By Lee Min-wei

In the wee hours of 3 June 2015, Juvy, a petite and soft-spoken Filipina domestic worker, mustered the courage to flee from her employer’s apartment. Leaving behind most of her belongings in a locked suitcase, she put what she could into a small tote and yellow plastic bag and took a taxi to TWC2’s shelter. A few hours later, Shelley Thio, a TWC2 executive committee member who was initially approached by Juvy for advice on her situation, contacted Juvy’s employer to inform her that Juvy had left.

It was at this point that I met Juvy. Tasked to accompany her to the Ministry of Manpower with TWC2 social worker Min Yi, we listened to her story on the taxi ride over. Teary-eyed, she told us of her volatile relationship with her employer. Working for a family that included a toddler and the employer’s elderly mother, Juvy explained how after working for three months, her employer reduced her $520 monthly salary by half, claiming that Juvy had been making “too many mistakes” and that she would only reinstate her full salary after she improved. This went on for two months until May when the employer “raised” her salary to $320, still $200 short of her original salary as stated in her contract. Additionally, Juvy only received 2 of her 4 legal days off a month, and only received monetary compensation for her forgone rest days in the first month of work. She was also forced to sign salary slips stating that she had received her full salary.

Unhappy though she was, Juvy did not immediately decide to leave her job. Perhaps, like in the case of nearly all migrant workers, her family needed whatever money she could send home. But when Juvy learned that the employer was planning to dismiss and repatriate her — an air ticket had been bought and a replacement domestic worker found —  she decided it was time to take action.

While we waited in MOM’s lobby to meet Juvy’s case officer, Shelley continued to patiently and firmly negotiate with both Juvy’s employer over the phone. Thanks to Shelley’s tireless efforts, a settlement to repay Juvy’s outstanding salary of $720 was reached before her case was handed over to MOM. This amount did not include compensation for the rest days Juvy had forgone, but since Juvy didn’t have proof that she had worked these days, yet was not reimbursed for them, she felt it better to waive this issue in favour of a quick resolution.

We then informed MOM that a private settlement had been reached, and there was no need to lodge a formal complaint which might lead to protracted investigation. 

With the employer’s agreement, we proceeded to retrieve Juvy’s personal belongings from her employer’s home at the condominium (more on this below).

The following morning, Juvy came into our office for a meeting with Shelley and an employment agent who acted as the employer’s representative. This was not Juvy’s original employment agent, but one whom the employer had retained to find Juvy’s replacement. I sat in to observe. Telling us numerous stories in the hope of convincing us that she was one who also fought for “her” girls’ rights, the agent ordered Juvy to write a letter stating that she had received the $700 outstanding salary and the air ticket bought by her employer. The agent also asked Juvy to end the letter with an apology for all the trouble she had caused her employer. Shelley politely but firmly corrected the agent: the owed amount was $720, and that was what had been agreed the day before. Was this a slip of the agent’s tongue, or was it an attempt to get away with a little less?  It sure seemed like the latter to the rest of us in the room. Shelley also told Juvy that she did not have to apologize, and how she would end the letter, which was supposed to be written in her own hand, was her decision and no one else’s. Once everything was settled and the agent left, a grateful Juvy and relieved Shelley had lunch together before Juvy made her way to the airport.

It’s rare that a case gets resolved so cleanly and quickly, and this being my first week as an intern at TWC2, I was glad to see a case reach a resolution that was more or less in the domestic worker’s favour. There were a few things, however, that caused me pause and reflect. After understanding Juvy’s situation and seeing how nervous she was about returning to the condo, I imagined the worst when accompanying Juvy to retrieve her personal belongings. Instead, when meeting her employer I was faced with an elegantly dressed professional woman in her late 30s to early 40s, who remained poised, amicable and composed throughout our half-hour interaction. However, there was a significant disconnect with this image as I watched her unpack Juvy’s luggage and suspiciously inspect every single pocket in every single pair of trousers for possible stolen items while Juvy, 32, obsequiously continued to unpack her bag in silence, never meeting her employer’s eyes once. This pettiness carried over to our meeting with the agent, who initially refused to believe that $720 was the correct amount owed. Besides the fact that the amount in dispute was a mere $20, when Shelley broached the topic of Juvy’s owed monetary compensation for her days off, the agent defensively said that the $520 monthly salary included her days off  — this is not correct under the law, and any agent should know that. Additionally, when Shelley highlighted the fact that Juvy received an additional $30 during the first month for her days off (to demonstrate that the employer knew very well that payment for rest days worked should be on top of the basic salary), the agent deflected it by characterising that amount off as a “token sum”, and then reiterating that $720 was the final settlement agreed upon.

In retrospect, I am unable to decide if the pettiness of arguing over such small amounts of money, or the fact that the employer can clearly afford to pay her domestic worker in full, irks me more. I suppose when a subordinate finds the courage to take a stand and blow open to reveal one’s misdeeds and attempts to flout the law over salaries, pride rears its ugly head and causes people to become defensive, unaccommodating and vindictive.