“At the [agency] office, every morning, we must clean the office,” says Mary Grace Pescador, 31, a domestic helper from the Philippines, “and from 10am to 1am — i.e. past midnight — we have to stand. As punishment.”

The six women were being punished by their employment agent because the employers they had been assigned to sent them back.

Mary Grace started the interview confident of her rights — she is smiling in the photo above. But after going through with her the details of her predicament, she gradually realised from her own telling how impossible her situation really was and began to cry. She is stuck in Singapore, no job, no income, while her own family — she has a husband and two sons — is in crisis. For confidentiality reasons, we won’t discuss her family situation, except to say that she is desperate to get home to help sort things out.

She had first come to Singapore 23 May 2013 and assigned to an employer in Pasir Panjang on 26 May. Almost immediately she fell sick, with gastric pains. She speculates that this may be the reason why her employer discontinued her eleven days later.

“After that, employer send me back to agent,” and the punishment began. There were five other domestic workers in the same boat, made to stay standing in a corner fifteen hours a day. “Also, many times, the agent scold us, saying ‘All of you stupid’ and like that.”

“What about meals?” TWC2 asks.

“Can sit down short while to eat. After that must stand again.”

“Are you allowed to go to the toilet?”

She thinks for a while and then recollects that “nobody go. Nobody even dare to ask.”

She adds, “Some girls sent to clean three houses belonging to agent and his relatives.”

After nearly two weeks of this, the six of them decided to lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 20 June 2013. Mary Grace’s work permit has been cancelled and has been put on a Special Pass, and housed by MOM in its Keramat Road Dormitory (pictured above), located in the middle of nowhere off Admiralty Road. A condition of the Special Pass is that she is not allowed to work. In effect, she must languish here without any control over her own life.

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Stuck here, no end in sight

As at the interview date (middle July 2013), four of the six have since been repatriated to the Philippines. Mary Grace and one other are being made to stay on. TWC2 tried to piece together why.

It turns out that the crucial difference was probably about money. It’s like this: Domestic workers come to Singapore with their training expenses, airfare, etc, paid by agents and/or employers, with the sums incurred (including agent’s  profit) treated as a loan from the worker. This loan is repaid by deducting nearly all the worker’s salary for roughly the first eight months of work.

Each of the six thus owed the agent big sums of money, not having worked long enough to pay off the debt. The four who were repatriated agreed to sign IOUs promising to repay the amount owed to the Filipino counterpart of the Singapore employment agent, said Shelley Thio, TWC2 executive committee member who has been trying to help them. Mary Grace and one other didn’t want to sign the IOUs and their cases are now at an impasse.

Yet, holding them on Special Passes, and not allowed to work, hardly contributes to solving the problem.  The solution must take the form of allowing them to work, but not via their agent — since their relationship with their agent has deteriorated — so that they can earn enough to pay back the loan.

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Temporary Jobs Scheme

MOM sometimes offers workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own a six-month placement on its Temporary Jobs Scheme (TJS), but the scheme doesn’t work as well as it should. Potential employers often see domestic workers on TJS as “trouble makers”, so agents take a longer time to place them.

To avoid the cost of housing and feeding the worker while looking to place her, agents are known to demand that the worker pay for her own accommodation and food. Indonesian domestic worker Karini once told TWC2’s Shelley, “Agent tell me that I have to pay for house and makan [meals] because I stay in agent’s house.”

Many domestic workers hold the opinion that agents tend to charge a relatively hefty fee for “transfer”. As Tet, a domestic helper, described to Shelley, “Most ladies don’t want to work under TJS.  [The agent] charge two to three months fee.  If we work one month or two months and then we not happy, we get sent back to Keramat [dormitory] and we don’t get paid.  So we work two to three months for free.” Needless to say, the same can happen if the employer decides to terminate the TJS worker early and send her back to the agent.

MOM says that agents should not be charging two to three months’ fee. In a reply to a query by TWC2, a senior officer from the ministry said, “Employment Agencies are allowed to charge fees of up to 50% of the FDW’s [foreign domestic worker’s] monthly salary for employment under the TJS scheme. If the FDW is charged more than 50% of her monthly salary, she may lodge a report with the Employment Agency Licensing Branch and we will follow up with the complaint.”

TWC2 has also been advised by MOM that all licensed employment agents (Link to MOM’s list) are allowed to assist domestic workers with finding a TJS job, though whether a particular agent would want to do so is another matter. Moreover, the duration of employment depends on the nature of the case and is not rigidly fixed at six months. “The FDW can discuss the various options available to them with their case officer,” said the senior officer at MOM.

Generally, MOM only offers TJS to those workers whose agents or employers have committed an offence. If in Mary Grace’s case, MOM does not find a strong enough case of wrongdoing on the agent’s part, where does that leave Mary Grace?

It is also important to recognise that employers resist having TJS maids, so finding a position for one is not easy. A better solution would be to expand the available TJS jobs to include low-skill service industry jobs, such as in restaurants, commercial cleaning firms, hotels, hospitals or nursing homes and allow those employers to hire directly without agents.