A beverage for thought

A HOME volunteer encourages us to think about the recent Coca Cola advert. The view represented is the writers own, not that of HOME as an organisation. 

Coca Cola has long championed happiness. This has manifested itself in many ways, including a vending machine at a Singapore campus that gave a free Coke can when hugged. Earlier this year, the brand extended its message to construction workers in Singapore and Dubai. In Singapore, they dropped Coke cans with messages of appreciation from the community onto construction sites via drones. In Dubai, recognizing the high cost of making calls back home, they put up temporary phone booths where workers could get 3 minutes of free talk time in exchange for a bottle cap of Coke. 

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Both activities have seen polarized reactions. From applaud for recognizing the workers, to criticism for exploiting them. There is merit in both arguments. Construction workers are often exploited by agents who extract a high placement fee and by companies who offer low wages, and poor living and working conditions. Asking workers to buy a bottle of Coke, which they may not have otherwise bought, does seem unfair even if it was for free talk time.

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An objective view would submit that there was a positive side to this campaign. Construction workers are a much needed but invisible workforce in places like Singapore and Dubai, and local residents are often unaware of their circumstances. While their goal may not have been entirely altruistic, Coke has helped draw attention to the life of construction workers and made them visible. Being able to create this kind of awareness for a social cause is difficult to do. Driving public engagement is even harder. Non-profit organizations must recognize this, as much as commercial organizations must become more sensitive to causes they associate with.

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Continuing to focus on Coke’s motives and actions would be to lose sight of the core issue. The right thing for non-profits supporting this cause would be to leverage the awareness and engagement that has been created and lobby for better laws and fairness in the way migrant workers are treated.

And while another can of Coca Cola will not save the world, making someone happy, albeit briefly, cannot be that bad.

A visit to HOME Academy

Academy1  Devi Malarvanan reports from her visit to HOME Academy. 

Peek into the International School Singapore (ISS) campus on a regular Sunday afternoon and you will be both surprised and impressed. Ladies boasting different nationalities and who, in Singapore, go by the blanket term ‘domestic workers’ fill the campus. Sporting the HOME Academy uniform, they eagerly await the commencement of classes for the day.

The HOME Academy programme, has benefitted over 5000 domestic workers since 2009 and has a wide range of courses – including English language, computer training, baking, cooking, cosmetology, aromatherapy and caregiving. Either experts and professionals teach these courses or ‘domestic workers’ with the relevant experience to teach their peers. A chat with Ms Jacyntha England, one of the pioneers of the project, reveals that the primary objective of the project is to offer relevant training to domestic workers looking to expand their skill set or learn something new. She explains that the programme aims to empower these ladies, help them invest in their future and be more than a ‘domestic worker,’.

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Through HOME Academy these ladies’ many talents are highlighted and celebrated. The Masterchef-esque cooking contests and forum theatre sessions held to conclude the term are proof of this. As the ladies proudly display and cheer the dishes they have whipped up, it is clear to see they are enjoying this opportunity and the chance to share their experiences. On a similar note, one of the ladies enrolled in the English class, Ms Yanti, takes the forum theatre session as an opportunity to share stories she has written based on her real life experiences. She says, “I want to share what I have experienced. Life is easier after I share experiences with people…life is lighter.” Another student in the class, Ms Brianna, reflects on the classes, “We speak and act and it is a lot of fun. So far it is helpful for my communication.”

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Both ladies then continue their conversation with friends in the classroom as they munch on doughnut treats brought in by a guest. With their gestures and words it is clear the group are thankful for the respite from their weekly duties and the chance to develop their skills. It is even more heart-warming that some of their employers encourage them to do so and sponsor them for these classes.

To find out more check out our website or email Sisi Sukiato, migrants.home@gmail.com

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.

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