With HOME’s help, Eva travelled to Batam, where she is trying to arrange to return to Singapore.

Eva had worked as a domestic worker in Singapore for many years. She took up her latest assignment in August 2013, taking care of a family with two young children. Her new employer was very particular about things such as the way vegetables were chopped, or the arrangement of jars in the cupboard. Small misunderstandings soon led to scolding and verbal abuse. Eva was also punished for mistakes by her employer reducing the hours that Eva could spend outside the house on her day off, and holding back her wages. The employer threatened Eva that they would send her back to Indonesia, or that they would hit her.

One day this threat became a reality. After she made a mistake, Eva was hit on her arms with a wooden spoon and slapped on the face by the employer. Once she was hit, Eva knew she had to leave the house. She had actually made up her mind months ago that she wanted to leave and look for another employer. However, in spite of having offers from other employers, Eva couldn’t accept any offer as her employer had refused to sign a release form.

In Singapore, migrant workers are tied to their employers by their work pass. Employers can cancel the worker’s work permit and send them home at any time. The foreign worker, on the other hand does not have the option to quit, unless her employer agrees to release her, either to go home or to transfer to another employer.

Eva left her employer’s house and reported the abuse she had suffered to the Ministry of Manpower and the Police, but decided not to press charges with the Police, as she wanted to move on and find a new job to support her family. Investigation by the police could take a long time, and in the meanwhile Eva would be unlikely to have been allowed to work and support her family. In the meantime, the employer cancelled her work permit. Eva had to leave the country..

The fact that migrant workers in Singapore do not have the right not to switch employers encourages exploitation, and forced labour. It makes abuse hard to fight. The difficulties encountered by workers like Eva to change employers, act as a disincentive for workers to report abuses by their employer. They feel they need to endure bad conditions in order to keep their job.

Eva is still in Batam, waiting for arrangements with a new employer to be finalised.

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