Same old, same old, maid abuse cases are a blight on Singapore

Past cases make clear that current safeguards are inadequate – all the more so in an affluent country that has allowed so many to work here

Gaiyathiri Murugayan pleaded guilty to 28 charges on Feb 23, 2021 for abusing her domestic helper Ms Piang Ngaih Don.PHOTOS: HELPING HANDS FOR MIGRANT WORKERS, LIANHE WANBAO

Ms Piang Ngaih Don came to Singapore in May 2015 as a 22-year-old Myanmarese out of her country for the first time, to work as a domestic maid for Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 40, and her husband Kevin Chelvam, 42.

She died 14 months later in July 2016. The autopsy report counted 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries. Her hyoid bone, which holds the tongue to the neck, was broken, most likely from Gaiyathiri shaking her like a rag doll, according to the forensic pathologist.

This might be all that we would have known of her horrific death except that there was a closed-circuit television camera at the place she worked that recorded how her employers from hell tortured and beat her.

She was slapped, punched and stomped on, pulled up from the ground by her hair, burned with a heated iron and choked.

On one occasion, she was tied to the window grille for 12 consecutive nights and made to sleep on the floor.

Her crime? She had sneaked out of her bedroom at night for a bite.

She must have been always hungry, fed only bread soaked in water and cold food straight from the refrigerator.

Her employers gave her no respite, and even when she showered or used the toilet, they kept the door open so they could see what she was doing.

By the time of her death, she weighed only 24kg, having lost almost 40 per cent of her body weight.

The court hearing on Feb 23 at which Gaiyathiri pleaded guilty to 28 charges and where these ghastly details were revealed shocked and outraged many here, and the Government has promised a thorough review.

Reading the reports, my overwhelming reaction was: Why did it have to take this murderous act to get Singapore to put things right when many of the problems and issues that make foreign domestic maids vulnerable have been known for a long time?

The bigger tragedy is that there have been many other similar cases over the years, every one of them a red flag that, alas, did not raise the alarm sufficiently for firmer action to be taken.

In April 2018, Indonesian maid Sulis Setyowati, then 22, climbed down 15 storeys through the balcony of her employer’s Yishun flat to flee to safety, after having been hit on the face with a mobile phone, kicked on the head and had her hair pulled.

She started climbing down at 2am, taking the rest of the early morning hours to reach the ground floor, so determined was she to escape her tormentors.

Last year, in another case, Mun Sau Yeng was convicted of assaulting Indonesian maid Yuni Dwi Lestari, then 25, by using a meat-pounder to smash her, hitting her about 50 times, according to court documents.

Her problem with the maid? The window was not spotless and there were fingerprint marks on it.

Three days later, she punched Ms Yuni’s mouth 10 times.

In 2019, Linda Seah Lei Sie forced her Myanmar maid Phyu Phyu Mar to pour hot water on herself. She was scalded. When blisters appeared on her scalded body, Ms Phyu was given a needle and told to puncture them.

On another occasion, she was made to drink dirty water mixed with detergent, and was hit on her head with a mobile phone.

Her weight went down from 50kg to 38kg.

All this came on top of her not receiving her salary of $700 a month for the first eight months.

One more example involves what has been described as one of the worst cases by the prosecutor in court: In 2019, Zariah Mohd Ali, 58, was jailed for 11 years for abusing Ms Khanifah, 39, including by hitting her head and mouth with a pestle, striking her left ear with a bamboo pole, stabbing her shoulder with a pair of scissors, slashing her forearm with a chopper and forcefully pushing her left finger back until it broke.

These cases, which I have culled from The Straits Times and other media reports, all ended up in court, with the abusers duly punished with prison sentences.

Justice was done.

(Sentencing is pending against Gaiyathiri, while the cases against her husband and mother Prema S. Naraynasamy are pending in the State Courts).

But Singapore failed to protect the maids in the first place.

When a country allows large numbers of young, poorly educated women from poor families to work here, many away from their homes for the first time, it has a primary duty and responsibility to ensure their safety.

Some might argue that when you have more than 250,000 foreign domestic maids here, it is impossible to ensure that every single one of them is well treated and that there will always be the occasional rogue employer.

Fair point. Indeed, I believe the majority of Singapore employers look after their maids and are decent people.

But it is also precisely because Singapore has allowed so many to work here that it must do even more to ensure their safety, because even if only a small proportion are abused, the actual numbers will be unacceptably large.

If it is not prepared to take on the task, it should not permit so many to work here.

Looking at those past cases, it seems clear that the present safeguards are inadequate, especially over how employers are able to restrict the movement of their maids and their access to friends and family members.

The maid who had to climb down 15 storeys to safety would not have had to do so if she was allowed time off during weekends.

In the case against Zariah, the judge said the employer had “isolated her maid from her friends and family to force her into submission”.

Ms Piang was not allowed to leave the flat and prevented from using her phone.

Under present regulations, maids are entitled to one rest day a week, but if the employer requires her to work on that day, she is paid in-lieu, provided the maid agrees to do so.

This is where the problem begins. Employers have the upper hand on these matters and that is why so many maids end up having to work seven days a week, including those mentioned above.

The law should insist that every maid is off work one day a week and allowed to leave the home, period.

It is inhuman otherwise, least of all in a developed, affluent country like Singapore.

The other issue concerns how the authorities check on the welfare of maids.

The Manpower Ministry has a hotline and says it will do more to interview new maids to check on their well-being.

I do not think this is adequate.

Every new maid should be interviewed within the first three months of employment without their employers’ presence.

This has to be the minimum level of checks when the worker in question is a 20-something, out of her country for the first time and experiencing communication difficulties.

I hope the authorities have also improved their understanding of the problems that both employers and maids face, and have people with the experience and expertise to deal with them.

Singapore started allowing foreign maids in large numbers into the country in 1978, more than 40 years ago, and there should be a wealth of data on the issue.

For example, has a study been done on maids who work seven days a week, on what problems they encounter, and the circumstances under which they have agreed to forgo their rest day?

Are there any insights that have been gathered on the type of employers which maids complain the most about?

What about employers’ complaints against their maids?

Can the results of these studies be shared among Singaporeans so that they too have a deeper understanding of the problem?

Some of the suggestions I have mentioned are also what various non-governmental organisations that support migrant workers have been proposing. These include the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, Transient Workers Count Too and Justice Without Borders.

Their views should be taken seriously.

When the next abuse case turns up, I hope it will not result in another sickening feeling of deja vu.

• The writer is also senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.