In the middle of March 2018, TWC2 got a call from a Sikh temple. They were sheltering a young woman who had come to them for help. We asked that she be sent to our office.

Khushpreet (not her real name) was a first-time domestic worker, who arrived in Singapore just three weeks earlier in late February. She was from a place near Amritsar, India. She had no identification documents on her. She spoke only Hindi and Punjabi, which very few in Singapore would understand. She had hardly any money, and no familiarity with the complicated streets of our city.

This account focusses on how she was recruited. People who are quick to think ill of low-wage, low-skill workers might focus on that fact that she “ran away” from her employer, as if that is some deep violation of trust or contract, or an inexcusable moral failing. And once framed like that, there’s a tendency to see that as the sum total of the explanation needed and not look behind that event, at the other actors involved, and the circumstances that led up to it.

Yet it is only by looking at and understanding the prior events that we can see where corrective action can be taken, so that other workers are not in a similar situation in future.

It’s also equally valid to point out that “run away” is just an accusatory way of saying that someone wisely decided to put some distance between herself and an abusive, dangerous situation that is likely to escalate.

How it began

Khushpreet comes across as quite self-assured. She is 32 years old and has completed twelve years of schooling. She is not some naive young girl with no education. Before coming to Singapore, she was working in a formal job as a sales assistant in a mall. It wasn’t satisfactory though — the hours were long and the pay only 8,000 Indian rupees a month (about S$163).

Two years ago, she decided that she might try for a job overseas. She even got a passport made, so as to be ready should opportunity knock.

Opportunity took a while. Eventually it came in the person of a lady whom Khushpreet called Dolly, who introduced her to a Naveep Singh. Naveep Singh claimed to be a very successful job placement agent.

We ask Khushpreet to describe Naveep Singh’s office in or near Amritsar. From her description, we can spot warning signals. However, as an inexperienced emigrant, she was not aware what to look out for and did not raise her guard. Naveep Singh worked out of his home, which was close to Dolly’s. He had no assistants or staff. There was no shopfront, and nothing that looked like an office. He did not look like a properly licensed recruiting agent.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has a website giving information about the responsibilities of licensed agents. Among its requirements is that licence-holders should maintain “Office premises of not less than fifty square meters of built-up area, having a waiting hall for at least thirty persons, a room for the purpose of conducting interview and and office space equipped with furniture, photocopier, telephone … computers….” and so on. The rules also ban subagents.

Other conditions prescribe that agents must maintain complete records of workers’ biodata, correspondence and job offers. Yet Khushpreet tells us that at no time did Naveep Singh even take a photocopy of her identity card or passport.

Nor did he arrange for her to attend any training course. What he did instead was to arrange a video interview with the employer in Singapore. The most notable thing about that interview was that the employer’s face was not really visible. Khushpreet described it as silhouetted. Khushpreet however was visible to the employer. This should be another warning sign, but for someone anxious to land a job, it’s easily ignored.

In the video interview, there was some negotiation about salary, but Khushpreet was unsuccessful at getting the $350 monthly salary she wanted. The final offer was $300, a figure that Khushpreet ultimately settled for, with vague promises of future increases.

She paid 40,000 rupees (about S$816) to Naveep Singh and the air ticket came through. She arrived at Changi airport on 27 February 2018.

In Singapore

The employer (“Madam”) picked her up from the airport, arranged for her to get a medical check-up and to go through thumbprinting at MOM for the work permit. However, Khushpreet never saw her work permit. When after TWC2 rescued her and asked whether her work permit had ever been issued, she didn’t even know what a work permit was, or what one might look like.

She attended an orientation course as required by MOM on the day after her arrival. She recalled that the course instructor handed out some leaflets with helpline numbers, but these were taken away by the employer as soon as she came out of the room.

The employer had a downtown apartment and a shop in a mall within walking distance. Work in the household (comprising a “Sir”, “Madam” and an adult son) was not too heavy though the employer was quite particular about where food should be cooked. Vegetables were cooked in the apartment, but for lunch, Khushpreet had to go to the shop to make fresh chapatti there — the shop evidently had some sort of kitchen.

Sleeping arrangements were below par. Khushpreet was told to leave her belongings in the store room and sleep in the living room.

From the beginning, conflict developed between employer and employee over Khushpreet’s use of her own mobile phone. It may be that being the first time she was outside India, she was calling her family often, but a rule was soon put in that she had to hand her phone over to Madam first thing in the morning, and not get it back till 7pm.

There was also a mismatch between her expectations and the employer’s when it came to learning the job. She expected to be taught how to do things around the flat, but teaching was not what the employer provided. Instead, there was plenty of scolding for every little mistake. The Sir was prone to using highly abusive language, Khushpreet reported.

Needless to say, she did not enjoy a day off the in nearly three weeks she worked.

While she was not physically abused, the daily psychological hammering made life very difficult for her. The final straw was when the employer demanded that she hand over her phone permanently. According to Khushpreet, the employer said it was MOM that wanted to keep the phone — Khushpreet didn’t believe the excuse even then.

So, the next day, after she had done her morning chores, cooked lunch, went over to the shop and made fresh chappati, she went back to the apartment, took a shower and fled to a Sikh temple not far from the home.

Issues raised

The issues that this case raises are several, and thought should be given to how these risk factors can be controlled.

Other than MOM’s work permit application process, Khushpreet was probably recruited entirely through informal, unregulated channels.  She was almost surely not given any pre-departure information. Certainly, she was given no training, which may put her in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis employer expectations.

The direct recruitment that the employer made meant that when Khushpreet arrived in Singapore, the employer was the only person she knew. There was no other party, such as an employment agency, whom she could fall back on when things turned sour. She was just lucky that she had noticed a Sikh temple near the apartment, and guessed that someone there might speak her language. Otherwise, she’d have no idea where to go for help. Or course, in the worst cases, even knowing an employment agency may be no help at all since agents themselves have been known to be abusive, but a possibility of assistance is better than none at all.

It is important to recognise that first-time foreign workers are a vulnerable cohort. Those who have been privately, directly recruited are even more vulnerable, as Khushpreet’s story shows. TWC2 president Noorashikin Abdul Rahman suggests “a ban on women coming through for the first time through irregular and informal channels.” In effect, this means a requirement that there must be a Singapore employment agency responsible for the arrival of such workers.

This solution does have a drawback in the form of costs to the worker. Khushpreet paid only $816 dollars to get the job. A Singapore agency can charge up to two months’ salary for a placement involving a 2-year work permit. At her salary, that would mean she’d have to pay $600 more if the employer had to use a Singapore agency.

Ideally, employers should be paying all recruitment costs, but the reality — not least, current Singapore law — allows otherwise.

If the prospect of burdening first-time workers with extra costs is unpalatable as a solution, the alternative is for MOM to flag directly-recruited new workers during the work pass application process.

Says Noorashikin, “If MOM would like to keep that channel open to allow employers to recruit through their own networks … then they should make it a point to acknowledge the vulnerability of such workers.”

The ministry should “mobilise resources and efforts to be more vigilant in checking on their welfare — conducting home visits and making monthly calls to speak directly with workers during the day and not via employers. One of the questions should be whether the worker has possession over her work permit.”

And phones, without which, how can they call for help?

Turning to MOM’s orientation course, it appears to have been thwarted in one of its most fundamental aims — to provide new domestic workers with information as to where they can get help. The leaflets that Khushpreet were given were summarily confiscated by the employer. As was, later on, her phone, which was her personal property.

MOM should come down hard on employers every time they hear of confiscation of help materials or mobile phones. Moreover, MOM needs to get serious about employers keeping workers’ work permits and other identity documents — Khushpreet’s passport was also taken away — because it creates unnecessary difficulties for the police when they do their rounds.

There may be no perfect solution to bad employers, but there are partial measures that can be taken to mitigate the effects. And when the measures aren’t working as they should (e.g. confiscation of leaflets) more thought needs to be given to design a better system.