On Tuesday (23 February), a 40-year-old local woman who abused a domestic worker from Myanmar to death pleaded guilty to 28 charges including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation and wrongful restraint.
Gaiyathiri Murugayan admitted to starving, abusing, and chaining then-24-year-old Piang Ngaih Don, who was under her employment for 10 months.
Shocking footage of Ms Piang’s ordeal — which was played in court — was captured by CCTVs installed around the flat by Gaiyathiri and her policeman husband, Kevin Chelvam to monitor the domestic worker and their two children.
Due to the constant abuse, the domestic worker died on 26 July 2016 and weighted only 24kg. She lost 38 percent of her body weight since she started working with the family on 28 May 2015.
This recent case shocked the nation due to the extent of the torture, which include her employers slapping, punching, kicking and stomping on her. The court also her that Gaiyathiri had hit the domestic worker with various objects such as a metal ladle and plastic bottle, burnt her forehead with a hot iron, and pulled her by her hair like a ragdoll.
Responding to this case, film producer at Lianain Films Lynn Lee took to Facebook on Thursday (25 February) to share her personal encounter with the domestic worker’s family members in her home in Dimpi Village in Chin State, Myanmar back in 2016.
Ms Lee visited the domestic worker’s family to shoot a documentary about underage domestic workers in Singapore
In her post, the film producer said that Piang was initially working as a construction labourer before being approached by an agent for a job opportunity in Singapore. The young mother of one soon left the country to work here and her family only got to hear from her a year later.
“Piang, whose employers had insisted she worked with no rest days or a mobile phone, had somehow managed to call them. She said she wanted to go home. Two weeks later she was dead,” said Ms Lee.
While domestic workers in Singapore are entitled for one rest day a week, but employers can cancel this in exchange for financial compensation. This kind of arrangements are usually beneficial to both parties – employers get the help they need, while workers get the extra money, said the film producer.
However, it is difficult for young woman like Piang to say no to this due to the power imbalance, Ms Lee noted.
“They’re new to the country, typically poorly educated, and probably heavily indebted. Every domestic worker I’ve spoken to say their agents charged them hefty recruitment fees.
“To pay, they would have to let their agent take the first six to 12 months of their salaries. Piang must have been under pressure to start work as soon as soon as possible, to reduce her debt as quickly as she could,” she explained in her post.
As such, Ms Lee opined that the Myanmar national might have been alive today if she was permitted the one off day. This is because she might be able to speak to a friend about the abuse or even seek help from the police.
“Instead, stuck in a house with no one to turn to, she was starved, kicked, burnt with a hot iron, tied to a window, flung around like a rag doll, and hit on the head and neck… Piang must have spent her last days in agony. When she died, she weighed just 24kg. What sort of monster treats another human this way?” Ms Lee expressed.
She continued, “Maybe they (her employers) saw her as a lesser being. Poor and unworthy of respect, let alone kindness.”
While Piang was not cared for in Singapore, Ms Lee said that she was very much loved in her village. In fact, villagers wept as they spoke about the young girl and relatives asked Ms Lee’s team to find out the actual truth.
Piang was underage to work in Singapore
In her post, Ms Lee also noted that she got to know that Piang has not turned 23 (the minimum age) when she was brought to work in Singapore as a domestic worker.
“The morning before we left, Piang’s family showed us a cross they’d made to mark her grave. Painted on it were her name and birthdate. June 13, 1992. It was then that we realised that when Piang left home, she was a month shy of turning 23 – the minimum age for domestic workers in Singapore. Her agent had bribed an immigration official to alter the date of birth on her passport,” she said.
She added, “Piang didn’t know the rules, of course. But her agent did, and didn’t care. If only they’d waited until she was the right age, Piang would have arrived a month later. In all likelihood, she would have gone to work for a different family. She might still be alive. But someone else would have taken her place.”
Ms Lee also expressed that her employers treated Piang with “unimaginable cruelty” and they did so thinking they will not be caught in Singapore.
“It was impossible that they didn’t know they were doing something wrong – one of the alleged perpetrators is in fact, an ex-cop. And yet they did what they did. And the only reason I can think of is that they believed they would get away with it – because no one in Singapore pays much attention to domestic workers.”
If that’s not all, the film producer also said that while the doctor who examined Piang when she was brought to the clinic earlier in January that year for other medical issues was concerned enough to ask questions, but was not concerned enough to push for further checks.
The court heard that Piang visited Bishan Grace Clinic on 19 January 2016 for a runny nose, cough and swelling on her legs. However, the doctor who attended her noticed bruises around the domestic worker’s eye sockets and cheeks, but Gaiyathiri claimed that the victim fell down frequently as she was clumsy.
To make it worse, Gaiyathiri turned down the doctor’s suggestions for further tests on the victim’s swollen legs in case of underlying conditions.
Additionally, Ms Lee also highlighted that even the domestic worker’s agent, who called her twice, didn’t suspect any problems as well.
“The Ministry of Manpower says there are safeguards in place to take care of domestic workers. But the truth is, whatever measures we have right now just aren’t good enough. Domestic workers are not even covered under Singapore’s Employment Act.
“And without more checks and balances, without mandatory rest days, without a system that recognises that they deserve better protection, without a fundamental shift in our attitude, anyone in Piang’s position would have probably suffered the same fate,” she concluded.