Since news broke of the torture and eventual death of a foreign domestic worker (FDW), Piang Ngaih Don (Piang) at the hands of the wife of a former staff sergeant with the Singapore Police Force (SPF), Kevin Chelvam, (Kevin), the public has been left in shock and horror. Not just because of the heinous acts committed on another human being but also because it seemed to have happened under the watch of a police officer.
For a period of close to 10 months until Piang’s death, Kevin’s wife, Gaiyathiri Murugayan (Gaiyathiri) and his mother-in-law physically assaulted Piang almost daily. Piang was also starved of food and rest, and made to shower and relieve herself with the toilet door open. In the last 12 days of her life, she was tied to the window grille at night while being made to sleep on the floor. At the time of Piang’s death on 26 July 2016, she weighed just 24kg, having lost 38 per cent of her body weight since she started working for the family on 28 May 2015.
Further, the SPF said that “Officers of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) are expected to uphold the law and set a good example by maintaining high standards of discipline and integrity” and that the “SPF deals with officers who break the law severely, including charging them in court.”
While it is heartening that the SPF takes the conduct of its officers seriously, this tragic incident has revealed several ills in our society that we have to face.
Gaiyathiri was found by a government psychiatrist to have been suffering from depression and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. This resulted in her being charged with culpable homicide rather than murder. This implies that her mental health had contributed to why she perpetuated such acts of torture.
Yet, mental illnesses such as depression and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder do not appear overnight. There must have been signs of Gaiyathiri’s illness that were either overlooked, ignored or disregarded by those around her.
Could this be due to society’s ignorance of mental illnesses? Are we woefully unaware? Can we do more to educate people on the signs of mental illnesses so that the sufferer can get the help and support they need? Are we providing enough education to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health?
This is fast becoming a situation that we cannot shy away from. What is the point of diagnosing Gayaithiri now after Piang is already dead? An earlier diagnosis could have saved Piang’s life and avoid Gayaithiri’s children having to grow up without a mother.
Migrant Worker Rights
Another clear issue is migrant worker rights. Just look at the fiasco regarding how migrant workers were housed and treated when the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out here. Most Singaporeans were not even aware that this was how migrant workers lived prior to the pandemic. This lack of awareness, and perhaps wilful blindness on the part of some, is not something that we cannot continue to disregard.
Where FDWs are concerned, it isn’t much better. Among other things, they face stigma and a power imbalance. The Parti Liyani case late last year certainly highlighted the harm that unconscious biases can cause.
At that time, members of the public had questioned if authorities and the SPF had assumed Parti’s guilt because she was an FDW. This potential negligence on their parts resulted in Parti’s life being torn apart for over four years as she fought to clear her name without an income.
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) has released a statement setting out the harrowing ordeal of Piang’s abuse and eventual death. It is a sad indictment that this happened in first-world Singapore.
To this day, our FDWs are not permitted to live outside of the home of their employers – something which could greatly reduce the incidences of abuse. FDWs are also excluded from the Employment Act (EA) which regulates overtime pay, working hours, and public holidays. But why are they excluded in the first place? Are they not employees?
Allowing domestic workers to live out of their employers’ homes will assist in the enforcement of the EA.
Beyond that, statistics from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2019 showed that less than 47 percent of employers surveyed in Singapore allow their domestic workers to access their mobile phones outside of working hours.
Without free use of their mobile phones, many FDWs are left isolated not only from their loved ones but without avenues to reach out for help should they need it.
Another rights issue pertains to rest days afforded to FDWs by their employers, or rather the lack of it. Piang was not allowed out of the home by her employer. Unfortunately, this is not strictly illegal as the MOM allows compensation of a day’s wage to replace the weekly rest day.
MOM states on its website that mutual agreement is required between the FDW and employer on which day would be the rest day, or if the rest day is forgone and compensated with a day’s pay.
In this case, whether or not Piang had agreed to the terms of this confinement is anyone’s guess. Though it would be difficult to imagine that she would have agreed given that she is in a foreign land and with no access to family or friends otherwise.
Sadly, Piang is not the first FDW that has been abused and if our laws are not stricter, she will not be the last.
After the death of Piang, there is also the case of Zin-Mar-Oo who jumped to her death from the 18th floor of the Interlace Condo in June 2017.
Before jumping, Zin-Mar-Oo handed a notebook to her friend in which she had written a note asking for help. Her notes showed that she usually ate breakfast between 9.30am and 11.30am, then a small lunch or sometimes nothing at all. For dinner at 9.30pm, she received two slices of bread and a cup of water.
Police investigations in regards to her death appear to be still on-going as there has not been any closure to the case.
HOME volunteer member Khin Lay said to APHEDA, “There is a language barrier and they feel depressed when they do not have a good relationship with the householders,”
“We don’t know how many Burmese maids are locked up in houses and flats in Singapore as we don’t have the power to inspect residences there.
“Burmese maids have to attend a maid course in Singapore for one day when they first arrive in the country.
“As part of that course, the trainer gives them a contact phone number to use when something happens to them, but as soon as the maids arrive home, the householders take away all of their documents and phones.
“Most Burmese maids are not educated and don’t know how to contact someone to ask for help.”
Khin Lay said the “root cause” of the ongoing situation was “Burmese labour agencies and agents that send these maids to Singapore”.
“Most of the labour agents are very greedy. They don’t care about the welfare of their workers; they just care about numbers, because they receive commission on average of S$3500 ($3340) for every maid they supply.”
While the SPF has issued a strong statement to denounce the acts of Kevin, there remain areas where the police do not seem to be publicly accountable. Going back to the Parti Liyani case. At that time, there were clamours for a Committee of Inquiry to be convened to investigate the matter which would have included a public inquiry into how the police dealt with the case at the outset.
Unfortunately, it appeared that the Minister for Law, K Shanmugam shielded the SPF from a public inquiry. The matter was investigated internally without any possibility for public verification. Shanmugam had even appeared to defend the police force by saying that they were overstretched and that he did not wish to overtax them.
An opportunity for accountability was lost.
What Piang’s case shows is that the police are not beyond reproach. Like us, they are human and some are even capable of heinous acts such as these. It is therefore very important for there to be stringent and objective checks and balances to ensure that the police uphold the law and are not a law unto themselves.
In the days of her harrowing abuse, Piang must have felt totally helpless as she endured brutal treatment in the home of an officer of the law.
With Piang’s death, what are the views of Manpower Minister, Josephine Teo?
In a statement on Facebook on Wednesday (25 February), Ms Teo described the entire ordeal as “appalling”. She went on to insist that the government is serious in protecting FDWs and will “let the law run its course” in the case of Piang’s abuse and death, which “should not have happened.”
She also described abuse as “abhorrent”, regardless of who the victims are and that when it involves FDWs, “the more we have to act.”
In her statement, Ms Teo also listed the various safeguards in place to protect FDWs including the settling-in programme for first time FDWs which connects them to NGOs and MOM helplines, orientation programmes for employers, and regular medical examinations of FDWs.
However, despite asserting that “as a community of support to foreign domestic workers, we have to do better,” Ms Teo did not go into details on how MOM or the community might go about ” improving measures to detect abuse”.
Another group that should be held accountable are medical professionals. In the case of Piang, Ms Teo said in a Facebook post that 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,” said the ministry.
The Court had also heard that the doctor also observed bruises around Piang’s eye sockets and cheeks. However, Gaiyathiri has claimed that she fell down frequently due to clumsiness. The employer also rejected the doctors suggestion that further test be done to investigate the underlying conditions of Piang’s swollen legs.
Ms Teo told reporters that the MOM is reviewing how doctors reports these these regular medical examinations of FDWs, adding, “Doctors also have a duty to report to the police or MOM if they are detecting signs of abuse or distress.”
However, when asked if the doctor who examined Ms Piang had breached any rules or would face consequences, Ms Teo merely answered that the victims employers have cases pending in Court.
She also said that she could not comment on the doctor’s level of responsibility in the case, noting that this would be under the purview of the Ministry of Health to look into.
Over-Reliance on Cheap foreign labour
Many prominent economists and opposition politicians have criticised our country’s heavy reliance on cheap foreign labour. Most of the FDWs in Singapore have been hired basically to provide cheap childcare or care for elderly parents.
Why are we not looking at this issue more seriously to see if we can create state-sponsored childcare and centralised state-sponsored healthcare for the elderly?
Singapore is always urging Singaporeans to have more children but yet it does not seem to want to implement any form of state-sponsored childcare?
Instead of coming up with progressive healthcare and childcare policies, the Government appears to continually take the easy way out to rely on cheap labour which in reality is akin to modern slavery.
And before people raise the issue of costs, there are many ways to reduce the current levels of bureaucracy within the civil service to provide the budget for such measures. There just has to be political will.
The issue of the Maid Levy and agent fees
The FDWs face the long issue of having to work for months before they pay off their agent fees incurred for getting a job in Singapore. Since 2015, MOM mandates that Singapore employment agencies (EAs) are allowed to collect no more than 1 month of a worker’s fixed-monthly salary for each year of service, capped at 2 month’ salary. MOM also states that this fee cap is in place to protect vulnerable workers who may not have bargaining powers.
While it sounds nice on paper but in reality, FDWs still pay four to six months in agent fees.
Other than the agent fees that FDWs have to pay for, employers too have to pay the Government a Maid Levy. These levies usually amount to at least half of the salary of the FDW in question. In total, the Government would collect a handsome sum for the employment of FDWs.
Is this why the Government seems hesitant in regulating the FDW situation in Singapore?
Why are we always reacting instead of being proactive?
Everyone is up in arms now because Piang has died in such a horrific way. But why did a death have to happen before we even begin to address the underlying issues? Why are we reacting as opposed to being proactive?
If anything, this re-emergence of the charges against the culprits has brought to the surface many social ills. This is an opportunity to address such ills. Let’s not sweep it under the carpet. That’s been done too many times.