By Nissa Mai

Continued from Part 1.

I have a lot of other questions for Surya [1]. How did such an empowered, decisive young woman get trapped in a clearly illegal and exploitative situation for such long time? Wasn’t her contract for only two years? And if she didn’t receive her salary, why didn’t she complain to MOM?

Regarding her salary, she explains that she had asked her employer, Ms Ang. “I ask Ma’am, ‘Why you never give my salary?’ She say, ‘Don’t worry because your salary I keep in your bank.’ So I’m only say, ‘Ok Ma’am, thank you if you really keep my salary in bank.’” She didn’t know that her employer was supposed to pay for adequate food, and she didn’t want to cause too much trouble; she might get sent back home.

Surya also explains how she was hurried into signing the second contract in December of 2013. Apparently Ms. Ang’s son approached Surya with a stack of papers, asking her to sign them. Wanting to know what they were before signing, Surya says, “I ask to the son, ‘Hey, what is the paper?’ He say, ‘Faster lah! Sign lah! Ma’am ask you to sign, ma’am asking downstairs for the paper.’

“I ask again and he say, ‘FASTER LAH! You don’t need to know lah!’ I say I am sorry and I sign here, here, here, and the son fold and put in envelope and give to Ma’am. No time to look at paper.”

She was never told that she was entitled to a trip home or to one day off a week. “I also don’t know MOM got new law — the helper got the off day,” she says. “I never ask my ma’am about that, but my friend … in the condominium tell me, ‘You must ask your employer when is your off day and also must take money!’

“But I’m scared to ask my Ma’a’m!”

When she finally asked Ms Ang about whether her new contract allowed a day off, however, Surya reports that her employer said, “Because [the contract] is only one more year, you cannot go home; you also cannot get off day.”

There is no basis for that, and all domestic workers who signed contracts after January 2013 are entitled to a day off. Unfortunately, Surya had no way to know.

Then one day, when she was returning home from cleaning Ms. Ang’s mother’s home, Surya ran into another Indonesian domestic worker. They began talking, and Surya shared some of the problems she was having with her current employer: her withheld salary, the fear, hunger, and lack of sleep. The other worker suggested, “Why don’t you run to tell TWC2?”

We spend the whole day at the Ministry of Manpower; after Surya’s consultation, she goes in for a second interview. The next day, the police want to ask her some questions, and then she has a meeting with both MOM and Ms Ang. In total, we calculate that Surya is owed over $8,000 in overdue salary.

TWC2 social worker Karno is worried that she won’t get back the salary she’s due; he has seen too many cases end unsatisfactorily at MOM.

But Surya’s story has a happy ending. At the mediation with MOM, Ms Ang gives Surya the money she’s owed — all in cash, which is carefully calculated and counted at the MOM meeting. She’s disappointed that her employer lied to her about her rights, not least her right to a weekly day off, and she’s saddened to find that there was never really a bank account set up for her money. “If my employer really keep my money in the bank, they really don’t need to count money count money so long.”

However, she says she learned a lot from the experience, however terrible, and she’s elated to be receiving her hard-earned salary. In our office, she exclaims over and over, “Thank you so much, TWC2! I’m very, very, very happy.”

When asked what she will do with the money, she explains, “I want to buy one house for my family. So maybe my mother, my father, my sister, my brother come together. In three years [while in Singapore], I cannot help. Now I share with my family.” Even though she left them in order to attend school, she wants to be with them. But she’s not sure it’s possible. “Maybe not, lah,” she says, pensively.

“My gift for my family is one house. The rest I will continue my study. The rest I take for education, maybe enough to [attend] university in Jakarta. I’m very happy!” She also explains how meaningful attending university will be for her, and how she will cherish everything she gets to learn: “I [had to do] very hard work to get my education. Maybe I’m hard-studying like that!” She laughs.

Surya flew home on on the morning of 28 August 2014. The evening before, she told Karno she’s donating $100 from the salary she received to TWC2.

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Although Surya’s case resulted in a happy outcome, there are many domestic workers who are not so lucky. The abuse she endured for three years highlights a number of deplorable practices in Singapore regarding the employment of foreign domestic workers:

  • It is unacceptable that licensed agencies in Singapore can so easily deploy domestic workers into private homes without informing them of their rights.
  • The Singapore government should take steps to ensure that all incoming domestic workers fully understand the terms of their contract and their rights as employees. MOM claims they currently do that, but as Surya’s case and that of many other workers seen by TWC2 indicate, those effects are far from adequate.
  • Employment contracts should never be signed within the home, as domestic workers can be easily coerced into signing something; thus, such contracts are not always indicative of consent.
  • It is important to ensure that domestic workers are in possession of their documents; lack of possession of legal identity documents is a UN trafficking indicator.
  • The policy requiring employers to “release” their domestic workers, such that they may only seek new employers with their permission is harmful and coercive. Surya’s story shows how a domestic worker, under duress from high placement costs, may feel compelled to stay with abusive employers rather than be repatriated.
  • Laws should be enforced. Too many employers of foreign domestic and non-domestic workers are not brought to court. Although Surya’s employer failed for pay Surya her salary for over a year, there is no indication from MOM that they are treating the employer’s behaviour as a contravention of law. It’s not even clear that the employer would be banned from hiring other domestic workers in the future, since there’s no indication that MOM considers the employer to have infringed regulations. If so, such a  forgiving attitude on the part of the authorities encourages employers and agencies to break the law where it is convenient for them.


[1] names have been changed