The midnight air was humid and still. Russell slid his car into the driveway fronting the block of flats marked for the rendezvous, turned off his headlights, and rolled down his window glass to listen intently to the sounds emanating from the block. Nothing unusual so far — a bit of distant television, a mother telling her children to get off the computer and go to bed, someone closing windows, locking them for the night.

Knowing what to do and not needing to say a word, Mansura got out of the front passenger seat and quietly walked over to wait close by the foot of the stairs. Any moment now, Ena should be fleeing down those steps.

Russell opened his rear passenger door and made sure the back seat was clear of obstruction. Ena should be able to plunge into the car, so that they could make off at speed.

They waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes, and still nothing unusual. The sounds of domestic ordinariness from the flats above stayed ordinary, though slowly fading into slumber. The very normality of the night added to the tension, like a lull before the certainty of gunfire.

Would Ena come? Would she change her mind at the last minute? Had her plan been discovered? Was she now locked away unable to run?

Sometime in February 2011 and only one month into her job, Ena (not her real name) contacted her agent again, asking for a transfer. She was scolded and told to stick with the job. The agent didn’t seem to understand what it felt like to be always hungry and short of sleep.

Several times she asked her employers — a husband and wife couple — to be released, but each time they refused. In June 2011, the man scolded her harshly for asking again. After that, she didn’t dare raise the subject anymore.

But still, she was hungry. The couple rationed the food for each day. Put in charge of three young children, aged three, four and five, for whom Ena had to cook lunch and dinner, she was given a few morsels of chicken and, typically, half a cup of uncooked rice each morning before the couple left for work. That was for the four of them, for two meals. There was no breakfast.

It may not only be Ena who was short of nourishment, the children too could be going hungry.

Some evenings, the parents would buy dinner back. If it was the woman, she would buy for Ena too, but if it was the male employer doing the buying, he would not buy a share for her. Exactly why he acted the way he did, Ena could not explain.

Sleeping was another persistent problem. Ena and all the three kids slept in the living room, and the bed arrangements were such that she slept near the front door. Like a guard dog. Expected to wake up at 6 a.m. to prepare the kids for kindergarten, it meant she had to go to bed at about 10 p.m. But the male employer often came back at midnight or 1 a.m., waking her as he came in by the front door. He would also be moving around the living room, looking to charge his mobile phone, for example.

He had a temper too. Regularly, he would call her “stupid” and “animal”.

The couple leased a room out to another couple, and fortunately for Ena, they at least showed her some kindness. They sometimes bought extra food for her and even gave her a mobile phone. But a few months later, they left and it was bleak again. Ena’s only source of comfort were the other domestic workers she met outside the children’s kindergarten. Repeatedly, she told them of her problems, but other than extending sympathy and sharing a bit of food, there was little they could do for her.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 was a very bad day. The man raised his voice again, but this time, he was so worked up, Ena feared physical harm. She was still shaking when she brought the kids to the kindergarten and broke down when other domestic workers asked her what happened. Her friends then resolved to find help for her. Through a friend of a friend, her name and phone number were passed to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

Having received the report indirectly, we first had to verify it. Mansura, TWC2’s administrative officer, first spoke to Ena over the phone and, four days later, went to see her briefly at the kindergarten, asking her what she wanted to do. After another 24 hours’ reflection, Ena decided she wanted to get out of the household. Feeling responsible for the children, she also said she wouldn’t leave in the daytime. It had to be late at night when the parents were back, and asleep too. And so a date and time was set: 12:30 a.m.

That led to TWC2 president Russell Heng  pulling into the driveway at midnight, to wait, wondering if anything might have gone wrong in the short hours just prior. Ena had been in contact by sms several times through the day and there really was no reason to think it wasn’t going according to plan, but still, the various things that could go wrong weighed heavily on all.

Just as the minutes of waiting had settled into an uneasy calm, the stillness of the night was broken. A small, slim woman darted out from a different stairwell. Arms flailing, she ran across the void deck, right past Mansura directly to the waiting car.  “I have never seen a woman run as frantically as that,” said Russell. Reaching the vehicle, she dove through the open door  into the back seat.  “She was panting heavily when she got in,” noted Russell, slightly alarmed that someone might be close behind, chasing her. But at least she was here and safe.

The rest was anticlimax. TWC2 took her to a women’s shelter run by HOME, and the following morning, was taken to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge a complaint. She made it clear in her report that she had repeatedly asked to be released from her job, but was refused.

One week after the rescue, Ena’s employer signed a release form and Ena herself is hoping to land a job with another family. In the meantime, she sent messages of thanks to the other maids for helping her make contact with TWC2.

However, on a more introspective note, Russell remarked a few days later: “Glad though we may be that we’ve been able to rescue one maid, this creates another problem for another maid. Chances are that this family is going to get tougher on the next maid they hire. They may even deny her the use of a phone or not let her out.”

That is, unless the ministry takes such maltreatment complaints seriously and bars the family from getting another domestic helper. But then, what about the children?

Post-script:

The shelter found Ena a new employer and MOM was willing to allow a transfer. However, according to MOM procedures, she had to go for a medical check-up to get a new work permit and while that process was ongoing, her old employer had to agree not to cancel the existing one.

However, the old employer wanted a new domestic worker, but in order to get one, Ena’s existing work permit had first to be cancelled before his new maid could be issued with a work permit. The employer refused to wait. So Ena’s work permit was cancelled and she was repatriated to Indonesia, when all she needed was just one more week to get the paperwork completed. She left Singapore after working ten months with no salary to pay off her agent’s fees. If she comes back for that new job, a cycle of salary deductions begin all over again.

This outcome thus raises two questions:

1. Why, when a complaint of abusive treatment had been lodged against the previous employer, was he allowed to have another domestic worker?

2. Why can’t our bureaucracy be more flexible with their rules, tempering them with compassion?