Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has charged two employment agencies on Thursday (24 May) over allegedly bringing in underage maids as young as 13 years old to work in Singapore.
MOM charged an employment agency licensee, 35-year-old Khor Siew Tiang, who is also the sole proprietor of Vista Employment Services, for breaching employment agency (EA) licence conditions. She failed to ensure that a foreign domestic worker (FDW) meets the minimum age requirement of 23 years old.
It has also charged another EA, Casa Employment Specialist Pte Ltd, for the same offence today.
MOM noted that the breach is an offence under Section 23 (5) of the Employment Agencies Act (EAA). If convicted, the offender can be fined up to $5,000 or up to six months’ imprisonment or to both. On top of the court-imposed penalties, MOM can also revoke the EA licence and forfeit the security deposit. Both EAs have been served with notices of licence suspension.
According to MOM, investigations revealed that between June and July 2017, Khor and Casa failed to ensure that two Myanmese FDWs meet the minimum age requirement. They were detected at the MOM Services Centre where they subsequently disclosed their actual age as 13 years old when interviewed by MOM officers.
It stated that both FDWs’ applications to work locally were revoked, with MOM issuing directions for Khor and Casa to send the two underage FDWs back to their home country. The Myanmar Embassy has also been informed.
Both underage FDWs have been barred from seeking employment in Singapore.
MOM stated that the cases against Khor and Casa have been adjourned to 14 June 2018 for a Further Mention.
The ministry stated that FDW-placing EAs are regularly reminded by MOM through electronic circulars to exercise their duty of care towards their clients, and take additional steps to verify the age of FDWs.
Additionally, it noted that FDWs are notified prior to their arrival, of Singapore’s entry requirements through the In-Principle Approval letter in their native language.
Upon arrival, all first-time FDWs are required to attend the mandatory Settling-In Programme (SIP) and will be informed of the consequences if they are found to be underage. Detection of underage FDWs also takes place at the SIP training centre and at the MOM Services Centre.
MOM stressed that all EAs have a legal responsibility to ensure that the FDWs they bring into Singapore for deployment to households meet all prevailing entry requirements and that it takes a serious view of EAs who fail in the discharge of their duty of care towards their clients.
It added that errant EAs face a range of penalties, from imposition of demerit points and licence suspension, to prosecution and licence revocation for egregious cases. These offenders will also be permanently barred from conducting business in the EA industry.
MOM states that it has taken enforcement action against 98 EAs in the last three years for failing to ensure that the FDWs, who came to Singapore for work through their agencies, met the age requirement.
"We urge employers to be vigilant in their selection of FDWs. They should clarify with their EAs if they have doubts of workers’ age or other credentials. An FDW requires the maturity and ability to cope with work and stress, or she may not be able to care for the young and/or old placed under their charge," MOM said.
"If employers suspect that an FDW recommended by an EA is not at least 23 years old, they should not engage the EA’s services and report the EA to MOM," it added.
Jolovan Wham, a veteran social worker with Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) wrote on his Facebook page, expressing concerns over the discretionary powers of MOM to decide whether or not to charge the FDWs who falsely declared their age.
He wrote, "Despite assurances from Singapore Ministry of Manpower that they will not penalise under age domestic workers, it is still not advisable to report such cases because there are no legal guarantees. Everything remains discretionary. Moreover, an assurance from MOM does not mean that ICA or police will not penalise them."
He added, "It's also important to note that anyone 16 years old and above is not considered a "young person" in Singapore deserving of protection under the Children and Young Persons Act. This means that teenagers who are trafficked into exploitation may still be penalised like an adult for falsely declaring their ages."
While MOM states that the two FDWs are barred from seeking employment in Singapore till they are of legal age, technically speaking they should not be seeking employment as FDWs in the first place. The government of Myanmar (Burma) imposed a ban on its citizens coming to Singapore for domestic work. The ban was reportedly due to concerns over ill-treatment and abuse.
In a forum organised by HOME in 2014, Ms Htwe Hteik Tin Lwin, first secretary of the consular section at the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore, shared that since the relaxation of travel restriction to Myanmar, it has been much easier to obtain a passport and many have sought work in foreign countries.
Although there are many FDWs who registered with the Embassy, many have come to Singapore without declaration of what they are doing here. As a result, the Embassy is unable to ascertain how many FDWs from Myanmar are currently in Singapore.
One of the difficulties faced by the embassies in Singapore to track their citizens who are working as FDWs is that the Singapore government does not involve the embassies in the In-Principle Approval (IPA) process, which allows them to be informed of their citizens who enter Singapore as FDWs.