Late November 2014, an email came from the blogsite TR Emeritus about an Indonesian domestic worker who was not allowed to leave her employer’s house for two years. The email sender said “hope you guys can take a look at this case seriously. The poor maid is said to be always hungry and begging for food from neighbour.”
Helpfully, the email gave us at Transient Workers Count Too the address – a house in a quiet district in the Thomson area.
TWC2 executive committee members Shelley Thio and Noorashikin went the following Sunday to the address to see if the tip-off might be valid. Despite the wet weather, they had a lucky break.
There was a domestic worker on the property, and she just so happened to be working in the front garden at that very moment. Shelley and Noor subtly got her attention, but the maid immediately indicated that she was being watched from the living room. “Ah Ma” was there, and would stop her from speaking to outsiders across the fence or gate.
So Noor crouched just outside the gate, close to a ditch and the trash bins, to whisper to the maid who moved to that corner of the garden to do some weeding. In that brief conversation, we introduced ourselves and got her name: Wahyuni. She confirmed that she had not had a day off in over two years. Nor did she get enough food, and she did not really want to continue in this job.
The tip-off was spot-on.
“If you want to leave this job, we can help you leave,” said Noor. “We will find you a place to stay and help get you your owed salary.”
The problem was, Wahyuni had never heard of TWC2 either. Not having had any day off, she had no friends, no contacts, and no access to information – precisely why TWC2 campaigned hard for ten years for a weekly day off for domestic workers.
Given the circumstances, we couldn’t expect her to put trust in us on the very first contact, so we asked her to mull over our offer, assuring her we’d be back at an appointed time a week later (she’d have to make her way to the garden when she saw us) to take the conversation further.
We went back a few more times and spoke to her some more. Each time, we learnt a bit more of her plight and she put a little more trust in us.
Then one visit, Shelley found the gate wide open. The house was being renovated with the contractor and his workers moving freely in and out. Wahyuni saw Shelley approach, and this time, with no hesitation at all, she came running out. She was making her dash to freedom.
Shelley quickly left her name and phone number with someone in the house called Brian, with the message that the employer can call her regarding Wahyuni.
No rest day, not enough food
At last, Wahyuni had a chance to fill us in on the details of her experience. She had been working for this employer – let’s call her Belle – since mid 2012. In mid 2014, the contract was renewed, though Wahyuni was already unhappy. Except for some money sent to her husband when Wahyuni pleaded with her employer, she had not gotten her salary. It is not very clear to us how much free will she had in agreeing to renewal.
Confirming what she had told us earlier, she had not had a day off all this while –two years and four months. Even though the renewed contract signed in mid 2014 would have come under the new law that made a weekly day off her right, she did not enjoy it. It’s a clear violation of the law on the employer’s part. Wahyuni was not allowed out of the front gate, and even when she was in the front yard, she felt under constant surveillance.
Through those 28 months, Wahyuni received only $2,000. The law makes it an offence not to pay salary monthly.
Wahyuni also told us that her employer seized her hongbao money – these would be hongbaos given to her by visitors during Chinese New Year. Shelley later raised this matter with the MOM officer, but it was felt that the money would be difficult to retrieve because it would be Wahyuni’s word against Belle’s.
As for nourishment, Wahyuni repeated what she told us before: she didn’t get enough to eat through those 28 months. There was only bread for breakfast and lunch most days. For dinner, she had to wait till her employers had finished eating, and even then, how much she got depended on how much was left over.
There was also one occasion when Belle’s mother (or mother-in-law) whom Wahyuni referred to as “Ah Ma”, slapped her. Fortunately however, it had not recurred. A physical act like this is also contrary to law. But it was bad enough, according to the domestic worker, that she was scolded almost every day. Psychological abuse is no less injurious.
At the coffeeshop
One of the first things Shelley did after Wahyuni ran out was to buy her a meal.
“I got for her a plate of rice, piled high with fish, two pieces of chicken, curry and vegetables,” recalled Shelley. “Then I went to the drinks stall to buy her a canned drink. By the time I got back to her with the drink, she had finished the entire plate.”
It takes no time at all to buy a drink. Remarked a still-astonished Shelley to your writer: “It only shows how hungry she must have been the day we rescued her.”
Belle called Shelley soon after, insisting that the maid be returned to the house. If Wahyuni did not come back, Belle said she would “blacklist” her. Shelley pointed out that as an adult, Wahyuni had every right to leave if she so wanted. “She’s made it very clear to us that she is fearful and will not want to go back to the house again,” Shelley informed Belle.
As for “blacklisting”, this is not at the employer’s discretion; in any case, said Shelley to Belle, “I am informing you of the provisions in the law (Employment of Foreign Manpower Act) which you could have possibly violated.”
At the ministry
At MOM, the employer Belle owned up to not having paid Wahyuni her salaries on time. However, instead of immediately paying up, Belle produced a small stack of receipts. They were for small purchases like biscuits, soap, shampoo, some clothes and two tins of Milo. She was deducting these amounts from the salary owed to Wahyuni.
There was also a further $300 worth of food that the employer deducted, but even the maid agency told the employer she shouldn’t do so; it is illegal to charge for food. The employer was supposed to remit this $300 to Wahyuni, but to date, we have no confirmation it’s been done.
Wahyuni stayed in TWC2’s shelter for three nights, during which time a volunteer went to collect her belongings from her employer. She went home to Indonesia on 19 December 2014 with about $4,000 in hand. That’s all she had to show for 28 months of misery.
The Ministry of Manpower told a newspaper that the above account was “grossly untruthful”. This accusation is strongly refuted. See the evidence we present in the follow-up article here.