The first hint was in the Phnom Penh Post: that Transient Workers Count Too was helping a domestic worker from Cambodia who said a member of the employer’s family had sexually molested her. It’s a relatively new pilot programme: bringing in domestic workers from Cambodia, and naturally there are many parties interested in watching how things turn out.

The Straits Times asked if the Phnom Penh Post report was accurate; we said yes, it was, but we couldn’t provide any details. The Ministry of Manpower asked too, and we responded the same way. It’s a bit of a dilemma for TWC2:  on the one hand, we agree with MOM that the authorities ought to be informed about the case so that the employer’s family member does not inflict the same thing on the next domestic worker they hire, on the other hand, the Cambodian worker had chosen not to make any official complaint and we had to respect that.

It may be argued that reporting to the authorities should not have to mean all details become public, but as we understood it, her concerns were more about economics. She might actually be worse off for reporting the crime. Having been newly recruited, she had a large debt to pay off, and she wanted to get a new job as quickly as possible. The State couldn’t promise that; in fact TWC2’s experience is that the State often holds foreign workers interminably in Singapore as prosecution witnesses without allowing them to work — visit our Cuff Road Project any evening, and there will almost always be a worker (or two) in exactly that predicament. The State holds their passports, so they are not allowed to go home either.

Domestic workers are treated slightly better than male workers. After reporting a crime like this, they get a chance at a temporary job, but this is the kind of bureaucratic fix that offers little comfort to workers: Why temporary?  How long is temporary? Why would any employer hire me if it’s for such a short term? Wouldn’t the whole world know about my case once I am branded with the ‘temporary’ label?

In any case, the State may allow her to take on a temporary job, but she still has to go out and find her own job. How is she going to do that as a total foreigner in our country, unable to speak English?

‘Grabbed and squeezed’

The worker — let’s call her Kannitha — had contacted TWC2 a few weeks before the assault over other employment issues — no day off, unable (not allowed?) to contact her family and such-like. The issues not being urgent, she stayed on the job while weighing her options. Then one day, she called a TWC2 volunteer who speaks Cambodian to tell her that the elder man in the household — the one she was charged with looking after — had “grabbed and squeezed her breasts and tried to get on top of her”. It also turned out that she had been assigned to sleep in the same room as the man. Our volunteer conveyed her complaint to TWC2 and, together with Shelley Thio (executive committee member of TWC2) visited her and advised her on her options.

Kannitha chose not to lodge any formal complaint, but to get a transfer. She needed to continue working.

So she went back to the employment agency which had brought her here.

More problems at the employment agency

New difficulties surfaced very soon after, although TWC2 didn’t know it at the time. We had great difficulty remaining in contact with her.

The next thing we knew, she was in hospital, ill and unable to walk. We rushed to visit her, and that was when Kannitha told us that the short while she stayed with the employment agency was also hellish.

At the hospital, this was the gist of what she told us:

She felt under surveillance all the time, confined in the agency’s Woodlands house and that her phone had been taken away. The agency didn’t like her contacting TWC2. Kannitha was also made to clean the house, wake up at 5am in the morning and go to bed only at 1am.

She was also under increasing stress as the days passed and the agency still did not find her a new job, for her debt would increase each day to cover the cost of food and accommodation. This was naturally distressing. There was also the fear that if the agency couldn’t find a new placement for her, she’d be sent back to Cambodia and still be asked to repay the debt.

Latest: Exactly as she feared, latest news is that the family in Cambodia had just been contacted by the recruitment agency, asking them to pay up the balance of the fees.

Things came to a head when a prospective employer showed up, but for some reason, the agency insisted that she deny everything that she had earlier told TWC2. She refused to lie, and (at least in her view), the agency refused to give her that job. Finally, things came to a head when she asked for her passport back and for the right to leave the house. Several staff members of the employment agency confronted her, one man holding a knife.

She was now so frustrated with the agency, she informed us that she would like to speak to the press.

After a few more days in the ward, it was time for discharge. The agency told the hospital not to discharge her except into their arms even when Kannitha expressly said she did not want to go back to the agency at all. No agency has the right to act as if they “owned” any worker. Finally, TWC2 persuaded the hospital to disregard the agency’s instructions and we took Kannitha into a shelter.

Now that she didn’t think she’d get any help from the agency for a new job, she changed her mind and decided to lodge formal complaints with the police and the Ministry of Manpower.

Ask worker to drag herself here, says MOM

Naturally, Kannitha’s work permit was cancelled. To legalise her continued presence in Singapore for further treatment after discharge from hospital, she needed a Special Pass. MOM asked her to show up personally at their counter to get one issued.  We said this was not possible; Kannitha could only walk with difficulty and with a frame. Where she was staying was an upper floor and it would be risky for her to try to come down the stairs. What if she fell and hurt herself?

MOM would not relent, nor would they consider any letter of authorisation for someone else from the organisation to collect the Special Pass for her. We thought this was ridiculous. Other times, MOM hands out Special Passes to employers, telling them to pass them on to the workers (which a few employers conveniently forget to do so, leaving those workers with no personal identity documents).

Your writer also knows, from personal experience, of several government departments that would make house calls when they hear that the client has mobility issues.

In the face of MOM’s intransigence, some other domestic workers were roped in to aid her negotiate the stairs, hail a taxi, and make her way to the ministry.

Barely three weeks after helping Kannitha make a police report, we had to help another domestic worker do the same. She too was sexually assaulted by her employer. See Part 2 (coming soon).