The suffering and eventual death of the late Piang Ngaih Don, a domestic worker from Myanmar at the hands of her employer in 2016 is “appalling” and “should never have happened”, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Wednesday (25 Feb).
Following the news of Ms Piang’s case and renewed public outcry over the lack of protections for migrant domestic workers in Singapore, Mrs Teo took to Facebook to address the matter and express her condolences to the victim’s family.
“Although it happened nearly five years ago, I can only imagine the anguish her family endured,” she said, adding that her team ”had reached out to her family to provide support and will remain available for assistance”.
The Minister said that the Government takes the protection of migrant domestic workers seriously and will let the law run its course in Ms Piang’s case.
“Abuse is abhorrent, whoever the victims are,” said Mrs Teo. “When it involves FDWs, all the more we have to act.”
Mrs Teo went on to outline some of the safeguards that have been implemented over the years such as the settling-in programme for first-time migrant domestic workers, which connects them to the MOM hotline and NGOs which they can reach out to for help, as well as orientation programmes for employers to educate them on their roles and responsibilities.
The MOM works with an extensive network of NGOs who engage with and look out for migrant domestic workers in Singapore, she noted.
Touching on Ms Piang specifically, Mrs Teo noted that the Myanmar national had attended the settling-in programme and was in Singapore for less than a year when she died.
Mrs Teo said that Ms Piang had been examined by doctors on at least two occasions between six and 10 months of her employment.
Additionally, her employment agency had also spoken to her on two separate occasions.
“Sadly, on none of these occasions were signs of her distress picked up,” said Mrs Teo.
A statement by the MOM also noted that on her second doctor’s visit about 10 months into her employment, the same doctor that cleared her at her six-monthly medical examination observed a runny nose, cough and swelling on her legs.
“Nothing adverse was flagged to the authorities’ attention on either occasion,” MOM said on Tuesday.
The MOM, said Mrs Teo, will continue its review even as the case is tried in court.
The review would include the threshold for blacklisting an errant employer and improving abuse detection measures, said the Minister.
“As a community of support to foreign domestic workers, we have to do better,” she urged, as she appealed to the public to help as well.
“We can’t do it alone … If you are aware of any ill-treatment of foreign domestic workers, reach out to Centre for Domestic Employees or FAST for help.”
“There’s no place for FDW abuse in Singapore,” she concluded.
It was revealed in MOM’s statement that a full insurance payout was made to Ms Piang’s next-of-kin at the time of her death in 2016, which consisted of the full death benefit, repatriation costs, and special gratuity payment.
“The Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) had also made a donation to her family and facilitated her brother’s visit to Singapore,” it added.
MOM said that Ms Piang had started working for policeman Kevin Chelvam — the husband of Gayathiri Murugayan, the woman standing trial for culpable homicide of Ms Piang, among other charges — in May 2015. It was her first time working in Singapore and Mr Chelvam was her first employer.
In the first six months of her employment with the family, Mr Chelvam had relayed the family’s dissatisfaction with Ms Piang’s purported work performance to the employment agency.
The agency had offered to replace Ms Piang multiple times, but Mr Chelvam refused.
It was during this time that the agency spoke to Ms Piang on two different occasions “but did not pick up on any issues”, said the MOM.
“Mr Chelvam and his family members had previously employed four other FDWs and MOM had not received any complaints or adverse feedback from them,” the Ministry added.
“MOM will intensify our efforts to reach out to and interview all new FDWs about their well-being, and also engage with healthcare providers to see how we can support them to identify cases of possible abuse,” the statement read.
In the comments section of Ms Teo’s post, netizens said that the current measures are inadequate.
One commenter said that the Ministry should use migrant domestic worker levies to “fund a proper agency which checks on them very regularly at the beginning”.
“Agencies should also be taken to task for failure to ensure maids are safe in SG. Lack of duty of care,” they said.
Another commenter pointed out that allowing migrant domestic workers to be paid in lieu of an off day “is very dangerous for them as they are trapped n completely cut off from help and society” especially when they are not given a phonee.
“Some DWs are locked up without keys too. How can they call for help if they are abused? No phone how to call police?” They said.
HOME reiterates call to allow domestic workers to live separately from employers
The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) today said that Ms Piang’s isolation is not uncommon among domestic workers it has helped, particularly in the first few months of their employment, HOME said that such practices “make domestic workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation”.
Allowing domestic workers the choice to live separately from their employers will “make them less vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, and help regulate their working hours”, the organisation said.
HOME noted that at present, domestic workers are currently excluded from the Employment Act (EA), which regulates overtime pay, working hours, and public holidays.
Allowing domestic workers to live out of their employers’ homes will assist in the enforcement of the EA.
While a weekly day off was legislated in 2012, the law allows employers to pay workers in lieu of that day off.
Guaranteeing weekly rest days in law will reduce domestic workers’ susceptibility to abuse, by facilitating timely recourse to help, said HOME.
The organisation stressed that more needs to be done to protect domestic workers using strong legislation and pre-emptive measures.
“Domestic workers are recognised by our criminal law as vulnerable victims. Their abusers face enhanced punishments.
“However, by that time, the domestic worker would have already been subject to the abuse, with serious and often long-term impact on her physical and mental well-being,” said HOME.
HOME also urged medical professionals who encounter domestic and migrant worker patients showing signs of abuse to proactively take measures such as history-taking independently of employers, and flagging warning signs to the authorities, medical social workers, or organisations that assist migrant workers.
“While there are existing interview mechanisms for first-time domestic workers, we believe that these checks should be done consistently, in the absence of employers, for all domestic workers,” said the organisation.