OVER 10 MONTHS, she was caned, barred from using the toilet, forced to eat her own vomit and warned that her relatives could be killed if she complained. It was a life Moe Moe Than, 32, a domestic worker from Myanmar, never imagined when she arrived in Singapore in 2012.
Last week, her Singaporean employers, a married couple with three children, were sent to prison – one for almost four years, the other for two years. They are also facing prison time for abusing an Indonesian helper who worked alongside Than.
This month, Filipino domestic worker Baby Jane Allas reported her Hong Kong employer to the city’s authorities for firing her after she had received a cervical cancer diagnosis. Allas said she had slept for 15 months without a bed or a mattress and not been fed properly.
Domestic worker advocates and labour experts say these two high-profile cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Accounts of Southeast Asian domestic workers in the Middle East being tortured, forced to work for hours on end and even sexually abused are well documented.
But a spate of abuse cases in recent years show this is also happening in Asia’s wealthy, modern cities. Migrant women face abuse and racial discrimination, some live in slave-like conditions and all grapple with a lack of legal protection or channels to voice their concerns in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Observers put this down to old mindsets in society and prioritising financial gain.
“Despite of all the egregious cases we have heard about in recent years, the fundamental gaps in terms of the protection of domestic workers have remained the same,” says Sheena Kanwar, executive director of Singapore’s Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).
“The reluctance in changing this is because it is economically beneficial for everyone to let things stay the way they are … especially for the government, with all care giving services pushed to underpaid domestic workers,” she says.
Eni Lestari, a domestic worker in Hong Kong, who is also the chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, says helpers are not even treated as “second class citizens”. “Migrant workers are like third class, fourth or no class at all,” she says. “Many of us live in modern-day slavery conditions, because often our legal rights are not recognised and we are treated lower than other workers.”
Servants instead of workers
In the past, only rich families in Asia had helpers. But in more recent decades, middle-class families turned to domestic workers partly because an increasing number of women went out to work.
A recent study showed that in Hong Kong, for instance, only 49 per cent of mothers – aged between 25 and 54 – were able to join the labour force if they did not employ a domestic worker. With a helper, this labour force participation increased to 78 per cent.
The research found that only by enabling more women to join the labour force, foreign domestic workers indirectly add US$2.6 billion to Hong Kong’s economy, US$2.6 billion to Singapore’s economy and US$0.23 billion to Malaysia’s.
Last year, in total, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong contributed an estimated US$12.6 billion to the city’s economy, or 3.6 per cent of its gross domestic product. They also contributed US$8.2 billion to Singapore’s economy and US$900 million to Malaysia’s.
If the abuses are not that graphic and nobody knows about it, they just continue for months or years
But despite their growing importance, the perception that these women are “slaves” persists, says Joseph Paul, director and caseworker at Tenaganita, a non-governmental organisation in Malaysia that works with migrants.
“The mindset is … they are there to work and do whatever [employers] want them to do …They look at them as people to whom they are doing a favour by giving them a job.”
He says because many of these workers come from impoverished countries, the employers think they can take advantage of them.
“I don’t think this would happen if we were talking about a worker from the US or from Europe,” he says.
Kanwar says these attitudes in Singapore – where one in five households has a helper – are also fed by some measures of racism and gender discrimination. “They are in an invisible status [behind closed doors] to do all the dirty work for us.”
Such perceptions have resulted in a lack of impetus to revise laws that could better protect these workers.
In Malaysia, domestic workers are still described as “servants” under the Employment Act and receive little legal protection. Unlike other employees, domestic workers do not enjoy mandatory rest days or regulated working hours.
The rights group Tenaganita has been pushing for a law on domestic workers that would plug some of the holes in current legislation. But it’s a hard task when society itself does not recognise the need for a change.
“Many people don’t see the problem,” caseworker Paul says. “And of course, people, who are so used to having these workers at their beck and call, will lose some of these privileges if some of their rights are recognised.”
He says the public tends only to acknowledge the issue when someone dies, like in Penang last year. Adelina Lisao, a 21-year-old domestic worker from Indonesia, died on February 11 of multiple organ failure. She was tortured for more than a month and forced to sleep outside with her employers’ Rottweiler.
“In our system, unless somebody dies, you don’t have to report anything … but if the abuses are not that graphic and nobody knows about it, they just continue for months or years,” Paul says.
In Hong Kong, Lestari takes issue with the Immigration Department’s policies.
“They decide our lives and they are always imposing unnecessary visa restrictions. For example, if you lose the job, you have 10 days to leave, and you are not allowed to take up other types of jobs,” she says.
In the case of Singapore, she says, there is no recognition of women’s basic right to reproduce. Domestic workers have to take pregnancy tests every six months. If they are found pregnant, they are deported.
“Does this mean that they want us to be celibate? They are not only exploiting our labour, they are really exploiting women to the core,” Lestari says.
Kanwar notes that domestic workers are left with very tough choices. “If you are found pregnant and you want to continue working in Singapore you have to abort,” she says. “You need to make a choice between livelihood and pregnancy – which is a violation of their basic rights and their own body.”
No incentive to complain
Many domestic workers endure abuse and unreasonable policies in silence because they are in debt due to high placement agency fees and because they are under pressure to send money to their families back home. And while the avenues to voice their concerns are scarce and convoluted, often they offer no guarantee of justice.
It’s not enough to have a Labour Tribunal, people need to feel that they are treated fairly regardless of the outcome
“The police and immigration often send back the worker to the agency or the employer, and then they will send them back to their home country, so the case disappears,” Lestari says.
Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society has helped bring cases of abuse and unfairness to the fore. Compared with Singapore or Malaysia, domestic workers in Hong Kong enjoy greater legal protection, including a minimum wage and a mandatory weekly day off.
However, Allan Bell, a Hong Kong-based legal expert and chair of the Domestic Workers Roundtable that serves as a watchdog, says there are no efforts to check if the mechanisms for recourse actually work. “For instance, it’s not enough to have a Labour Tribunal, people need to feel that they are treated fairly regardless of the outcome.”
Lestari also calls on Hong Kong to recognise forced labour as a crime, as “sentences are very light and the bad employers are still not afraid”.
She points to the case of Indonesian helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was subjected to months of multiple physical and verbal abuse by her employer. The woman was sentenced to six years in prison.
Long waits, few results
In Malaysia and Singapore, the emergence of migrant-led groups is still incipient and there are few chances to hold demonstrations. The burden then lies on a few civil society organisations that support migrants, such as Home. This group runs a shelter for abused domestic workers, provides legal aid and skills training for migrants, while also conducting research and advocacy.
Last year alone, Home received about 900 complaints from domestic workers. Most of them were related to excessive working hours, emotional abuse and coercion, inappropriate food provisions as well as withholding of wages.
Singapore has, however, seen some changes to the legal system. For instance, the High Court laid down last year a new sentencing framework for cases involving abused domestic workers, acknowledging the mental anguish that many go through.
In 2013, a law was introduced stating that domestic workers should have a day off each week, or be paid in lieu. An agent working for Crislo Employment Agency, one of the largest in Singapore, argues that domestic workers enjoy sufficient protection in the city. “The employers who abuse their helpers are punished and banned from hiring new ones. And the Ministry of Manpower does random interviews from time to time with workers,” she says, declining to reveal her name because she does not have formal rights to comment.
The agent, who says she has not come across any case of physical abuse, also argues that the mandatory pregnancy test is a practice that protects the workers’ health and avoids future problems for the employer.
But Kanwar says despite the Singapore court ruling in favour of Than, her journey to justice shows how much more needs to be done.
While Than’s male employer was ordered to pay S$3,000 (US$2,200) as compensation and his wife S$6,500 (US$4,800), a case worker from Home said the couple’s defence counsel suggested they serve additional jail time instead. The couple has also not paid compensation to the Indonesian helper they had abused.
Kanwar says Than stayed in shelters in Singapore for about four years while her case was being handled – about the length of, or even longer than, her employers’ jail term.
“There was no recognition of damages to them [the workers], their loss of wages, their emotional trauma,” Kanwar says. “The wait was so long that somehow diluted the sense of justice. Such a tough journey and no compensation.” ■