By Polly Perdereau
“I WANT, I WANT!” These were Supinah’s defiant words to her husband when he objected to her going back to Singapore to work. She had stayed put in Java, Indonesia, for two years to take care of their only child. Despite her husband’s strong opposition, Supinah’s decision prevailed. Little did she know that it would be one of the greatest mistakes she would make.
Supinah came to Singapore in October 2014 to work for the household of a Madame Ng, a lawyer by profession. This was Supinah’s second stint as a domestic worker here. The household included Madame Ng’s elderly parents whom Supinah calls Akong and Amah.
Her employment started on normal terms; she was tasked to do the cleaning, cooking, taking care of Amah’s needs and all other domestic chores. But with a twist: She was asked to document her activities in a detailed manner, listing all tasks performed and the time these were done. A typical work day commenced at 5am and ended at midnight — after giving Amah a one- to two-hour massage until she fell asleep.
Supinah did not get a weekly day off.
A few months into her contract, things started to go south.
“First time Madame angry, I understand”. This is how Supinah describes the onset of her travails in the Ng household. “Sometimes Madame good, sometimes scold”. She did not think too much about this until the Ngs’ treatment of her completely changed. She was only given rice to eat for her meals, nothing else. She was given bread on rare occasions but this was stopped after a while. To add taste to her food, she would just add salt. She had to eat her food cold because she was not allowed to use the microwave. According to Amah : “Why you need cook with microwave? Don’t you know electricity expensive?” One time, she was so famished that she was forced to eat two pieces of kueh (cake) on the dining table. For this she was charged $10 by Madame. Another time, it was a packet of peanuts for which Supinah was charged $15 because they were said to be special peanuts from Hongkong. Should Supinah miss a chore during the day — Madame monitors her work closely through closed-circuit television — she would be asked to redo everything on her list of chores for the day.
Even scratching put Supinah in hot water. Everytime she was caught by Madame scratching — the itch was caused by too much exposure to chlorine, said Supinah — she would be charged $2 – 3.
As if her difficulties were not enough, the behavior of her employers continued to worsen. Supinah saw Amah as the instigator, often telling on Supinah to Madame about how she (Supinah) was just wasting time. When Madame Ng was enraged, punishment for Supinah involved having to write sentence after sentence about 100 – 200 times, e.g., “I never reply Amah and Madame”. If she couldn’t finish the required number of lines in one night, Supinah had to do more the following night, seated on a small chair in Amah’s bedroom with just a faint light on a small table.
Naturally, all this and the lack of proper nutrition affected her health. She became very weak and tired after a long day of doing tedious chores non-stop. One time, Madame Ng noticed that she was walking very slowly while serving dinner, which angered her. Supinah was ordered to go up and down the stairs more than fifty times carrying a food tray. Akong just questioned what she was doing but did not attempt to help her.
Neighbours of the Ngs started to notice the abuse that Supinah was experiencing. They heard the frequent shouting and scolding. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they saw Supinah bare-shouldered, dressed only in a wrap-around sarong, with her hair tied-up like a crazy person. When asked about this, she told neighbours that the Madame had told her to wash all her clothes using dirty laundry water, on the ground that she (Supinah) was dirty from all her scratching. It was her boss, she explained, who insisted she put all her clothes in the wash, and had only this sarong to wear till her clothes were dry. The sympathetic neighbour took Supinah’s picture, sending it to TWC2. The neighbour also passed TWC2’s phone number to Supinah and advised her to call us. She was scared at first and took time to think about it. Finally, not having any more energy to go on, Supinah called the number. At her request, a team from TWC2 rescued her from the Ng household.
When the TWC2 team picked up Supinah, she was a mere shadow of her former self, just 42 kg with scabs and rashes all over her arms. She was a far cry from the pleasantly plump lady of 62 kg. who arrived in Singapore and started working with the Ngs five months ago. She had lost 20 kg in five months!
Supinah’s case against her employer has been elevated to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). As of the date of our interview, she has had three meetings with her employer at the ministry. Unfortunately, no settlement has been reached so far. Supinah feels that the ministry officer believed her during the first meeting but in the succeeding meetings, she feels the tide has turned in favour of the employer. According to Supinah, the employer presented to MOM statements which Supinah wrote and signed under duress. One such statement read: “I want to die. I want to die in Indonesia and not in your house”.
It is not clear what argument (in favour of the employer) presenting such a statement supports. That Supinah is mentally unstable? TWC2 doesn’t think she is in any way. She is bright, cheerful and now, feeling safe, articulate. MOM officers should be able to make the same assessment.
Nonetheless, Supinah tells TWC2 that whereas at the first meeting at MOM, the ministry official told her that nothing stands in the way of her working again in Singapore, this was reversed on the third meeting where it was suggested that she may no longer work in Singapore. She does not understand why. However, right now, her primary wish is to go back to Indonesia and take care of her child. She appears jaded by the whole experience and is not very positive about how all this will end.
Supinah has been staying in a shelter the past month and her health and appearance have improved. Despite this harrowing episode, Supinah has this to say: “I not have anger in my heart for Madame. I forgive her”.
After months of uncertainty and discord, with several meetings at the MOM between Supinah and her former employer, the adage “all’s well that ends well” finally prevailed. On 13 May 2015, the MOM issued a Notice of Departure to Supinah indicating, among other things, that her participation in the investigation into her case is over. The salary due her amounting to $214.00 has also been paid, and she was informed by her MOM case officer that she is still eligible to come back to Singapore for employment in the future.
MOM purchased for her a flight ticket back to Yogyakarta, Indonesia. This is unusual, for normally it is the employer’s responsibility to repatriate a worker. TWC2 reads from this fact the likely possibility that the employer’s security bond has been forfeited. This would be consistent with another bit of news that Supinah heard from her case officer and relayed to us: that MOM is intending to prosecute the employer.
As of this writing, Supinah is back home with her family, enjoying a blissful and peaceful environment so unlike what she has been through during her five months of abuse.