Tag Archives: FDW

A prolonged, bitter revenge

Employers don’t like it when their foreign domestic workers file a complaint against them with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Many will repatriate their domestic workers to punish them for their actions. Others go a step further and seek revenge by filing their own complaints, often by accusing them of theft. In most cases it is the employer’s word against that of the domestic worker. Investigations take a long time, in which the domestic worker is not allowed to work, nor leave the country. She is punished whether the claim is substantiated or not.

This is the story of Ellaine, who’s employers were dedicated to get their revenge, and punish Ellaine ‘to the end of her days’ for filing a salary complaint. For them, one unsupported accusation was not enough.

Ellaine had been working for her employer for three months when ‘madam’ lost a golden ring. She asked Ellaine whether she had seen it, and they searched the house together. The ring wasn’t found, and madam left it at that.

Four months later, Ellaine approached her employer, as her passport required renewing. She needed money to pay the associated fees. The employer insisted Ellaine pay for it herself, but Ellaine did not have much cash, as her employer was withholding her salary. Ellaine decided to run away and approach HOME for help. HOME referred her to MOM, who settled Elaine’s salary claim swiftly. When the employer met Ellaine at MOM, she demanded to search her belongings. She found nothing.

That was not the end of the story. Ellaine’s employer now accused her of stealing the golden ring. Since there was no evidence to support this, the case was closed by the police. Still, that was not the end of the story. The employer subsequently accused Ellaine of molesting their eight-year-old son – in the bathroom. Again, for lack of evidence, the police closed the case. Ellaine was told she would be able to go home within a few days, as soon as her former employer had bought her a ticket.

And the employer refused to buy the ticket. Instead, seven months after Ellaine ran away to settle her salary complaint, her employer once again accused her with theft of the ring. Ellaine was interviewed once more by the police, by a different, less friendly officer this time. Afterwards, Ellaine was notified by letter that her case was under investigation, and that she had to remain in Singapore on a special pass for the time being.

By then, it had been eight months since Ellaine had been able to work, and make money. She wanted to go home and spend time with her family, especially her young son and ailing father.

But her former employer was tenacious. In a text message to Ellaine’s cousin, he stated: ‘I will not cancel her work permit for the rest of her days. I am prepared to pay levy, she will be stuck here for another 18mths without salary.’

HOME assisted Ellaine with legal support, and nine months after she left employer, Ellaine’s case has finally been resolved. She is happy to go home.

HOME hopes the Singapore police will be just when employers try to seek revenge on their domestic workers by accusing them of crimes, look at the facts, and not allow a single employer to ruin a domestic worker’s life simply by piling up unsupported claims ‘to the end of her days.’ Not only does the domestic worker lose months of time and income, as she has to remain in Singapore without the opportunity to work during the investigations, but it also wastes valuable police time, that is better spent at investigating crimes that in fact have been committed.

Ellaine’s name has been changed for privacy reasons


What’s Wrong With Foreign Domestic Workers’ Day?

By Jolovan Wham
Last weekend, local group Foreign Domestic Workers’ Association for Skills Training and Social Support (FAST) and other partners celebrated Foreign Domestic Workers’ (FDW) Day, an event aimed at appreciating the contributions migrant domestic workers make to Singapore.  There were stalls selling food, and booths where participants could play carnival games. Dance performances and a talent show which featured migrant domestic workers were also part of the day’s festivities.  The event was attended by civil servants, local politicians, and representatives from sending country governments. I was told by many who attended that they had fun. Some of the domestic workers I know took part in the talent show and won prizes.
One of the objectives of FDW Day is to promote harmonious relationships between workers and their employers to stem abuses and exploitation. In her speech at the event, Senior Minister of State Ministry of Health and Ministry of Manpower, Dr Amy Khor emphasized the importance of mutual care and respect: Mutual care and respect underpins the relationship between the employer, his or her family and the domestic worker. Mutual care and respect enables strong working relationships of trust to develop; and this must be facilitated by open and respectful communication. I think this is really important. One of the highlights of the event is the ‘best foreign domestic worker’ and ‘best employer’ awards which has been organized for over a decade. This year’s best employer paid for the university education of her worker’s children, and the ‘best foreign domestic worker winner was described as a ‘devoted caregiver’ who was treated ‘like another family member’ by the employer.
There is nothing wrong in honouring these women’s years of service to their employers. However, when such awards are given without a similar commitment and struggle for equal rights, it reinforces the stereotype and perpetuates the narrative of the selfless, maternal figure who sacrifices herself for the family while expecting little in return. Historically and culturally, women who do household and care work are usually mothers, with love and affection from their families being the rewards of their labour. This has resulted in domestic work’s low status and exclusion from mainstream labour protections. According to Dr Amy Khor’s speech, this year’s winner, Ms. Chona Balisme, ‘looked after family members who were stricken by illness and required constant care.’ But details about Ms Balisme’s working conditions and whether she was fairly remunerated as a result of the constant care required by the family members are not known.
There is little doubt that the theme of this year’s Foreign Domestic Workers’ (FDW) Day, ‘mutual care and respect’ is important. But the organisers’ approach is incomplete because it continues to frame the issue of worker abuse and exploitation as problems which can be resolved through promoting good relationships, treating workers as ‘part of the family’ and celebrating their sacrifices while ignoring the fact that they do not have equal employment protections. We are happy to organize recreational events that show off their talents and skills, but not rallies where they demand their rights. We continue to view them as commodities rather than as people whose dignity should be upheld. We have discriminatory policies which we don’t impose on any other groups except domestic workers, such as forbidding them from ‘breaking up Singaporean families’ and from ‘engaging in immoral activities’. The labour movement continues to exclude them as there are no unions representing their interests. They also cannot protest at Hong Lim Park without fear that their participation may result in the revocation of their work permits.
When we celebrate their long years of service to Singaporean households, we forget that the years spent abroad may have affected ties with their own families, a social cost which countries that depend on the export of labour like the Philippines is paying a heavy price for. Studies done by NGOs and academics in countries of origin have documented strained family ties and re-integration of problems faced by workers who spend long periods of time working abroad. I have no doubt the sentiment behind celebrating domestic workers as part of the family is well-intentioned. But the danger in perpetuating and reinforcing such attitudes about domestic work is that it shifts away the emphasis on rights to that of ‘benevolence’ and ‘generosity’. Domestic workers don’t need an employer who is ‘kind’ and ‘good’ to her.’ What she needs is a decent salary and equal employment rights, such as regulated working hours, regular days off, sick leave, annual leave, and overtime pay. In some cases, abusive employers use the ‘family’ argument to deny rights. Since you are part of the family, it is acceptable for me to pay you late, or make you work long hours because family members make many ‘sacrifices’ for one another.
Policies which are are vaguely worded with phrases such as ‘adequate rest’, and ‘adequate food’ do not provide a standard that can ensure the wellbeing of every domestic worker.  In her speech, Dr Amy Khor said it was important to strike a balance in giving employers and their workers flexibility on how to interpret such terms.  She also said domestic workers must have the responsibility to communicate with their employers if they have concerns.
For instance, if they are still hungry, they must tell their employers, so that they will have the energy to work and be happier. Ultimately, open communication based on mutual respect and accommodation, is the best way to guarantee a good working relationship between the employer and the domestic worker. 
What prompted the Minister’s decision to delve into the dietary inadequacies of migrant domestic workers may have been because of a recent Straits Times article which featured the experiences of abused domestic workers from HOME’s shelter who were deprived of food. In the article, we had said that we were seeing an increase of such cases. It drew a response from the Ministry of Manpower asserting that complaints to the authorities over inadequate food were not on the rise. Nevertheless, the Minister’s comments urging domestic workers to be responsible for communicating their concerns to their employers when they are not given adequate food fails take into consideration the fact that domestic workers are silenced by fear of dismissal and reprisals from employers and agents who have the unilateral right to cancel their work permits.
Non-governmental organisations and trade unions worldwide mark International Domestic Workers Day on June 16th every year to commemorate the adoption of the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention, a bill of rights which sets minimum employment standards for domestic workers. Singapore’s Foreign Domestic Workers’ Day should not just be about model employees and their generous employers, important as they are.  Equality, solidarity, and non-discrimination are values that are worth celebrating and fighting for too.

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.

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


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

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

AGC must go further to address abuse case delays

HOME welcomes statements by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) that it has formed a working group to focus on expediting the prosecution of employers who abuse their domestic workers and to look into compensation options for victims (“AGC studying ways to speed up cases involving abused foreign workers”, The Straits Times, 4 August 2014). However, more must be done to assist abused foreign domestic workers in Singapore. 

The slow pace of abuse investigations in Singapore takes its toll on victims of abuse. As The Sunday Times reported on 3 August 2014, HOME’s shelter hosts abused domestic workers who must remain in Singapore to assist investigations. Many are stuck here for years. This long wait has a heavy impact; emotionally, physically and financially. Whilst speeding up the investigations would help these women get home sooner, this is not enough.

As AGC recognises, abused foreign domestic workers in Singapore deserve compensation for their ordeals. However, the compensation framework needs to be streamlined and standardized. Further, compensation assessments must reflect the trauma and abuse suffered by a worker, as well as upkeep and opportunity costs. Most abused domestic workers rely on organizations like HOME to provide them with food and shelter, despite employers’ obligations to meet these needs under the Employment of Foreign Manpower framework. In addition, every day that a worker waits in our shelter is one in which she is not earning any salary.

Through no fault of their own, abused workers are left with no way to support the families who are waiting for them back home. Thus, it is crucial that victims of abuse are given a decent opportunity to work while they wait. Currently, abused domestic workers are unable to work in other sectors, but many tell us that they are afraid to work in another household after the trauma they suffered. Allowing these women to work elsewhere (for example in the service industry) would allow them to productively use their waiting time; alleviating a heavy financial and emotional burden.

HOME is heartened by AGC’s commitment to improving the plight of abused domestic workers in Singapore. We hope that the working group recognizes not only the need for abuse cases to be concluded more quickly, but also for domestic workers to be given fair compensation for their ordeals and a fair opportunity to work while they wait.

Finding the silver lining

photo 1-4-3

“Until now I stay at HOME. I’ve waited 15 months for my case. It has not been completed. Sometimes I think this is all unfair. Why do I have to wait for this? I need to earn money and help my parents.”

Idiyah* came to Singapore to earn money to support her family of six in Bandung, Indonesia. She knew about the nature of the job, and was prepared to work hard, but nothing could prepare her for the physical abuse, constant surveillance and complete isolation that awaited her. Idiyah was not allowed a hand phone, to call back home or even talk to the neighbours. The only time Idiyah, who did not have a day off, left the house, was when she was sent to her employer’s relative’s place for additional household chores – illegal deployment, which is not allowed in Singapore. Apart from that, Idiyah was trapped in her employers’ three-storey bungalow.

Things got worse when her employer suspected Idiyah of stealing one of her towels, and hit her on the head with a car key and slapped her face. Distraught, Idiyah requested to be sent back to her agent.

“But they said I need to pay them $6000 if I want to return to my agency”.

Idiyah was still paying off agency fees, and received only $10 allowance per month. She was trapped. The next time her employer hit her with a broom. One Sunday morning Idiyah ran away to seek help at the Ministry of Manpower. A friendly cab driver brought her to HOME at Orchard Road instead.

“When I called home and told my mother everything she cried. She asked me to come home. I want to go home too but everybody said I have to wait for the case.”

Idiyah stayed at the HOME shelter while her cases for illegal deployment and abuse were investigated. Idiyah expected it to be a speedy procedure but ended up waiting fifteen months for the investigations to be completed. During this time her father suffered a stroke, but Idiyah had to remain in Singapore while the investigations continued.

Despite the difficulties, Idiyah found solace in the activities at HOME’s shelter; she learnt sewing, and volunteered at HOME’s Waterloo Street office, assisting other migrant workers. Hers was always a smiling in the office and she found joy in helping others in a position similar to hers.

“During my stay at HOME I learnt a lot of things. I understand how to respect other people. It is a wonderful feeling. Sometimes I felt sad when I miss my family but I always try to smile and look happy. I try to be stronger.”

In the end, Idiyah decided not to press charges against her employers for the abuse, as she did not want to prolong the wait. Idiyah has returned to Indonesia but wants to come back to Singapore to work. Despite her experience, she has grown a lot, and during her stay at HOME improved her English, gained confidence, and made friends. She even learned some Tagalog from her Filipino friends! Idiyah believes she could now deal with whatever challenges may come her way.

Idiyah made the most of her time at HOME’s shelter, but the frustration and anxiety that she experienced during the fifteen-month wait for her case to be resolved were hard to endure. Underneath her smile, she was in pain.  Singapore does not have a comprehensive victim protection system to ensure that workers like Idiyah have adequate social support whilst awaiting the outcome of their case. Apart from this, measures to speed up the processing of investigations need to be implemented to ensure that victims are not themselves ‘punished’ again with long waits during which they are unable to provide for themselves and their families.

*Not her real name

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.

0725 - nutrition pic 2

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

0725 - nutrition pic 1

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