A typical day started at 5am. Hannah (not her real name) would do some household chores and feed the family’s many pets. Mid-mornings saw her shuttling between her employer’s fruit stall and his daughter-in-law’s photo shop in Clementi. In the afternoon, there would be more chores at the daughter-in-law’s house. In the evening, she had to clean and close up the fruit stall and photo shop before heading home to scrub the toilet and iron clothes. The two families’ four cars required washing once a week. A normal day ended at 2am. Hannah stuck it out for 11 months. And then she ran away.
It was a decision borne out of desperation. Hannah had previously written letters and made phone calls to the Ministry of Manpower but all they did was tell her her case was under review. On October 7, 2010, she had called the police. But after paying her a visit and speaking to her employer, they informed her that the matter was out of their jurisdiction.
“They told me that they could not help me because it wasn’t an abuse case. The police also told me that my employer had the right to send me back to my country,” said Hannah.
She packed her bags that night. The next morning, enroute to the fruit stall with her employer, Hannah dashed out of a train at Cityhall and made her way to a shelter run by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME). She’s been living there since.
Hannah is a victim of what HOME”s President Bridget Tan describes as “psychological abuse”. There are no physical scars, yet the impact can be devastating. Victims complain of a host of problems including sleep deprivation, stress, self-esteem issues and physical and mental exhaustion. Hannah is also illegally deployed. Cases like Hannah’s have prompted migrant rights groups and the Human Rights Watch to call for foreign domestic workers to be covered under Singapore’s Employment Act. Doing so would help ensure that they are not overworked and compel employers to give them weekly rest days, maternity benefits and other labour protections. But it’s a plea authorities here seem unwilling to heed.
When TOC approached the Ministry of Manpower for comment, we were told to refer to a letter published on the Straits Times on September 21, 2010. The letter, written in response to feedback from Vincent Wijeysingha, Executive Director at NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), explained that foreign domestic workers are not included in the Employment Act “due to the nature of their job”. It also said, “Protection for FDWs has gone beyond legislative measures. For instance, MOM maintains a dedicated helpline for distressed FDWs and actively educates employers on good FDW employment practices.”
MOM did not answer TOC’s request for statistics on the exact number of complaints it receives each year in relation to psychological abuse. The exact number of victims is hard to quantify. Unlike Hannah, many choose to suffer in silence. Quite apart from the relative lack of official interest in such cases, the women are also constrained by economic considerations. Most have paid hefty recruitment fees in order to secure work in Singapore. They live in fear of being sent home should they incur the displeasure of their employers.
For Hannah, these are uncertain times. It’s been six months since her escape and she is still waiting for MOM to complete its investigations into her case. She remains in Singapore on an Special Pass, which has to be renewed monthly. HOME is currently helping her to find a new job. Hannah hopes to stay on once the investigation ends. Despite her ordeal, she’s trying to be optimistic – hoping her next employer won’t be like her first.