A Singaporean couple have been sentenced to jail and a fine for starving their maid from the Philippines over a 15-month period.
The domestic worker had lost 20kg – about 40 percent of her body weight – while working for the couple, and was given only bread and instant noodles to eat.
Lim Choon Hong, 47, a freelance trader, was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and fined $10,000. His wife Chong Sui Foon, also 47, was jailed for three months.
The prosecutor, who had asked for the maximum sentence of one year’s jail for both, is making an appeal. The couple are on bail of $3,000 each, pending the appeal.
Last year in March, Lim was found guilty in breaching the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, which entails employers to pay and provide adequate food and medical treatment for their domestic helpers. Chong was found guilty of assisting Lim in committing the offence.
Thelma Oyasan Gawidan, the Filipino domestic worker was starved over a period of 15 months, where her weight dropped from 49kg to 29kg. She testified in court that she was fed only small amounts of food twice a day, and her requests for more food were denied.
The first meal, which was usually at around 1am to 2am, consisted of two to three slices of plain bread and one to two packets of instant noodles. Sometimes, Chong would mix small portions of vegetables and meat with the instant noodles.
The second meal, which was provided during the late morning or early afternoon, was five to six slices of plain white bread. For drinks, she also had to ask for permission and be given water before drinking.
She was made to sleep in a storeroom, and she has stopped menstruating after February 2013, then her hair started falling out a few months later.
The domestic worker was also forbidden from using the toilets in Lim’s home. She had to use the common toilet in the condominium. She was only allowed to shower once or twice a week and Chong would stand inside the toilet while she showered.
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) helped Ms Gawidan in her escape when she had sought refuge there.
HOME then reported Ms Thelma’s conditions to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), who directed the NGO to send Ms Thelma for a medical check up with a general practitioner and later at the hospital.
HOME wrote on its Facebook, “The maid’s pleads for more food fell on deaf ears, and she had nowhere to turn to for help as her employers took her mobile phone and passport from her. In April 2014, Ms Gawidan managed to escape, running until she found a pay phone from which she called a friend. She was then taken to HOME, a welfare organisation for migrant workers in Singapore.”
When The Online Citizen asked for his comment on the case, Jolovan Wham of HOME answered in an email, “In the last 6 months at least 3 out of 10 domestic workers who approached HOME has complained of inadequate food. Thelma’s case made it to court because the abuse was so severe. However, many others with similar and serious complaints are often terminated and repatriated if they attempt to seek redress. Thelma also suffered from other abuses. She was overworked and did not have days off. But the punishment did not take these other abuses into consideration.”
“To prevent cases like Thelma’s from repeating, we need to regulate domestic work more effectively, and this means ensuring they are granted basic labour rights in accordance with international standards,” Mr Wham wrote.
Maria Loreta Martir Menosa, a fellow Filipino netizen worker, wrote her comments on Home’s Facebook:
“That’s why some of the maids here can make brutal decision by killing their employers because most of the employers here they treat the maid like a dog or a slave.. we come here to work and not free, we all paid the agency.. how come they treat us like animals.. love and respect your maid, they can give you more love and good job as what you wanted to happen..”
Mr Shamsul Kamar, executive director of the Centre for Domestic Employees, said in a statement on 28 March that the centre is deeply saddened by this incident and urged foreign domestic workers who feel that they are being mistreated to seek immediate help.
The BBC’s Leisha Chi in Singapore said Ms Gawidan received S$20,000 in compensation, but in sentencing the judge’s primary concern was whether giving money, be it ‘one dollar or one million dollars’, demonstrated genuine remorse.
Singapore’s courts have seen a rising number of cases of domestic helper abuse in recent years.