Riya was sentenced to three weeks in jail in June this year for twice submitting false documents to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). She had no clue that she had committed the offence.

Her life fell apart in October 2012 when her employer suddenly took her to MOM with her documents in a bag — her passport and S Pass — saying nothing throughout. Riya (not her real name) asked why she was being taken to MOM. The employer said she didn’t know and that MOM would explain to her.

She soon learned that she was being investigated for submitting fake educational documents to support her two applications for S Passes, which are work passes for those with skills and are being hired for jobs paying $2,000 to $3,000 a month. She says that her employment agent was probably the one who created those false documents without her knowledge. In fact, she didn’t even know what documents were needed for an S Pass.

Riya comes across looking rather older than her 32 years; perhaps that’s what a hard life in Rajasthan does to you. She walks timidly into the room, and sits in a way to occupy as little space in this world as possible. She lets her interpreter do almost all the talking for her, as if acutely conscious that it’s not her place to open her mouth. She accepts the $400 that TWC2 gives to her to help defray her accommodation expenses (while waiting for the court trial) and signs the payment voucher without counting the cash.

“You must count the money,” says the TWC2 volunteer helping her with her case.

She shakes her head and gestures in a way to indicate that she trusts us completely.

“No, you must. You will not cause any offence if you do,” insists the volunteer.

Again Riya demurs, and it takes repeated persuasion before she gingerly fingers the money, almost painfully embarrassed.

Riya first arrived in Singapore in June 2011 to work as a beautician. She had met an agent in Rajasthan, who knew an agent in Singapore, who knew an employer looking for a worker. The Singapore agent knew Hindi. If not for that, Riya would not have been able to communicate with anyone at all in Singapore since she knew not a word of English. She relied entirely on the agent to arrange a job and the necessary work pass for her.

She doesn’t even recall having to go to MOM to obtain her first S Pass. The agent handed it her, she believes.

The first job (in a shop in the Marine Parade area) didn’t work out well, though she doesn’t detail why, and in September 2011, the agent found her another job, also as a beautician, in a shop in Little India. However, this meant that she had to apply for a new S Pass again. On this occasion she remembers the visit to MOM quite well.

Speaking through the TWC2 volunteer who speaks Hindi, Riya recalls: “I was brought to MOM by my agent, and when the MOM officer called my name, the agent handed me a file which I have never seen before.

“I took the file with me as I approached the counter, and the officer checked the documents contained within. The MOM officer then said something in English which I didn’t understand, so my agent replied on my behalf.”

At some point, the MOM officer said she had to reply herself and not the agent. “After that my agent told me to just say ‘Yes’.”

She did as she was told and documents were then presented to her for signing. “The papers were not shown to me one by one but in a stack, with the corners lifted for me to sign,” she says.

With hindsight, that was the moment that sealed her fate. She had probably declared that everything submitted was true and correct.

Naturally, she lost her job the day the employer took her back to MOM. But the preparation for prosecution took nine months, during which she had no work and no income. For shelter, she moved from place to place.

Along the way, she learned that MOM had contacted the educational institute that one or more of her documents said she had qualified from, and discovered that it wasn’t true. Except that in her case, she says she didn’t even know that such a fake document had been submitted. Considering that she does not speak or read English, how is she to even know the distinction between Work Permits and S Passes, or the requirement that S Pass applications must be supported with educational documents?

She tried to explain the circumstances to MOM and also that her husband is critically ill (with a terminal disease) in Rajasthan. She showed the investigating officer documentary proof of her husband’s condition, she says, but he just laughed. “Ya, everyday you come up with new drama.”

Is such a response called for?