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In a report on forced labour in the domestic work sector in Singapore, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and anti-human trafficking organisation Liberty Shared talked about a particularly distressing case of abuse of a migrant domestic worker (MDW) and the reluctance of authorities to intervene unless obvious physical abuse is involved.

The worker in question, known only as Rosa, reportedly works about 19 hours each day at her employers house, from 4am to 11pm. Rosa wasn’t allowed any rest, not even to sit down, during the day except to have her meals. Rosa was afforded no rest days and subjected to seven months of salary deductions to repay her recruitment fees.

On top of that, Rosa’s employer confiscated her mobile phone, which meant she had no way to keep in touch with her family. Her passport was also held by her employer and she was also constantly scolded by members of the family who found fault in everything she did.

When Rosa asked her employer for a transfer, she was refused. The employer told her she had paid a lot of money to hire Rosa and threatened to report her to the police if she dared to leave. After that, Rosa’s employer kept the house key on and refused to let Rosa leave the house. The front door grille was always locked, leaving Rosa feeling increasingly stressed with the confinement.

In a desperate attempt to escape an awful situation, Rose climbed out the bedroom window to get out. She fell. The fall from a height of several stories left her badly injured with both legs fractured. Her doctor said it would take at least a year for Rosa to full recover.

Unfortunately, the police investigated Rosa for ‘attempted suicide’ which is a crime in Singapore, even though she insisted that she was simply trying to escape, not kill herself. The police eventually let her off with a ‘stern warning’ for ‘causing alarm or distress’ to her employer. The report adds that Rosa is disinterested in pursuing any course of remedy that could result in further complications and potentially delay her return.

Rosa’s case is not an isolated incident. The report doesn’t specify when the incident with Rosa took place, but back in 2017, there was a similar case of an MDW who was gravely injured while trying to escape terrible work situation.

Indonesian MDW Nina was abused by the agent who brought her to Singapore. After experiencing severe culture shock from her sleepy village to the modern metropolis of Singapore, Nina request a transfer after just two weeks. Unhappy with that request, Nina’s agent made her stand facing a wall as punishment.

The agent also made her do household chores in her home where Nina was staying while the agent looked for a new placement. She was also subject to verbal abuse. She told HOME that she was treated like a dog and told that she was ‘fit to be a sex worker’. All that greatly contributed to her sense of isolation and distress.

One day, after enduring humiliating verbal abuse and mental distress at the agents home, who culdn’t leave via the front door, went up to the third storey of the house instead. Desperate, Nina went up to the window to look for help and find a way to escape. Nina told HOME that she doesn’t remember much after. Nina’s fall left her with both arms broken, as well as a broken wrist and leg. He had to have metal hips inserted into her right hip.

MOM began investigations into Nina’s case but were unable to identify the agent, who was operating under a false business name. It appeared to be a dead end. And without an identifiable recruiter to investigate, Nina’s employer was free to saddle her with the medical bills and repatriate her.

But HOME didn’t give up. They eventually came across another worker who has been brought to Singapore via the same unlicensed agent. The additional testimony provided clarity and gave investigators more to go on.

Eventually, the agent was identified and charged in court for running an employment agency without license. She wasn’t, however, held legally accountable for the verbal, mental and emotional abuse she had committed. Because once again, the laws are too vague to protect people like Nina.

Incidents like these highlight just how vulnerable MDWs are, especially when even the authorities do not appear to be on their side at all.

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