The details of the case against Gaiyathiri Murugayan can be seen from the story in Channel NewsAsia: Woman admits killing maid; starved her to 24kg and assaulted her almost daily in ‘utterly inhumane’ case. She pleaded guilty to 28 charges including culpable homicide against her domestic worker, Piang Ngaih Don from Myanmar.

Sentencing is still awaited. The prosecution is asking for life imprisonment — the maximum sentence allowed under the law for culpable homicide.

Gaiyathiri’s mother and husband, ex-police office Kelvin Chelvam, will be in court soon to face their own charges.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in her Facebook post from the evening of 24 February 2021 that:

Over the years, we have implemented multiple safeguards such as a settling-in programme for all first-time FDWs, so they know who they can approach for help. These include the MOM hotline or NGOs such as Centre for Domestic Employees – CDE or Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training – FAST. Employers also need to attend an orientation programme where they are educated on their roles and responsibilities.

MOM needs to kick its habit of reverting to platitudes and seriously unpack its much-vaunted settling-in programme with a critical eye. What’s the use of giving a domestic worker an MOM hotline number when the employer can promptly seize her mobile phone after the settling-in session? It was reported that giving up her phone was a condition for employment in Piang’s case.

Employers taking away employees’ phones should be seen as a serious offence. It should be seen for what it is, an act that sets up conditions for control over another human being and a ramp to human trafficking. No one would give up his or her phone willingly to an employer unless coercion was involved, so each time this happens, a charge of extortion, for example, should be considered.

Moreover, MOM allows employers to “buy back” domestic workers’ rest days. Piang had no days off at all, so she had no opportunity to get to know others outside who could have helped.

MOM’s policy allowing employers to “negotiate” rest days with their domestic workers — whatever ”negotiate” means given the reality of power imbalance between employer and employee —  is also shown to be another reason for Piang’s demise. The poor girl was required to give up her weekly rest days.

TWC2 has long called for at least two of the weekly rest days each month to be made non-negotiable. Employers should not be permitted to “buy back” these rest days with extra pay.

One person knew all about the abuse, and from the very start

Minister Josephine Teo continued, in her Facebook post,

[Domestic worker Piang] was subsequently examined by doctors on at least two occasions, between six and 10 months of her employment. Her employment agency also spoke with her on two separate occasions. Sadly, on none of these occasions were signs of her distress picked up.

Saying that nobody noticed that she was being abused is a poor excuse for why prevention failed and why Piang eventually lost her life, for there was definitely one person who knew, and from the very beginning too, that she was being victimised and abused. Yet that person did not speak up.

Who was the one person who knew about the matter from the start?

Piang herself.

Why didn’t she speak up?

She couldn’t, firstly because we have a regulatory system that either ignores or permits employers taking away phones and rest days, as discussed above, and secondly, because she probably knew her family would face financial ruin if she lost the job.

A Facebook reader, Ashok Sharma, posted a comment following Josephine Teo’s post that said it well:

Whilst your thoughts on the matter appear on the surface to be quite endearing, you must be one of the handful of people who don’t know the role of the Employment Agencies and their agents (“agents”) and about the financial obligations imposed on the FDW and also the Foreign Workers.

Both these categories of people are almost without any exception, up to their eyeballs in debt even before they set foot in Singapore.

If you don’t know this then you are without doubt the most uninformed Minister.

When a FDW is sent to her employer, whether as a fresh employee or a transfer, the employer has to pay a sum of money to the agents as fees. The employer usually also has to deduct a sum of money monthly which the FDW owes the agents.

This arrangement raises two grave situations. The first is the employer is reluctant to change the FDW to avoid more costs. The FDW is reluctant to change employers because she may be sent back or be without a job and income for months. And she risks getting walloped by the EA.

Thus, in a lousy situation as this poor young girl was, she may have elected to withstand the punishment inflicted upon her because the alternative was something she just cannot afford, financially.

Please don’t act like all this is news to you and act all sorry for something you must know was going on all along.

Typically, a domestic worker would have no disposable income for the first seven to nine months of her job. The employer would be deducting nearly all her salary and repaying herself (the employer) as compensation for having paid the employment agency. From the worker’s point of view, resigning is no solution either, because the debt (on the unpaid balance) to the employer would not be extinguished.

In any case, resigning or losing the job would put the domestic worker in a precarious position. She would desperately need a new job, but such a “transfer” job would only be possible if the current, abusive employer granted her a letter of consent. How likely would that be in Piang’s case?

She only had a Hobson’s choice — silent submission.

Where responsibility also lies

To the degree that MOM’s policy of requiring the current employer’s consent compounds a victim’s distress, to the degree that our government looks away each time the matter of excessive recruitment fees is raised, our government can hardly avoid responsibility too.

We have to take strong action to curb excessive recruitment fees. It’s no good passing the buck, saying that some part of the fees spring from source country agents. Singaporean agents have a choice which source-country agents they want to work with, as do employers who want to circumvent agents and source directly from another country.

The Employment Agencies Act’s caps on chargeable fees — the equivalent of one month’s salary for each year of contract, subject to a maximum of two months’ equivalent — should be defined as total fees charged by all agents in the entire chain of recruitment, not just fees charged by the Singapore agent. And if it is found that any worker is made to pay more than this legal maximum, then it is the responsibility of the Singapore agent to refund the excess to the worker even if it was not the Singapore agent who charged the excess in the first place. If there was no Singapore agent in the hiring process, then the responsibility for restitution should lie with the employer. This will make Singapore agents and employers a lot more circumspect as to which overseas recruiting agents they choose to work with.

It is easy (and seductive) to get all outraged by the employer’s behaviour and to call for the severest punishment. But punishment is not going to bring Piang back and return a precious daughter to her family. Prevention could have done a lot more. Prevention, however, demands that we look squarely at what our policy-makers get wrong.

Four things must be done immediately:

1. Taking away employees’ phones must be a criminal offence, rigorously enforced.

2. Two weekly rest days per month must be made non-negotiable.

3. The Employment Agencies Act’s caps on chargeable fees should be defined as total fees charged by all agents in the entire chain of recruitment, and restitution liabilities added.

4. The rule requiring a work permit holder to obtain her current employer’s consent before being able to look for a new job should be eliminated.