Detecting cases of abuse in migrant domestic workers may not always be a “discernible” task for doctors and requires objectivity, Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang on Monday (8 Mar).
Ms Gan was responding to Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament Gerald Giam, who had asked if there are currently professional and legal consequences for doctors who fail to report success suspected abuse in their patients, and if there are other plans to increase the penalties for not reporting.
He noted that at the moment, the Singapore Medical Council’s medical ethical code only obliges doctors to report suspected abuse if that patient has diminished mental capacity or is a minor.
Ms Gan replied that the Government is currently “working with the medical fraternity to look at how to make it more objective for the doctors to detect and to report suspected cases of abuse”.
“Currently, it is in the form where doctors are required to report if they detect signs of distress or abuse,” she said.
Since 2017, doctors are asked in the six-monthly medical examination form to report to the police or the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) immediately if they spot signs of abuse during the mandatory six-monthly medical examination.
The issue of doctors reporting possible cases of abuse to the authorities came after the harrowing case of Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don, whose doctor had noticed bruises around her eye sockets and cheeks two months before her death but did not flag the injuries to the authorities.
40-year-old Gaiyathiri Murugayan last month admitted to 28 charges including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation and wrongful restraint against then-24-year-old Ms Piang, 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.
Ms Gan had said in a response to Mr Giam’s earlier questions that education, checking in and doubling sanctions against employers are part of a “three-pronged approach” to protect migrant domestic workers against abusive employers.
Ms Gan was responding to Mr Giam’s question on how the Government is educating employers of migrant domestic workers about duties of care and behaviour that may constitute abuse.
The Workers’ Party MP also asked about what options are available to domestic workers and bystanders have should they experience or witness abuse, and what is being done to actively reduce abuse and review such frameworks for improvement.
Ms Gan replied that the Government educates employers on the responsibilities of care towards their migrant domestic workers through employers’ orientation programmes on matters such as the provision of adequate food and rest as well as acceptable accommodation for the migrant domestic workers.
“Employers are also reminded that acts of mistreatment and abuse including threats and physical punishment are not tolerated and there are heavy penalties for offenders,” she said.
Ms Gan added that during the settling-in programme, all newly arrived migrant domestic workers are educated on their rights and channels to seek help if they encounter any well-being issues.
“For example, migrant domestic workers can call the police if they are abused or the hotline set up by MOM or the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) if they have employment difficulties or other wellbeing issues,” she said.
Ms Gan also said that the Government is working with CDE to conduct interviews with first-time domestic workers in their native language within the first few months of employment.
“It is a form of check-in with workers to ensure that they have settled well in their jobs. It also helps us detect problems and cases of abuse early,” she said.
Enhancements were also made to the Penal Code last year to double the punishment against individuals who abuse vulnerable victims, including migrant domestic workers, said Ms Gan.
Touching on several MPs’ queries from last week on measures to prevent migrant domestic worker abuse, Ms Gan said that the Government will make greater use of existing touchpoints with migrant domestic workers, such as enhancing one-on-one interviews also for newly-arrived migrant domestic workers upon starting their work with their employers.
MOM’s partner organisations such as the CDE and FAST can also seek expand their outreach and engagement to strengthen the network of support to migrant domestic workers, said Ms Gan.
“We will work together with the stakeholders to strengthen support for foreign domestic workers and build a culture of respect for them in our homes and in our community,” she added.
Replying to Mr Giam’s question on whether the MOM currently screens prospective employers for potential red flags, such as past incidents of violent behaviour and police reports made against them, Ms Gan said that MOM takes note of employers of migrant domestic workers where past complaints were lodged against them.
“We also take note of employers who frequently change the foreign domestic workers … There is also feedback that we receive on employers, feedback given to us by public members or neighbours. So these are things that we take into account when we assess the suitability of employers for hiring domestic workers,” she added.
Addressing Mr Giam’s question on how domestic workers with no phones or off-days could be able to report abuse, Ms Gan said that MOM does reach out to migrant domestic workers who currently do not have a day off or have a mobile phone principally through one-on-one interviews conducted by the CDE in the workers’ native language.
“These interviews have been very useful in helping us detect signs of distress early,” she said.
Ms Gan said that MOM also relies on members of the public such as neighbours and the community at large to spot cases of mistreatment of migrant domestic workers going forward.
“We are also looking at mandatory off days for domestic workers to be able to interact with the community and to seek help should they need to,” she said.
Redeployment often a means to solve issues between migrant domestic workers and employers: Gan Siow Huang
Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan asked Ms Gan about how MOM can balance the welfare of the migrant domestic worker with the “interests of employers who may be falsely accused by a foreign domestic worker”.
“I received feedback that there are occasions when a foreign domestic worker may not want to work in a particular family because they have to look after the elderly or the house is too big. So they lodge a complaint to their embassy, and at the end of the day, no further action was taken against the employer, and the foreign domestic worker then gets a free transfer out.
“Meanwhile, the employer is stuck because he is not allowed to hire another foreign domestic worker. He’s also stuck in the sense that he has this so-called report made against them,” said Mr Lim.
Ms Gan replied that MOM does receive reports and complaints from employers about migrant domestic workers’ poor conduct and performance, and sometimes instances of “mistreating the people whom they are supposed to help to take care of”.
Typically, she said, MOM will have its investigating officers “look into the facts of the case, which usually involves a series of interviews with both employers and employees, and we look at the evidence to draw a conclusion on what could have caused the problem”.
Such problems, said Ms Gan, often stems from miscommunication or a “poor understanding of what employers are expected to do, what the workers are expected to do, and that’s when we will also step in to clarify with both parties”.
Nonetheless, she said, it is crucial to acknowledge that some migrant domestic workers may have different work capacities, in addition to their diverse backgrounds “with different cultural practices and norms”.
“So, you know, what we want to do is to make sure that foreign domestic workers who are deployed to the households are able to fit well.
“If there is a poor fit, either from the perspective of the foreign domestic worker or from the employer, I think it is best that we try and to adjust, to redeploy the foreign domestic worker to other households instead of … prolonging the problem for both parties,” said Ms Gan.
Chua Chu Kang MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim proposed stepping up the touch points or setting a mandatory requirement for employment agencies to “have some responsibilities throughout” the migrant domestic workers’ contract.
He also suggested putting in place measures for migrant domestic workers to obtain check-ups and treatments beyond physical health, such as psychological treatment and counselling for the workers during their employment in Singapore.
Ms Gan replied that while employment agencies are not compelled by law to check in on the migrant domestic workers, MOM is aware of “some employment agencies that take the extra step in checking with employers as well as the foreign domestic workers” on the workers’ wellbeing.
“We think this is a good practice and there is scope for us look at institutionalising it,” she said. “I think this is certainly an area that we will be interested to pursue.”
Compulsory reporting on doctors’ part regarding migrant domestic workers’ injuries, mandatory off-days for workers crucial, netizens say
Netizens, however, highlighted that doctors are able to tell whether a migrant domestic worker has been abused.
They proposed making it mandatory for doctors to report all detected injuries to MOM, and letting the Ministry decide if the worker had been abused.
One netizen urged the Government to make weekly off-days mandatory and for independent. periodic checks by MOM-appointed agencies to be carried out.
“We need to root out the master-slave mentality with regards to the handling of FDWs,” they said.
One netizen said that instead of promoting the transfer of migrant domestic workers as a means to resolve problems between them and employers, MOM should raise the standards of migrant domestic workers employed in Singapore and “recognise the high costs and effort expended by employers to recruit and train their FDWs”.
Previously, MOM said that it did not receive any complaints or “adverse feedback” from migrant domestic workers who had previously worked for Ms Piang’s employer.
Chelvam is Ms Piang’s first, last and only employer in Singapore.
Charges are pending against Chelvam, who has been suspended from the police force, as well as Gaiyathiri’s mother, 61-year-old Prema Naraynasamy.
In light of the case surfacing in the public eye, MOM released a statement on 24 Feb, stating that Chelvam had employed four other migrant domestic workers before hiring Ms Piang, but had not received any complaints or “adverse feedback” from the workers about Chelvam or his family.
Ms Piang began working for Chelvam’s family on 28 May 2015.
The Ministry added that Ms Piang attended and passed her six-monthly medical examination on 19 January 2016.
She visited the same doctor in May 2016 for a runny nose, cough and swelling on her legs, but MOM said that “nothing adverse was flagged to the authorities’ attention on either occasion”.
According to court documents, the clinic was identified as Bishan Grace Clinic, as reported by CNA.
It was said that two months before Ms Piang’s death, the doctor had noticed bruises around her eye sockets and cheeks, but Gaiyathiri claimed that the helper was clumsy and fell down frequently.
The doctor had suggested further tests on Ms Piang’s swollen legs in case of underlying conditions, but Gaiyathiri rejected his suggestions.
Commenting on this, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told the media that MOM is reviewing how doctors report these medical examinations, highlighting that most employers comply with the requirement of having their workers to attend such check-ups.
“Doctors also have a duty to report to the police or MOM if they are detecting signs of abuse or distress. We have made this point explicit in 2017, and we will have to further strengthen this,” said Ms Teo.
Netizens, however, pointed out that MOM not receiving any complaints or adverse feedback from the four workers does not indicate that they were treated well by the employer, but rather because they had to “suffer in silence”.