By Meera Rajah

Yati (not her real name) was promised that she would only have to wait in Batam for a week, before returning to Singapore to work with a new employer. The week became a month, and the month eventually turned into a year. 

Her previous employer had “scream[ed] and throw the things then scold me, ‘you stupid bloody hell’”. She had made her work from 5am everyday till past midnight, with no day off. She had not allowed Yati or the other maids to leave the house – or even to eat – without her permission. “We like life in prison”, Yati recalls. She had even gone to the extent of switching off the lights while Yati was inside the bathroom.

Yati’s plight is representative of a deeper, penetrating social impasse: the invisibility that engulfs the domestic worker when trapped in her employer’s home. She struggles to bring any unkindness she suffers to light.

When that job ended, her employment agent’s assistant, Lyn, took her to Batam to await a new job. But as Lyn was about to return to Singapore, she asked for Yati’s passport. It didn’t seem unreasonable since Yati wanted Lyn to get a new job and apply for a new Work Permit for her. What was strange though was that Lyn also asked for Yati’s two-way air ticket that the worker had originally been given by the agency.

The next contact with Lyn was to bring bad news. Yati was told she had been ‘blacklisted’ by her previous employer, but was not given any further news how this could be resolved. “[She] never inform me anything again, even when I ask my name is really blacklisted or not? She never reply my message and when I ask to give me back my passport she also didn’t respond me… Then now I lost contact with her”.

Yati called the agency office, and managed to get Lyn on the phone. However, instead of responding to Yati’s queries, Lyn said, “Don’t call office.. Later ‘Mam E’ [the employment agent] know.” Lyn further instructed, “Anything just message to my phone.”

This ‘avenue’ quickly proved to be yet another dead end. Yati’s frantic calls to her were unable to connect. It appeared that Lyn had changed her number.

Seven months went by before Yati was fortunate enough to come across some of TWC2 Exco Member Shelley Thio’s posts on Facebook and summoned the courage to contact her directly, in a plea for help. Meanwhile, she had found a domestic worker’s job in Batam itself, but for a measly salary of approximately a $100 a month. That’s one fifth of what she was earning previously with the screaming employer. While that experience had not been pleasant, Yati still wished to return to Singapore to work, optimistic about a better employer.

Yati is a single mother, with four children and an elderly mother depending on her. She is the sole breadwinner of her family. “Next few month my first daughter going to university already… My salary only little bit, how can?.. For they eat everyday also no enough…”

Shelley first contacted the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to clarify whether Yati had truly been ‘blacklisted’. MOM confirmed that this was untrue, and the investigation officer suggested that Yati apply for a Work Permit again. This was, however, not an immediately tenable solution – Yati had no passport.

When Shelley contacted the agency, Mam E told her that Lyn was no longer working for them. She asserted that she had no knowledge of the passport-theft, saying dismissively that it ‘must have been a personal agreement’ between Yati and Lyn. But she also expressed knowledge that Lyn had some ‘personal business on the side’. She claimed to have no information as to Lyn’s present whereabouts or contact details. Lyn was believed to have returned to her homeland, Indonesia.

In essence, the agency casted Lyn as a ‘rogue employee’ and refused to take responsibility for Yati’s loss. Moreover, since the passport was taken in Batam, and not Singapore, our local law enforcement authorities cannot be expected to pursue the matter. It was extra-territorial misconduct.

Nonetheless, it seems quite shocking that an agency can so readily disclaim liability for employee conduct, even when it was aware that the employee was conducting ‘personal business’ on the side. As far as Yati was concerned, Lyn was acting as an agency employee throughout.

Yati ultimately reported her passport as lost, but the process of getting a replacement was long and tedious — but that’s a separate story about Indonesian bureaucracy. It was also costly. The long wait cost her a prospective new job. Having signed on with a new agent,  there was news of a possible placement in Singapore. But as the passport replacement process dragged on, the prospective employer grew tired of waiting and hired someone else.

Fortunately for Yati, she has her new passport in hand now. She remains optimistic that she will be able to return to Singapore, to an employer who will treat her with kindness and respect, and for a reasonable wage. After all, as Yati herself incisively notes, “maid also have heart… is the same human being[,] just status is different”. Meanwhile, she continues to wait.