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“I did everything, including cutting her toenails”

By Lucy Henders

A Filipino domestic worker who was treated like a medieval palace maid expected to attend to the personal grooming of her mistress, has been instructed to leave Singapore while her complaint is investigated. Domenica (not her real name), a 37 year old college graduate was asked to blow-dry her employer’s hair, cut and polish her nails and give her a foot spa three times a week.

The regulations from Ministry of Manpower (MOM) are unequivocal about the work that foreign domestic workers are allowed to perform. They state:

“A foreign domestic worker (FDW)’s deployment must comply with Work Permit conditions. As an employer, you will be penalised if you illegally deploy her to work for someone else or perform non-domestic chores.”

The personal grooming demands made of Domenica sit outside of what a reasonable person would consider domestic work to be and are a clear infringement of her work permit conditions. But Domenica has been left wondering why she is the one being punished. It is also unclear if MOM would take any action against the employer as they are not obliged to inform the domestic worker about the outcome of the investigation.

One of the grooming activities that the domestic worker had to do.
One of the grooming activities that the domestic worker had to do.

Her employer’s unlawful grooming demands were not her only grounds for complaint though. She says her employer did not provide her with adequate food and rest and she was twice bitten by the family dog. Domenica began working for the family in September 2015 after four years in Singapore with another employer. She says she had a happy experience in her previous employment and had no complaints. Her problems started almost immediately in her new position however. Employed to do cleaning and general housework, she found herself not only providing personal care to her employer and her daughter but supporting her employer’s busy entertainment schedule to the detriment of her own health and welfare.

“My employer had guests over every night and we (a second worker) could not eat until after they had gone. One night my friend (the other worker) fried up some food. My employer got very upset that she had caused the house to smell at that time of the night,” she said.

Her employer would also invite friends on shopping expeditions and expect Domenica to carry their bags. In return, she was often offered left over food that had been refrigerated for days, forcing her to supplement her diet out of her own money.

With her employer’s demands exhausting her, she requested a transfer only to be told falsely by her employer that she would have to repay the agent fees she had paid ($1900) first. In fact, those fees were only $1170 and there was not requirement for her to pay. When she pointed this out, her employer cancelled her work permit.

In desperation, Domenica sought the help of HOME. An MOM investigation is now underway; however, she has been told she is not required to remain in Singapore while it is completed, leaving her in the same position she was in when she filed her complaint – under threat of repatriation.

Domenica comes from a farming area in the Philippines. She has four children aged from 7 to 18 years who rely on her income to survive. Her husband is a casual farm labourer who picks up work whenever he can. She says he is sometimes paid in cash and sometimes in rice. She came to Singapore to give her family better opportunities. The MOM decision to force her to leave will cost her family dearly. Although she will be able to return, it will be at a cost. She says she is already using her salary to pay off loans and debts and to return, she will have to borrow more to pay for her airfare and agents fees.

What Domenica wants is to remain in Singapore and be granted a transfer to a new employer. Her complaint has every chance of succeeding but to repatriate her before the investigation is completed ensures that even if she is vindicated, she will incur a major expense.

It is a harsh reward indeed for showing the courage to make a complaint and from the outside looks as though the victim is being punished for her own abuse.

This post was first published on HOME’s website on 22 March 2016