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The Big Read in short: Getting to the root of maid abuse

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the issue of maid abuse, which has come under the spotlight again following a spate of recent cases. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

Foreign domestic workers who are isolated from contact beyond their employment environments are the ones who are most vulnerable to abuse, according to most of the NGOs and employment agencies TODAY spoke to
NGOs welcome MOM’s home visit initiative, but say that checks should be done for all foreign domestic workers throughout the course of their employment
These helpers are vulnerable to abuse because they are powerless; employers can terminate their contract and send them home at will
Psychologists say displacement of anger is one reason why employers abuse their helpers

SINGAPORE — Ruby (not her real name) is often threatened by her employer for supposedly not following her instructions.

“She will say ‘I will slap you since you can’t understand, so you can wake up’,” said the 41-year-old Philippine national.

“I’m thinking (to myself) ‘Try to slap, I’ll report to MOM.”

Ruby has been the sole helper caring for a family of six in a three-storey landed property for almost four years.

She cleans air-conditioning pipes monthly, does gardening and hand washes the family’s clothes, sofa covers and bedsheets because she is not allowed to use the washing machine.

She often spends her nights on the kitchen floor because her designated room is a storage room with little space and ventilation.

Ruby is not allowed to use any space in the fridge, living on rice, noodles, eggs and tuna and is only given access to her phone every weekend.

Despite knowing that she can lodge a report against her employer to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Ruby has never made one.

“I’m scared that (if I do so), the decision will be to send me home,” said Ruby, who is a single mother.

“I cannot go back. I have my children who go to school, I have things to pay….If I go back I have no work.”

Ruby’s reticence — and that of several other domestic helpers interviewed by TODAY — is prompted by various factors, such as the feeling that they have no one to turn to, fear of being sent back home and the lack of evidence of their employers’ wrongdoings.

Such silence in the face of employers from hell can lead to tragedy — as seen in the spate of abuse cases involving domestic helpers in Singapore that have hogged the headlines recently. One particularly disturbing case involves a 24-year-old helper from Myanmar, Ms Piang Ngaih Don, who died after being beaten, burned, and starved until her weight was reduced to 24kg by her employer, Gaiyathiri Murugayan. The prosecution is seeking life imprisonment but Gaiyathiri’s lawyers have asked for the culpable homicide charge to be reduced.

Only this week, a heavily pregnant woman was also jailed for eight weeks for abusing her domestic helper by hitting and slapping her, as well as forcing her to eat dirty cotton wool and hair off the toilet floor.

The abuse cases show that much more needs to be done to protect the thousands of domestic helpers here. The average population of domestic helpers who worked in Singapore from 2017 to 2020 was about 250,000 per year, said Mr Shamsul Kamar, the executive director of the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE), citing MOM official statistics. The centre was set up by the National Trades Union Congress to help distressed workers.

According to MOM figures, there was an average of 270 reported physical abuse cases a year against domestic helpers over the same period.

According to MOM figures, there was an average of 270 reported physical abuse cases a year against domestic helpers over the same period. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

A LONGSTANDING PROBLEM

While the recent spate of abuse cases have raised eyebrows all around — with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam saying “the beastiality of the conduct was shocking” in reference to Ms Piang’s case — the issue has long dogged the nation since domestic helpers become a familiar sight in many a Singaporean household.

Philippine Embassy minister and consul general Adrian Bernie Candolada told TODAY that between January and April 30, the embassy received notifications from the police of 23 cases of varying types of abuse towards Filipino domestic workers. In the whole of last year, it received fewer than 20 cases of complaints filed by Filipino domestic workers.

He added that due to the circuit breaker, some cases were probably not reported to the police.

Over at the Indonesian Embassy, from January to April, they had 182 domestic workers sheltered at the embassy due to various reasons, from disharmony cases with employers, as well as labour and police cases.

Of that number, around 10 per cent of the cases were alleged domestic workers abuse, said a spokesperson, adding that the number varies from time to time.

To tackle the longstanding problem, Singapore society needs to “scrutinise our attitudes towards domestic work, and domestic workers”, said Ms Jaya Anil Kumar, a case manager at Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to supporting and empowering migrant workers who suffer abuse and exploitation.

In a bid to step up monitoring of the well-being of foreign domestic workers, the MOM announced last month that it has begun conducting random house visits to check on their working and living environments. The ministry intends to carry out 200 random house visits monthly.

Employers will be notified about one week in advance of such visits, and if they refuse, the MOM will require the employers and their foreign domestic workers to be interviewed at the ministry’s office.

Ms Jaya welcomes the initiatives, but adds that checks should be done for all domestic workers throughout the course of their employment.

“Employment agencies can play a part in this — with resources, guidelines and protocols provided by the authorities. Ultimately, better prevention, detection, and support for domestic workers who seek help, is key,” she said.

Ms K Jayaprema, president of the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), or AEAS, said that she has been asking MOM to mandate that employment agencies can visit the homes of the domestic helpers whom they place.

“It is about access and communication. She needs to be able to trust this person who brought her in,” she said.

“There are 250,000 domestic workers. I have a whole employment agency workforce out here to help.”

Officers from the Ministry of Manpower speak to a foreign domestic worker to check on her well-being during a house visit on April 26, 2021. Photo: Low Youjin/TODAY

IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL SUPPORT NETWORKS

Domestic workers who are isolated from contact beyond their employment environments are the ones who are most vulnerable to abuse, according to most of the NGOs and employment agencies TODAY spoke to.

Other factors include a limited command of the English language and the inability to negotiate contracts for better working conditions.

Mr David Bensadon, chief executive officer of employment agency We Are Caring, said that helpers from Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka are more vulnerable to abuse due to limited support from their national institutions.

Ms Nawlukha, 36, who like many of her compatriots goes by one name, said that domestic helpers from Myanmar are “scared to talk back” and many “don’t know how to speak English”.

She added that they are also afraid that calling MOM for help will cause a “big problem”, and do not want to risk being sent home due to their country’s situation. Others keep their problems to themselves so as to not burden their friends or family.

Ms Ummairoh, a domestic helper from Indonesia, had experienced abuse when she first arrived in Singapore to work. In 2016, she created a support system by forming the Indonesian Family Network together with 17 other domestic helpers.

“I think such groups are very important … Even if you don’t have a problem, you need someone from the same background to talk to,” she said.

There are also other support groups, such as Suara Kita for Indonesian domestic workers and the Filipino Family Network. However, there does not seem to be any for the Indian, Sri Lankan and Myanmar communities.

Ms Ummairoh, a domestic helper from Indonesia, had experienced abuse when she first arrived in Singapore to work. In 2016, she created a support system by forming the Indonesian Family Network together with 17 other domestic helpers. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

ODDS STACKED AGAINST HELPERS

Foreign domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse because they are powerless — they suffer from isolation through no days off, limited communication with the world outside their employer’s home, and work permit conditions that tie them for two years at a time to an employer who can terminate their contract and send them home at will, said Mr John Gee, former president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2),

“This gives the employer a powerful weapon with which to force a worker to conform to their every whim,” he added.

Ms Daisy Lopez, 49, who has been running employment agency WorkHome Personnel at Far East Shopping Centre for 15 years, reiterated that such unilateral decisions cause domestic helpers to be in prolonged abusive environments.

“During the renewal, MOM does not require the helper to sign any form or acknowledgement that they will be renewing the contract. Previously, they had a form when they got the renewal notice requiring the signatures of both the employer and employee,” she said.

“Sometimes they don’t know they have been renewed, or they’ve been wanting to leave and then they just find out one day their contract has already been renewed.”

Domestic workers are also required to get their employer’s consent before they can transfer.

“A lot of the times they want to transfer once they’ve finished their contracts but the employer is threatening to send them back if they don’t renew… so they just renew,” said Ms Lopez.

BIGGER ROLE FOR EMPLOYMENT AGENCIES?

Ms Jayaprema from AEAS said that employment agencies should be involved in all the decisions that an employer makes.

“Being part of the renewal process, the employment agency will also be able to make sure that her renewal terms have been negotiated fairly, she’s happy, comfortable and she does want to renew,” she said.

CDE’s Mr Shamsul said that when it comes to transfers, a more effective long-term policy would be for the consent letter — which needs to be signed by an employer — to be scrapped for domestic helpers who have completed their contracts.

He added that domestic helpers, who are victims of abuse and unfair employment practices, should automatically be allowed to seek new employment without having to get consent from their current employers who are being investigated by the authorities.

TWC2’s Mr Gee added: “If anyone wants to leave a current employer and go to a new one, it should be made simple and inexpensive.”

However, Ms Jayaprema said that relaxing the requirements for a transfer could be a double-edged sword.

“We have to be careful about it because we don’t want to create a situation where the domestic helpers come in and have the mindset of ‘I don’t like it, I will keep moving’,” she said.

Domestic workers are required to get their employer’s consent before they can transfer. Mr Shamsul Kamar, the executive director of the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE), said that when it comes to transfers, a more effective long-term policy would be for the consent letter to be scrapped for domestic helpers who have completed their contracts. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

WHAT MAKES SOME EMPLOYERS ABUSIVE

Employers who abuse their domestic helpers are often driven by the “fundamental human need for power”, psychologists and psychiatrists told TODAY.

“Power gives us the ability to control our environment and self. The more we feel disempowered, the more we want to exert control and power. This can lead to a subconscious misuse of our power and dominance over domestic helpers,” said Dr Joel Yang, a clinical psychologist at Mind What Matters.

Mr Praveen Nair, a psychologist at Raven Counselling and Consultancy, said that the abuser could be someone who is insecure and may also suffer from low self-esteem.

“While they (abusers) may not be able to take out their frustrations on the original source such as their own bosses or family members, they end up taking out their frustrations on a convenient and surrogate source — their domestic helper,” said Mr Nair.

Dr Wang said that there may be a build-up of other factors, such as  anxiety and stress, depression, tiredness, work or family problems, that lower the person’s threshold of anger.

Dr Yang suggested that employers should take the time to get to know their helpers to prevent such untoward scenarios. They should also avoid taking out their stress on their helpers.

“Rather than focus on what she doesn’t do well, fixate on all the things she does well and sometimes that can extend to the intangibles as well. For example, her bubbly personality that brings a laugh to your kids,” he said.  

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