by Kirsten Han
A little over two weeks. That was how long Nina Duwi Koriah had been in Singapore before she fell out of the third-storey window of her agent’s home following humiliating verbal abuse and mental distress.
Her agent, who has been identified by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) as Noor Hayah Gulam, was fined S$50,000 on 26 September this year for running an unlicensed employment agency. She will serve 10 weeks’ in jail in lieu of the fine. But there is more to the story—the impact of her actions extends far beyond working without the necessary paperwork.
The first time we met Nina last year, she was sitting in bed in the middle of a busy ward at the Singapore General Hospital—her second hospital stay following another round of operations. We were immediately struck by her injuries: both arms were swathed in thick casts, a metal frame holding her left arm together. Unable to communicate in English, she gave us a smile in greeting. Then her face crumpled and she dissolved into tears.
Nina, like many other women before her, made the decision to travel to Singapore from her home in rural Indonesia to earn more money for her family. Both her father and husband are farmers, tending to family-owned paddy fields behind their self-built homes in a little village with unmarked dirt roads. There were debts to be paid, and two young children’s futures to think of.
She knew little of the regulations surrounding the recruitment and employment of migrant domestic workers in either Indonesia or Singapore. Word-of-mouth led her to the woman who would help her get to Singapore. She said that she was given some informal training in cooking and cleaning over a period of three months, but that there were no English language classes—a requirement under Indonesian law that continues to be widely flouted. She was told that she would be paid five million rupiah (S$507) a month, but that four-and-a-half million (S$456) rupiah would be deducted for the first seven months to cover the cost of her training and agent fees.
Upon her arrival in Singapore, Nina quickly regretted her decision. She was overwhelmed by the culture shock of transitioning from her sleepy village to the modern urban metropolis, and deeply homesick. But she had a loan to pay off, so going home felt out of the question, no matter how much she wanted it. Still, she asked her agent for a transfer after just two weeks with her employer.
Her agent—who Nina had only known as Nora—wasn’t happy. Nina said that she was taken from her employer’s home to the agent’s office, and made to stand for hours facing the wall as punishment. She then stayed in the agent’s home while a new employer was sought.
Speaking to us in 2016, Nina said that she was made to do household chores in the agent’s home. She also said that she was subjected to verbal abuse. She told case workers at HOME that she was likened to a dog, or told that she was fit to be a sex worker. All this simply contributed to her sense of isolation and distress.
“My mind was confused. I was so far away from home,” Nina said.
Thoughts of escape preoccupied her. On her third day in the agent’s home, Nina went up to the third storey of the house. She said the house had been locked, and that she didn’t know where she could find the key. She went up to the window, desperate for help and relief, trying to find an escape. She told us she had trouble remembering exactly what happened next; the next thing she knew, she was lying in hospital with serious injuries from her fall. She broken both arms, her right wrist and right leg. Metal pins were also inserted into her right hip.
Nina was referred to HOME for support, and moved into their shelter after her first round of operations. “We were shocked and horrified that she had to resort to jumping out of a high rise building just to escape her agent,” said case manager Dr Stephanie Chok.
HOME assisted Nina with filing a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower. Nina had only known her agent as Nora, and it initially wasn’t clear if Nora was the name of an individual or an agency.
“MOM was unable to identify who the agent was at first because we thought it was ‘Nora Employment Agency’ but they had no records of Nora Employment Agency being her recruiter,” Dr Chok said. It looked as if the case had come to a dead end; Nina’s former employer, saddled with her medical bills even though her fall had taken place at the agent’s home, wanted to repatriate her. Without an identifiable recruiter to investigate, there was technically nothing to stop the employer from doing so. But HOME, reluctant to let the matter rest so quickly, persisted.
“We were also worried that she could not afford treatment in Indonesia and felt it was important that she had her follow- up operation here,” Dr Chok said. “So we appealed to MOM to take another statement from Nina and look into the case again.”
HOME then came across another worker who had been brought to Singapore via the same unlicensed agent. She complained of similar maltreatment; being made to do housework from early in the morning until late at night while enduring verbal abuse. She also claimed that the agent would lock her up in the boarding house whenever she went out. This additional testimony provided more clarity to Nina’s experience, and gave investigators more to go on. Both wrongful confinement and working for the agent is illegal under Singapore’s laws.
Noor Hayah Gulam was charged for running an employment agency without a licence in April this year. It’s a rare “win” in HOME’s experience; they don’t usually know the outcome of the cases they report to MOM, as the ministry is not obliged to inform them, or even the worker who filed the complaint, of the results of their investigation. But even so, working as an unauthorised employment agent was only one of the things she had done; it’s unclear what became of the two domestic workers’ complaints of confinement and illegal work.
“Being informed officially of the outcome of a case is essential in seeking redress for workers. Such information is needed to file compensation claims for pain, suffering, medical expenses and loss of earnings. It is often not enough that statutory action has been taken,” said Dr Chok.
MOM has been approached for comment, but have not yet responded.
Both Nina and Unasich are now back in Indonesia. Nina had to continue seeking medical treatment upon her return, making the long journey to the hospital and paying for each doctor’s visit out of her own pocket. She told us that she would skip appointments; she wasn’t always able to pay for treatment. With the agent’s conviction, there might be a chance for her to file a civil claim for her injuries, but the viability of this option is still unclear. There is no guarantee that she will succeed even if this route is open for her; the only thing she can do now is hope, and find ways to pick up the pieces from her first tragic venture away from home.
Update: In response to questions, MOM said that “[a]ny allegation of abuse or maltreatment would be looked into by the authorities. With respect to each case, the outcome will be dependent on the evidence gathered.”