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When she came down to meet us for the first time, “she had only a small bag containing her documents,” Karno recalls. “She didn’t even have her clothes and things.”
TWC2 social worker Karno and a volunteer were waiting at the foot of an HDB block of flats to rescue Indonesian domestic worker Suniti. It was already 5pm, but Karno had called the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) earlier to alert them to this and the ministry official agreed to wait past office hours.
“She looked scared,” says Karno, describing the petite woman as he introduced himself to her. This is understandable. She was taking a leap into the unknown, putting her fate in the hands of people she didn’t know. All she had to go on was the assurance given by a fellow domestic worker — let’s call her Yani — that TWC2 was a good organisation and we would be able to help her out of her predicament.
Suniti’s predicament? She had not been paid for two whole years!
And beaten at least twice.
If this escape plan were to fall apart, she might face severe repercussions from an irate employer. She had every reason to be afraid.
Once she was seated in the car, she seemed relieved. As they drove and Karno struck up a conversation, she calmed down further. Things were looking up at last.
At MOM, she finally got a chance to put her case on record. An hour later, she came out of the interview much happier, and when we sent her to our shelter for the night — where she would find a new friend in another domestic worker we were concurrently sheltering — it was almost a different world.
Suniti, 32, is from a village near Semarang in Central Java. She first came to Singapore in November 2012 and the following month was placed with a Malay Muslim family in Singapore’s Sengkang suburb. Her employers — she refers to them as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ (though at TWC2 we know their names) — both work, and Suniti’s daily routine would be to get up at 5am, tend to all house chores and laundry, and care for the two children aged eight and ten.
It was a large household. Staying in the same apartment was another family: Madam’s sister, her husband and their three children. This family also had a domestic helper — Yani. Altogether there were eleven persons in the three-bedroom apartment. Yani, Suniti and the three children by Yani’s employer shared one of the rooms. Suniti had a fold-out mattress on the floor.
Cooking was mostly Yani’s responsibility, but Suniti helped too.
Suniti’s troubles began almost from the day she started the job. Her contracted salary was $450 a month, but except for receiving $53 “pocket money” in December 2012, she received nothing else for months.
The salary plan she showed us (see thumbnail at left) indicated that through the first nine months, she should generally receive $170 (38%) of the monthly salary, with the balance going towards repaying the “loan” — in effect the agency fees. She didn’t get any of the $170 in any event. When her salary was supposed to increase to the full $450 a month from September 2013, she still didn’t get paid.
It was only in 2014, when she pleaded with her employer to send some money back to her family that they remitted about $1,300.
As December 2014 and the end of her contract approached, Yani encouraged Suniti to get help or she might be sent home without any of the salary due to her. (Yani herself had no problems with her employer. “She get her salary,” Suniti would later tell us.) After some thought, Suniti agreed, and Yani placed a call to TWC2’s Karno on the morning of Friday, 14 November.
Karno asked to speak directly to Suniti. “Are you sure you want to leave?” he asked. When she gave an unequivocal yes, he swung into action, organising a volunteer, shelter space for the night and alerting MOM.
In the course of my conversations with Suniti, I learn of at least two occasions when she was slapped by her employer. The first was sometime during her first month in this household. Madam saw her speaking with another domestic worker in the block — it was just a simple smile, hello and goodbye, says Suniti — but Madam immediately took her home and smacked her across the face. Suniti was warned never to speak to anyone outside the home, ever.
She was never given a day off and not allowed a cellphone. The most upsetting thing for Suniti was that she was never permitted to call home. It was extremely distressing. She herself has an eight-year old daughter, a ten-year old son, a mother and a husband in Indonesia, yet was strictly forbidden to contact them.
Once, she was caught attempting to use the public pay phone with assistance from another domestic worker. Again, her employer dragged her home. “She scold me, beat me,” says Suniti.
In the two years, she was allowed only two pieces of underwear. Why it was so important for the employer to control this is a mystery.
On Tuesday, 18 November, Suniti was called to MOM where she received her back pay for the two years. The employer also brought her suitcase in and handed it over.
TWC2 doesn’t consider the settlement document entirely satisfactory, since it does not provide any breakdown to show how the total amount ($6,075) was arrived at. Our back-of-the envelope calculation indicates that this amount is still a few hundred dollars short. Also, Suniti’s contract was dated (December 2012) just a few weeks before the new rule mandating a weekly day off came into effect. This meant that she could not claim extra pay for all the Sundays that she worked.
Nonetheless, Suniti is happy that her ordeal is finally over, and that she got all the money she might once have thought she’d never see. Grateful for the help she received, “I give $50 to TWC2,” she says. “To help other worker like me.”
She’s back with her family now. She flew home on 24 November.
MOM’s case handling with respect to domestic workers tends to move faster than with male workers. Within five days, Suniti’s case was closed. Another interesting difference is that where male workers are concerned, MOM offers no help in recovering any salary arrears that are more than twelve months old, citing in-house policy. But Suniti got back all 24 months of salary.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our