Migrant workers in Singapore face “steep power imbalances” when dealing with employers and government authorities, which may hinder their ability to report any instances of mistreatment by employers, said the Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament Gerald Giam.
Speaking in support of a motion filed by fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim on Singapore’s criminal justice system in Parliament on Wednesday (4 November), the Aljunied GRC MP said that migrant workers may hesitate to report instances such as abuse and withheld salaries due to reasons such as unfamiliarity with Singapore’s languages and not knowing their labour rights.
“This was the case for Ms Khanifah, a maid from Indonesia who endured six months of horrific abuse at the hands of her employers in 2012. She was sent back to Indonesia just as she was due for a medical check-up, and chose not to tell immigration officers of the abuse, as she was happy to finally escape it. It was only when she returned to her village in Indonesia that her family discovered her injuries and made a report,” he said.
Migrant workers in such cases are caught in a double bind, said Mr Giam.
They often either “choose not to report the wrongdoing” which may result in continuous abuse or a lack of punishment against the perpetrators, or have no option but to stay in Singapore to assist with investigations if they do choose to report.
“While victims who are assisting in investigations are issued with a Special Pass to remain in Singapore, this does not grant them an automatic right to work. They are still required to seek permission from the investigating authorities before working,” said Mr Giam, adding that it is fortunate that in most cases, permission is granted for victims to do so.
However, many employers, he noted, are hesitant to employ domestic workers who are assisting in police investigations. Some victims may be so traumatised by the abuse that they do not wish to risk being in such dangerous situations again, he added.
Many migrant workers, Mr Giam noted, also come from countries “where corruption and abuse of authority is rife”, which “could make them inherently distrustful of the authorities”.
“Some may even need to be assured that police officers in Singapore will not demand a bribe to take up their case,” he said.
Employers may also make—or threaten to make—counter-accusations against them such as accusing them of theft or damaging company property, as seen in the Parti Liyani case where her former employer had reported her to the police for alleged theft, not long after she had threatened to report her illegal deployment to the Ministry of Manpower.
In allowing Ms Parti’s appeal against her conviction and jail sentence of two years and two months, the High Court branded former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong’s family as having “improper motives” against Ms Parti.
The “improper motives” revolved around Mr Liew — Ms Parti’s former employer — and his son Karl Liew’s plans to lodge a police report against her to stop her from notifying MOM regarding the cleaning work she was made to do at Mr Karl’s home at 39 Chancery Lane and his office at Killiney Road.
Justice Chan Seng Onn also ruled that the prosecution had failed to demonstrate that there was no improper motive by Mr Liew and Mr Karl in making the police report against Ms Parti “just two days” after she made an expressed threat to alert the MOM about her illegal deployment to the latter’s residence and office.
In cases where there is no physical abuse but strong elements of coercion or psychological abuse, said Mr Giam, the investigation might end with a warning but no punishment for the employers.
“In all these cases, the end result for the worker will likely be termination of their current employment and repatriation to their home countries,” he said.
Migrant workers who are prematurely repatriated often face colossal repercussions such as “thousands of dollars of debts owed to recruitment agents in their home countries” which would take months or even years to pay “on the back of their low salaries in Singapore”, said Mr Giam.
“At the end of the whole trial, even if the perpetrator is convicted, the victim may not be financially compensated to the full extent of what they have suffered.
“While it is good that there is now a compensation framework for victims, this is not guaranteed, as the perpetrator can escape payment of compensation by serving a jail term in lieu or claiming bankruptcy,” he said.
Migrant workers faced with criminal proceedings against them similarly face loss of income
As demonstrated by the Parti Liyani and Portela Vilma Jimenez cases in which they were accused of theft and had their conviction overturned by the High Court this year, migrant workers who are accused of crimes themselves are similarly unable to work due to an obligation to assist with investigations.
This could be “financially ruinous, as they are often the sole breadwinners of large families back home,” said Mr Giam.
“Ms [Parti] Liyani was arrested on 2 December 2016 and spent almost four years in a shelter managed by the NGO, HOME, while waiting for her case to be concluded. She was fortunate that HOME was able to find someone to post bail of $15,000 for her. Most migrant workers accused of crimes may not able to secure such a bailor,” he stressed.
Migrant workers who claim trial may also not easily have access to criminal legal aid “as they need to pass means and merits tests”, said Mr Giam.
Even if they do find a lawyer, it might be difficult to find a lawyer who would take up their case on a pro bono basis, unlike in Ms Parti’s case where her counsel Anil Balchandani represented her pro bono from trial to appeal and now in her proceedings against prosecutors involved in her case.
Migrant workers accused of crimes not given interpreters during police statement-taking, may adversely impact them in proceedings
On the language barrier aspect, Mr Giam pointed out that migrant workers accused of crimes have faced situations where they were not provided an interpreter when investigating police officers recorded their statements.
In the case of Ms Parti, she was not given a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter and instead was interviewed by a police officer, who took her statement in Malay before translating it and reading it back to her into English.
“During cross examination in court, the IO conceded that there was a difference between Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia, and admitted that he could have understood Ms Parti’s statements in Bahasa Indonesia differently from what she had meant.
“Justice Chan Seng Onn, in his judgment, also said that the likelihood similarly existed that Ms Liyani could have understood the IO’s questions during the interview and the recorded statements read back to her differently from what the IO had meant. He was thus satisfied that there was a reasonable doubt in relation to the accuracy of the translation for two of the statements,” said Mr Giam.
Ms Jimenez in her case was similarly not given a Tagalog interpreter, which her counsels argued might have been detrimental as she was “far from conversant in English”.
This is contrary to what was observed by the District Judge in her decision, namely that the investigating officer at the time did not ask Ms Jimenez in the second statement if she required an interpreter, as she was said to have been able to understand English during the first statement.
“Even though she was interviewed in a language other than a native tongue and was not given any prior notice of the interview, it is remarkable that the crux of the Appellant’s [Ms Jimenez] defence had been fleshed out from the start,” said Ms Jimenez’s lawyers.
Gerald Giam raises questions on outcome of AGC working group on improving court processes involving abused migrant workers
Mr Giam also raised questions on the outcome of the internal working group formed by Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) in 2014 to focus on improving court processes involving abused migrant workers.
The group was convened to explore how to help more migrant domestic workers receive compensation for the losses they incur after stopping work due to fleeing abusive employers, improve court processes involving abused foreign workers, secure medical reports and witness statements more quickly, persuade the courts to fix early hearing dates and expand the use of compensation orders.
“It has been six years since this announcement. What is the outcome of this working group? What were their final proposals and which of them have been implemented?” Mr Giam questioned.
Reduce high recruitment fees, provide migrant workers support system instead of leaving matters entirely to NGOs, says Gerald Giam
In order to make the justice system fairer for migrant workers, either as victims or accused persons, Mr Giam urged the Government to “find ways to reduce the high recruitment fees that migrant workers need to pay agents to find a job in Singapore”.
“If workers don’t feel such a sense of obligation to their employer because of a need to pay back exorbitant fees to recruiters, they will be more likely to report abuse when it happens,” he said.
Mr Giam also reiterated his previous call to set up a jobs portal that advertises all open positions for migrant workers, so that they can search for such positions from their home countries and apply directly without going through intermediaries.
He added that such move towards jobs transparency will cut out the middle-man and reduce the need to pay exploitative fees to recruitment agents.
For workers who choose to make complaints against employers and find themselves without a home and a job, he proposed that support services should be provided, including the provision of basic needs like food and shelter, counselling services and help on understanding their rights.
Such support, Mr Giam stressed, “should not be left entirely to non-government organisations (NGOs)” which have limited resources.
Mr Giam also said that every individual, whether local or foreigner, should have access to legal representation.
“If they cannot afford a lawyer, legal aid should be made available to them. To prevent abuse, means-testing could be done so that only those who are in genuine need will have their legal fees covered,” he noted.
Mr Giam also suggested setting up a fund, if necessary, to ensure that the victims are guaranteed to receive the compensation amount ordered by the court.
“Once the court orders payment of compensation to the victim, the system must ensure that the victim receives their payment. Victims should not be left high and dry just because the convicted person is unable to pay,” he said.