Two headlines in Today Online on 22 and 23 July 2021

About the same day that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was announcing new measures to mitigate abuses against domestic workers by employers and their family members, online newspaper Today had stories about two cases that came before the courts.

In one, the employer was acquitted of abuse (TWC2 is not taking issue with this finding — we respect that sometimes it is the employer who is wronged). See the story in Today: ‘Man acquitted of abusing maid after judge finds she had motive to lie, wanted a transfer‘.

In the other, the employer was unsuccessful in her appeal against a prison sentence that had been meted out for abusing her domestic worker. See: ‘High Court rejects maid abuser’s appeal for mandatory treatment, upholds 6-month jail term‘.

The two cases, whilst vastly different in their details — which we won’t repeat here because they are largely irrelevant to the point we’re making — nonetheless had one thing in common. In both, the worker wanted out of her job. But our laws being what they are, she could not get another job without the current employer consenting to a transfer. Simply resigning would only result in her being repatriated.

In the case where the employer was acquitted of abuse, the newspaper reported that

District Judge Luke Tan found that the worker, Ms Cabacungan Leezel Mina, was not credible and had a motive to fabricate the allegations against her employer’s husband Alan Tan Chai Soon.

The couple wanted to send the domestic worker, whose age was not stated in court documents, back to the Philippines due to her poor work performance.


Through his defence counsel, Tan argued that Ms Cabacungan made the allegations of abuse so that she would be transferred to another household and avoid being sent home.

In the case where the employer was convicted of abuse, the appeal hinged on whether the employer was deliberate in assaulting the domestic worker, but it was also mentioned in passing that the worker had wanted out of the job. The newspaper wrote:

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Yang Ziliang argued for the jail sentence to be upheld. He noted that in one instance of abuse involving the cordless phone, [employer Ong Si Mien] had grown upset with [domestic worker] Yulia for taking a late shower but she did not hit the maid right away, instead taking a call on the phone first.

After this, Yulia requested once more for a job transfer but Ong refused, saying that she would “transfer” her to India instead.

DPP Yang noted that this was a “different mental state than just reacting to perceived triggers”.

Human costs, and costs to the public purse too

These are the human costs of a mindless State policy tying migrant workers to employers, and giving employers veto rights over the possibility of a transfer job for the worker.

Cabacungan Leezel Mina, unhappy in working for Alan Tan and his wife, wanted out of the employment but didn’t want to be sent home, the court found. She then fabricated a complaint of abuse in order to bypass the veto of her employers through intervention of the authorities.

Yulia wanted out too. But this desire might only have escalated the antipathy of her employers.

Besides the impact on all their lives — in Alan Tan’s case he lost his job after being charged and has been unemployed for two years —  the cost to the State is something worth contemplating here. We’ve conducted two trials and an appeal.

In the end we might say justice was served, but the cost of getting to this point could have been avoided altogether.

If migrant workers were able to freely quit and find a new job, then neither of these cases would have reached crisis point. Both Cabacungan Leezel Mina and Yulia would likely have walked away from their unhappy jobs and found another. Leezel Mina would have no need to fabricate claims of abuse and Yulia would not have been stuck in her job facing repeated assaults.

In the same way that more and more jurisdictions have seen the wisdom of no-fault divorce — what’s the point of making it difficult for two persons to part ways when they clearly no longer want to be together? — Singapore should do likewise with respect to tying workers to their employers.

TWC2’s position is that migrant workers should be free to resign at any time (just like Singaporean employees) and be given 90 days to find a new job. There should be no need to obtain consent from the current or previous employer.

Inevitably, some people will wonder if this will lead to mass instability in the migrant labour market. We don’t think so; we think such fears are imaginary. Most foreign workers are relatively happy in their jobs — a point that the Ministry of Manpower likes to trumpet. In the main, workers won’t be eager to trade the known for the unknown. Secondly, just as for Singaporeans, a foreign worker should bear his or her living costs after resignation and until a new job is found. This alone will make many think twice about quitting.

The often-unstated reason for preserving the status quo is that the privileged like to wield power over other people, particularly foreigners and employees. They will find any number of reasons to resist the undermining of that power.

But for a country that prides itself on logical thinking, such emotional reasons should not determine policy. Instead we should simply ask ourselves: how much money do we needlessly expend over such criminal court cases that could have been avoided altogether?