The Ministry of Manpower has accused TWC2 of publishing a “grossly untruthful account” relating to Indonesian domestic worker Wahyuni (see our earlier article here). This quote was contained in a story published in The New Paper on 8 March 2015 and archived on AsiaOne. See here and here.

Transient Workers Count Too stands by our story as we will explain in greater detail below. The details presented in this long article will serve to show readers the situation as experienced by the domestic worker.

MOM may insist on standing by their version, but if a gap opens up between what we know to be the real account and what MOM has in its records, then the question that may need to be asked is this: What is it about MOM’s processes that the ministry is unable the unearth or understand the real facts?

There are several sentences in the newspaper story attributed to MOM that TWC2 feels need to be rebutted strenuously. We will do so below. We have at our disposal four audio recordings:

Audio recording #1: A brief conversation between TWC2’s Shelley Thio and Wahyuni done through the fence of the house. It was made about a week before the maid decided to leave.

Audio recordings #2 and #3: Between Wahyuni and TWC2’s Shelley, but immediately after Wahyuni ran out of the house on 14 December 2014 and a little later when she became calmer.

Audio recording #4: Made on 18 December 2014 when Shelley attended a meeting in which the following persons were present: Wahyuni, the female employer (which we referred to as Belle in our earlier article), the male employer, and a staff member of the employment agency. This is quite a long recording.

All these recordings have been transcribed and translated and we have invited representatives of independent media to listen to them so that they can be confident that the transcriptions are accurate.

We also have a transcript of an SMS exchange between Wahyuni and TWC2’s Noorashikin, 8 March 2015.

Lastly, Noorashikin has also spoken over the phone to Wahyuni’s husband in Indonesia. He corroborated several important details that Wahyuni provided.

The remarkable thing about these four audio recordings, the SMS exchange and the phone conversation with Wahyuni’s husband is how consistent Wahyuni’s story is. Our recordings show that while, as in the nature of spoken conversation, she may wander off-topic in her answers once in a while, nowhere does she contradict what she had said on a previous occasion. Moreover, our fourth recording also includes the employer’s voice, and at a few places, it is the employer herself whom we hear confirming what Wahyuni has claimed.

There are points on which Wahyuni does not give clear answers; she may be a little muddled herself as to what her rights are. This however is totally understandable: here is a young woman virtually cut off from the world for over two years, feeling extremely disempowered. This is the context in which any intelligent person would weigh the claims and counterclaims. For a party like MOM to tell the newspaper that she had “specifically agreed to a salary safekeeping arrangement” (the newspaper’s words) is to ignore context. A fair and holistic appraisal of Wahyuni’s situation requires one to take into account the power imbalance between employer and employee, especially in this instance when other facts (e.g. cutting off communication, not let out of the house) are known. Wahyuni had no realistic possibility of telling her employer she did not agree to a “safekeeping arrangement” if that was what her employer proposed. She was in no position to give fully-informed, freely-decided consent to anything, and therefore the prima facie position must be that any disadvantageous position she was found to be in (e.g. lack of prompt monthly payment of salary) has to be read as an abuse of power.

Moreover, it is easy enough to open a bank savings account for an employee, and have her salary creditted into the account on a regular basis. Many employers do this.

In addition, Wahyuni’s actions should also be given weight. She did complain of abuses in the few opportunities that she had; how else would her case have come to TWC2’s attention? She did choose to flee the employer’s house. We did not enter the house; she came running out of it. Why would she complain and flee in the first place if there were no infringements on the part of the employer as MOM says? Yet, as  the newspaper wrote:

… from interviews done, MOM ascertained that “no offence has been alleged by Wahyuni to be committed by her employer”.)

It sounds as if MOM’s discovery process is flawed.

There are a few specific quotes attributed to MOM in the newspaper report that cry out for more detailed rebuttal.

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Statement that The New Paper attributes to MOM:

“At no time did Wahyuni indicate that she was confined by her employer against her will in the house.”

Shelley and Noorashikin came close to the gate several times to try to communicate with Wahyuni. Says Shelley, “In all my visits to see Wahyuni, the gate was padlocked. Wahyuni told me that she does not have the key, and that she is locked when they go out.”

This is corroborated in the SMS exchange that took place more than two months later.

TWC2 Noor: Apa yang kamu terangkan pada MOM tentang kebebasan mu? (What did you explain to MOM about your freedom?) Kamu terangkan tentang kamu dikunci di rumah kalau majikan mu keluar ke greja? (Did you tell them that that they locked you up in the house when they go out?)

Wahyuni: Dia blang ak drumah suruh kerjakan tgas aku. dan smua pintu d tutup (They [not clear who] say I am at home to finish off my chores and that the doors were closed.)

Noor: Jadi itu yang ditulis di surat peryataan? (So that was written in the statement?)

Wahyuni: Ya … (Yes…)

Noor: MOM ada tanya sama ada kunci ditinggalkan ama mu atau dibawa majikan? (Did MOM ask you whether the house keys are with you or with employers?) Maaf ya ada dua tiga lagi soalan (Sorry, I have two three more questions.) Bila kamu wawancara majikan yang dulu ada sama kamu? (Was your employer with you when you were interviewed?)

Wahyuni: Kunci tdk pernah dtggal kan aku di bwa majikan sya jg minta maaf. Majikan tdak ada. (The house keys were never left with me. They bring it with them when they go out. I also apologise [in reference to my apology for asking so many questions]. My employer wasn’t with me [during the interview with MOM].)

Noor: Tentang hal kunci ini ada dicatat di surat peryataan? (Did MOM note this [the keys] in the statement?)

Wahyuni: Ya… (Yes… )

TWC2 would add however that MOM does not provide a copy of a worker’s signed statement to the worker, so Wahyuni would not actually have a copy of her statement at the time she was texting with Noorashikin. TWC2 holds the view that MOM should always provide a copy to whoever makes a statement, as a matter of fairness and good practice.

Another thing: Locking a worker inside a home is a very reckless act.  What if there is a fire?

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Another statement that The New Paper attributes to MOM:

“She was neither mistreated, abused, nor did she allege she was confined against her will. Wahyuni merely wanted to terminate her employment contract to return to Indonesia.”

The question of confinement has been dealt with above. Below we will deal with mistreatment. Mistreatment comes in multiple forms: in this case we can identify insufficient food, making her pay for her own food however basic (i.e. coffee, bread, Milo, instant noodles) and toiletries, oppressively tight limitations on her contacts with family, salary unpaid and hongbaos seized from her.

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Insufficient food

As our earlier article pointed out, the case came to us from a third party through the news website TR Emeritus. In the footnote to TR Emeritus’ mirroring of our article, the editor there noted that the original email from a member of the public (a person the editor was acquainted with) said this: “For two years cannot leave the house, no pay, got beaten, eating only plain bread. Can get someone to check out on this case?”

In other words, despite what MOM is suggesting, it is not just TWC2 reporting that she had insufficient food. Others had either observed or heard from her the same. It is strange that MOM takes the view that there is no regulatory infringement here.

In the audio recording #1 — a brief conversation across the fence in the week before she fled, we hear this:

TWC2’s Shelley: OK, what problem?

Wahyuni: Ya [She seems to misunderstand Shelley’s question to mean whether she has any problem]

Shelley: No off day?

Wahyuni: Kalau pukul no. Only makan itu kalau siang bee hoon kalau ada sisa nasi malam kasi makan nasi. Kalau enggak ada saya makan roti. Tapi saya makanan beli sendiri macam coffee, roti itu saya beli. Kalau uang udah dua tahun belum di kasi uang. (If beating, no problem. Only food. For lunch sometimes bee hoon. If there is leftover rice from the night before, I get to eat rice. If not, I eat bread. But I have to pay for my own food like coffee, bread I pay for it. As for salary, I haven’t been paid for two years.)

In audio recording #2, we hear this:

Shelley: You makan how? So skinny?

Wahyuni: Makankan morning bread…dua..two. Afternoon I eat bread that I pay for myself. Coffee, sabun, keperluan saya saya beli sendiri. Dia tidak kasi terus aku bilang udah ngak apa saya beli sendiri kalau mam tak kasi. Wang pun enggak di kasi. (Morning I eat bread..two. Afternoon, I eat bread that I paid for myself . Coffee, soap, things I need I buy myself [I’ve had to pay for myself]. They [employer] did not supply me so I told them it’s okay I pay for it if mam don’t want to give. My salary also they never give me.)

Shelley: Cannot have phone ah? Phone cannot?

Wahyuni: Cannot. Uang pun ngak di kasi. (Cannot. Money also never give.)

In recording #4, part of the conversation turned to where Wahyuni’s possessions were after she left the house. But there is a brief mention by the employer of “biscuits”, “cocoa” and “Milo”, the cost of which she wanted to deduct from Wahyuni’s salary:

Wahyuni: Itu tadi di plastic putih… semua plastic putih. (in the white plastic bag…all the items in white plastic bag)

Female employer: Ya my house ada banyak itu plastic putih. (yes, my house many white plastic bags.) I go back and find for that one OK. Then come every time you ask mam buy…ini semua ( it’s all here) [showing receipts] NTUC buy biscuits, buy what ah these all the bills. OK? We always write ah what you want. I buy, it’s all here… what cocoa drinks you want it’s all here. All I record. This is [receipts] for 2013 and this [receipts for 2014] it’s all here. Some of the bills I didn’t keep so in fact I am charging you less. You know sometimes you buy more than this. OK? Your four Milo ya cannot put inside so I put two outside so mam don’t owe you anything ah… ok then this one you buy one t shirt and one pants…$44.

Three months later, in the SMS exchange with TWC2’s Noorashikin. Wahyuni remains consistent in her account:

Noor: Di peryataan apa yang ditulis tentang makanan mu? (What was written in the statement regarding food?)

Wahyuni: Makan ada sit tp ak beli sendiri mjikan yg beli tpi d potong gajih aku stiap bulan. (I had food but I had to buy my own. My employer bought for me but take it out of my salary every month.)

the_lawParagraph 1 of Part 1 of the Fourth Schedule of Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (Work Passes) Regulations is very clear that food must not only be adequate but also the costs of food should be borne by the employer:

The employer shall be responsible for and bear the costs of the upkeep and maintenance of the foreign employee in Singapore. This includes the provision of adequate food as well as medical treatment.

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Restriction on movement

The second aspect of mistreatment that Wahyuni’s case surfaces is that of restriction on her movement. Besides the matter of having no key to the padlock, and the dangerous practice of locking someone inside the house when others have gone out, there was the rather strange practice by the employer of buying things on her behalf (from high-end stores like Robinson’s and Isetan) and then deducting the expenses from Wahyuni. Why not let the worker have her rest day so she can buy the things she wants at bazaars?

In audio recording #4:

Employer: See.. and she says I confine her? I take her out!

Agency staffer [to Wahyuni]: Mam ada bawak kamu pergi shopping ke tak? (did your mam [employer] take you shopping?)

Wahyuni: Ada… (She did)

Agency staffer: Tapi kamu bilang mam tak bawa kamu keluar? (then why you complained your mam confined you?)

Wahyuni: Itu kan Hari Raya… (I went out with her only during Hari Raya)

Agency staffer: Jadi hari biasa tak bawaklah? (So on regular days you never go out with her?)

Wahyuni: Enggak. (No)

Agency staffer: Only Hari Raya…. Ini [referring to receipt] Robinson’s. Beli apa Robinson’s? ada tak sama mam? (this [referring to receipt] Robinson’s. What did you buy at Robinson’s? Were you with mam?) 

Wahynui: Kan sama auntie bukan sama mam (I was with auntie and not mam)

Female employer: No… didn’t you point to me and say “mam I want to buy this this this”?

Wahyuni: Ya saya kan enggak ikut mam. Saya never follow buy this. (I never follow mam. I never follow buy this.) Mam only show me photo kamera the handphone. Saya never see [in person] only see gambar inikan. (Mam only show me photo on handphone camera. I never see [in person] only see photo.) Mam buy, dua terus kasi saya bila pulang. Saya enggak follow Robinson’s. (Mam bought, two [items of clothing] and you passed to me when you returned. I didn’t follow you.)

Female employer: Okay maybe Robinson’s you never go. Anyway, I show you ah. You check ah…you buy your baju Isetan ah OK…$35.91 OK?

Then the transcript records the employer changing the subject and going back to listing and justifying her deductions.

In any case, whether the employer takes the domestic worker out is not the point. It does not substitute for giving the worker a rest day, where she is free to spend her time the way she wishes and go where she pleases.

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Restriction on contact with family

A third aspect of mistreatment is the severe limitation placed on Wahyuni’s contact with her husband and family. In the 25 months she was working with this employer, she was allowed to call home only an estimated five times. On each occasion, the employer limited the calls to just ten minutes, personally intervening when the ten minutes were up to cut off the call. Wahyuni’s husband corroborated this when we spoke to him separately. He also corroborated the estimate of five calls in over two years.

Moreover, Wahyuni had no access to a mobile phone of her own, and the phone number of her husband was kept by the employer. In order to initiate a call to her husband, Wahyuni had to ask her employer to retrieve the number and dial it for her, with no certainty that the employer would agree to the request. Naturally, Wahyuni would fear that making the request too often might lead to disapproval and possibly punitive action. Psychological abuse of this nature and deprivation of contact is a clear form of mistreatment; it is also considered an indicator of human trafficking.

Wahyuni’s husband mentioned to Noor that while Singapore-initiated calls were summarily cut at the 10-minute point, he could call back from Indonesia even after the cut-off. It would be very costly for him, and in any case, he’d be concerned about getting Wahyuni into trouble with her employer.

From audio recording #2:

TWC2’s Shelley: Cannot have phone ah? Phone cannot?

Wahynui: Cannot. Wang pun ngak di kasi. (Cannot. Money also never give.)

Shelley: Letter also cannot?

Wahyuni: ….

Shelley: Why? They beat?

hongbao_3415Wahyuni: I don’t know. Cannot lah… everything they take. (I don’t know [why] cannot lah…everything they take.) Money dari Indo also they take. (Money [rupiahs I had with me] from Indonesia also they take.) Last time kalau dapat ang pow chinese new year kana da dia take juga. (Last time, if some people give me “ang pow” for Chinese New Year also they take.) Cumaka kalau saya mahu beli itu, saya tulis dia beli in. Saya no pegang money. Jadi saya kalau mahu talipon jugak susah sama keluarga kan. Saya sudah bilang sama saya mahu pulang tapi enggak bisa pulang. (If I need to buy anything, I will write down and she [employer] will buy for me. I don’t keep any money with me. So if I want to call home also difficult. It is difficult for my family. I told them [employer] I want to go home but they don’t let me.)

That the employer was keeping Wahyuni’s husband’s telephone number can be clearly observed from what happened at the mediation session at the Employment Agency on 18 December. Even though Wahyuni was now safe, she couldn’t inform her husband until the employer passed the number to her.

Wahyuni: Ya. Saya mahu telefon husband dan…[muffled] (Yes. I want to call my husband and…)

Shelley: Oh ya! She doesn’t have her husband’s phone number. [To Employer] Do you have the number? She said that you have the husband’s telephone number. She wants to call her husband. Do you?

[Sound of paper being taken out of wallet/purse – employer hands over number to Shelley]

Shelley [to employer]: Thank you.

Shelley [to Wahyuni]: Write down your husband’s telephone number

[sound of paper rustling]

[sound of Wahyuni mouthing numbers under her breath as she wrote down her husband’s number on paper]

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Salary owed

According to law, salary must be paid each month. MOM appears to take the line that Wahyuni “agreed” to her employer keeping her salary for her. As discussed in a section above, this is not a reasonable interpretation once there is an appreciation of the power imbalance between employer and employee, especially an imbalance that is plainly enforced through restrictions on movement and contact, Also, as argued above, the starting position in the light of such indicators is that no claimed “agreement” can be considered to be freely given.

More specifically, Wahyuni did tell people around that she was not paid her salary. This includes whoever the person was who then passed the information through TR Emeritus to TWC2. The very first email alert that TR Emeritus received and passed on to TWC2 included the statement: “For two years cannot leave the house, no pay …” It clearly indicates that the worker was aggrieved that she was not getting her salary. Between a reading of context and these specific reports, it would be incredible (except perhaps to MOM) that Wahyuni had freely agreed to the employer “safekeeping” her salary.

In any case, it is trite law that private contract cannot be valid when it violates written law — in this case, the law that requires salary to be paid monthly. For MOM, tasked as regulator, to have such a poor understanding of employer-employee dynamics and such a poor grasp of law is somewhat embarrassing.

There was one instance when, on the worker’s request, $2,000 was remitted to her husband.

From audio recording #1 (conversation through the fence):

Wahyuni: Cannot go home

TWC2’s Shelley: Got money give?

Wahyuni: Money give only $2,000

Shelley: $2 every month? [Slip of tongue: she meant $2,000]

Wahyuni: Enggak. Maksudnya not every month kasi gaji then saya di kasi uang Indonesia kirm $2000 Singapore jadinya uang only… [voices in the background].  (No. I mean, I don’t get paid every month. They gave me $2000 Singapore dollars to remit to Indonesia so…)

The conversation was cut off at this point. Wahyuni feared that she had been seen talking to someone outside.

Above, readers would have noted a part of another transcript in which Wahyuni said that the initial Indonesian rupiah she had with her when she joined employment, and the Chinese New Year hongbao money she received were seized from her.

Next is a relevant part of the mediation session, beginning with the employer tallying up the deductions for purchases made for Wahyuni:

Female employer: OK, that adds up to $294. I show you ah the total, $2000 send money back. Phone bill $69.15 OK and then shopping shopping Isetan, Robinson’s so ah Isetan is [murmur punching numbers into calculator] and this one ah [punching numbers into calculator] and this one ah [showing receipt and punching numbers into calculator]…so its [total expenses including amount of salary remitted home] $3167.19. OK?

Wahyuni: OK

Female employer: Now, salary… OK, from third December 2012 all the way to third November 2014 first ah when your contract ends. If mam add up all this ah… [To female agency staffer] Add one by one ah?

Agency staffer: No, you count like this… let me show you. So salary is $450 right? so $450 times 24 minus $3607 [for loan repayment-about eight months salary], so its $7193.

Female employer: $7193… correct. I calculated already. Plus this month $450 because mam say no off day right so I give you $70. Correct?

Agency staffer: Compensation [for not giving employee her rest days].

Female employer: $7193 plus $450 plus $70 give you $7713… correct? So 7173 minus your expenses… [To Wahyuni] you know what is expenses?

Agency staffer [To Wahyuni]: Yang kamu kirim uang yang kamu beli barang itu lah… (It’s the money that you have sent back and money used to buy things)

Wahyuni: Ya. (Yes)

Female employer: So mam will pay you $4545.81. Correct? OK?

Wahyuni: Ya. (Yes)

Female employer: Make it simple, I pay you $4550. OK? Round up. So mam will pay you $4550. [To agency staffer] You tell her, I round up.

Agency staffer: OK. Ini gaji kamu. Gaji December dia kasi ini then ini expenses [Wahyuni in the background “ ya saya beli barang] jadi semuanya $4545. (Ok. This is your salary. December’s salary is this amount. Then, these are expenses [Wahyuni muttering in the background “yes, money for items I bought”] so total is $4545.) Dia kasi kamu $4550 dia kasi kamu lebih lima dolar. (Your employer is giving you $4550. She is giving you $5 extra.)

As the above shows, after Wahyuni had the opportunity to lodge a formal complaint, the employer conceded that she owed Wahyuni about $4,550 in salary.  After further deductions (to pay for freight to send her things back to Indonesia), it was whittled down to around $4,350.

 

Another statement that The New Paper attributes to MOM:

“This could have been done lawfully by invoking the termination clause and serving out her notice period as in her employment contract – without TWC2 needing to whisk her away.”

Says Shelley: “It is disingenious for MOM to say that this could have been done lawfully… ” As the above details indicate, Wahyuni had every reason to fear that a notice of resignation would not be received well. Nor had she any contact with third parties who could help if help was needed.

Audio recording #2 contains a clear statement by Wahyuni that she had tried to resign:

Wahyuni: Saya sudah bilang sama saya mahu pulang tapi enggak bisa pulang. (I told them [employer] I want to go home but they don’t let me.)

“Further, I did not ‘whisk her away’,” adds Shelley. “I made four visits to the house and it was in the last visit that Wahyuni came running out of the unlocked gate and told me she wanted to leave. I passed to Wahyuni a note written in Bahasa Indonesia and told her to read the note carefully before she made her decision to leave with me.  Wahyuni glanced at the note and threw it back to me and said she was very clear about running away.  She was adamant that she did not want to work with  them (her employers) any more.”

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The crux of the matter

What remains is not so much a question of what Wahyuni’s situation was or what she was aggrieved about. These are more than clear. What remains is why, after listening to her, MOM came to such an inaccurate assessment of the situation. Why is MOM’s fact-discovery process so defective?

Non-government organisations are disallowed by MOM to accompany workers into meetings there, so TWC2 is unable to explain what happened at MOM itself. It is possible that Wahyuni played down her employer’s infringements when speaking with MOM.

If so, why would she do that?

If one puts oneself in Wahyuni’s shoes, being miserable, feeling trapped for over two years, and conditioned to being fearful, the top priority for her would be to get her money and go home. Prosecution of the employer does not help her, especially as she would know that MOM might require her as a witness. The usual practice when MOM requires someone as a witness is to require that person to stay on in Singapore (barred from leaving) and be subjected to several rounds of intimidating interviews (to check that testimony is robust). Also, staying on in Singapore does not assure her of continued employment and income. In other words, it would be diametrically opposed to her own interests — to go home, then find a new job and put the matter behind her.

Moreover, at the interview stage, there has to be an appreciation of context and a recognition that the domestic worker is the weaker party in any dispute. The person may also be traumatised. Officials should bend over backwards to earn the person’s trust, to better obtain a comprehensive account of the experience. The ministry’s dismissal of the allegations that the employer had not paid her in a timely manner, had not given her the mandatory rest day, and had mistreated her — despite a mountain of evidence — points to a need for MOM to re-examine its own internal attitudes, processes and protocols.