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By Maya Nguyen
Three of us from TWC2 were in a ward of a major hospital. The hospital’s medical social worker had asked us to come speak with a domestic worker who had been warded; she might have employment problems that medical social workers could not help with.
The domestic worker — let’s call her Siti — had fainted and been brought to the hospital in an ambulance. When she awoke, she alleged that she had been hit by her employer’s husband. However, no visible marks were noticed. Our job was to find out what she’d like to do next, discuss with her the pros and cons of her desired move, and how realistic her desired outcome was.
The employer — let’s call her Mrs M — came to the ward soon after. She told us that the maid’s allegations were false. She also seemed glad for the chance to tell us about the worker.
Siti, she said, had been lying to her on a few occasions, particularly over the times when she had been “roaming around” and mixing up with other domestic helpers.
It was true that Siti had no day off. The only chance Siti had of going out was to wait at the foot of the apartment block to pick up Mrs M’s son when the school bus dropped him off. Mrs M said that although she had instructed Siti to be there only at 11:20 am, to her dismay she discovered that sometimes Siti went as early as 11 am. The worker wanted to mingle with other domestic workers in the neighbourhood.
However, after having a talk with Siti, Mrs M said she magnanimously let it pass.
Unfortunately, these are not the only times Siti disobeyed her instructions.
There was another occasion when Mrs M learned from her sister that Siti had secretly gone out twice for about an hour each. The second time, Siti left Mrs. M’s elderly sister at home alone. When confronted, Siti admitted that she had gone out.
The relationship between employer and employee was clearly deteriorating. Adding to the problems was what Siti described as Mr M’s hot temper. The day she fainted, he had been scolding her with harsh words, she said, and then hit her.
(However, a medical examination soon after did not record any marks on her body, so even if it was true that he had hit her, it was probably not very hard. Medically, the diagnosis for the fainting was heart arrhythmia.)
It was Mrs M who found Siti lying unconscious on the kitchen floor. She called an ambulance. After reviving her — with some difficulty, it seemed — Mrs M helped Siti change her clothes before the paramedics arrived. To her amazement, Mrs M said, she noticed a mobile phone that Siti had taped to her chest, under her bra.
Mrs M had thought Siti had just one phone. This had been kept by the employer. Siti was not allowed to use it except to call her family once every two or three months, and only with Mrs. M’s permission. Having another phone was cited as yet another example of the maid’s “disobedience”.
But is there another way of the looking at the situation? Is there another way of understanding the circumstances why a worker would want to have a second phone secretly stashed away?
Is denial of contact with the outside world except in rare and carefully controlled occasions (once every two or three months), acceptable as terms of employment?
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