It wasn’t even nine o’clock on that Monday morning, and we already had a pair of small emergencies on our hands. Two domestic workers were calling for help. Kirana had left her employer’s home and Edie wanted to do so as soon as possible. Both names are pseudonyms because their cases are still pending at the time of writing (mid March 2022).

Neither knew each other, it was just coincidence that they came to us the same morning.

Not taken to a doctor

Kirana had been with her employer for close to three years, and the toll of long working hours was becoming too much to bear. Her workday began at 6am and she would not finish until 10pm, sometimes 11pm. Besides the couple who were her employer, there were two teenagers and a grandmother in the household.

Kirana had the usual duties, such as cleaning the house, preparing meals and doing the laundry. But she also had to do daily grocery shopping and take the grandmother to medical appointments. The latter often involve long waits at the clinic. It was the cleaning and washing up after dinner that often kept her working to 10pm when most of the family were enjoying their leisure and going to bed.

She had two days off a month but this was hardly sufficient to relieve the physical and mental toll, she said to TWC2. Kirana had tried to raise the issue of overwork with the employer, but was roundly scolded on that occasion. She didn’t dare bring the matter up again.

Her forbearance reached breaking point when she accidentally scalded herself. Quite a large area of skin on her abdomen was affected. Blisters erupted and she was in pain. The damaged skin was open to infection. Instead of taking her to a doctor, the employer merely gave her some cream that they had lying around the home. This was the last straw; Kirana decided that she had to look after her own interests and get out of there.

Not enough to eat

Edie had been eleven months with her employer. In this time, she lost nearly 20kg in body weight. On a good day, she told TWC2, she would have three slices of bread with some jam for breakfast, instant noodles for lunch, and another three slices of bread with jam for tea time. After her chores are done, she could have her one and only proper meal of the day: rice, vegetables and eggs for dinner. She rarely had meat protein except the occasional chicken, since the family had pork as their meat almost daily. As a Muslim Indonesian, Edie could not take pork.

The above was “on a good day”. Many times, she skipped what might pass for “meals”. Her employer had a habit of watching her closely, monitoring her every move. When Edie was seen eating, she mght often be told to get back to work quickly. Sometimes, Edie felt under such pressure, she would just take a few bites and throw the rest of her food away.

Edie had no day off. Her working hours, from 5am to about 1am, were even longer than Kirana’s. The employer apparently couldn’t accept the idea that the domestic worker might be free. Edie tells TWC2 that even if she had completed a chore, the employer would tell her to do it again if she had nothing else to do for a while. Clean this room again. Clean the toilet again.

Cleaning involved the use of harsh chemicals like Dettol and bleach, as did the washing of clothes. The home had a washing machine, but for some reason, the employer wanted clothes to be first washed by hand before putting them into the machine. For example, Edie recounted, she had to wash 8 to 10 pieces of small towel by hand with Dettol every day. Each towel had to be wrung dry and it had to be “super dry” to meet the employer’s demand. When, as a result, blisters erupted on her hands, Edie decided enough was enough. Time to flee.

Edie had been unhappy for a long time. She had earlier asked to quit and go home, but was persuaded by both the employment agency and her employer to hang on for a few more months until a replacement could be found.

After that first attempt to get the agency’s help, she had no more contact with them. Edie did not have access to her phone except on weekends when she could have her device back for a short while. Even then, the employer would stand around and listen in each time she made a call.

Walked out

Kirana had left her employer’s residence before she came to our attention. As she was already downtown, we gave her our address and asked her to come to our office where we’d have our first interview before taking her to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge her complaint. She had left the residence without any of her belongings, and it would be necessary to make arrangements to retrieve them.

Meanwhile, Edie was asking to be taken out of her employer’s place. She gave us the address in Choa Chu Kang, and we began making plans to meet her there. The top picture shows the neighbourhood.

However, the next thing we heard, she was already at MOM, having made her own way there. She had apparently decided she would wait no longer, and while the grandmother was not looking, she just walked out the front door. She met a Grabfood delivery guy at the elevator on her way down and asked him for assistance. He suggested that she could go to a nearby community centre to seek help, but they found that it was closed. He then gave her $4 to take a bus to another (larger) community centre.

While on the bus, Edie asked a fellow passenger how to go to MOM, but the passenger didn’t know, so, when she saw a McDonald’s restaurant, Edie alighted to seek help from the crew there. Naturally, the McDonald’s crew couldn’t leave their work stations to take her to MOM, but they gave her some more cash so she could take a taxi there. Taxi drivers would know where MOM was.

In a matter of minutes, with the help of kind strangers, Edie was at the ministry before we even knew it.

Like Kirana, Edie left all her belongings behind. She left the apartment with literally nothing but the clothes on her. She didn’t even have her phone which her employer had taken from her. TWC2 would, later the same day, lend her one of our emergency mobile phones so that she could stay in touch with us after MOM moved her to a shelter.

If you have retired your mobile phone, but it’s still in good working order, please donate it to us. We’ll have a need for it. Write to <[email protected]>.

Two sides

There are two sides of Singapore here. The two employers represent the uglier side. This is not to say that all employers are like that; many are not. But from the simple fact that Kirana bore with it for nearly three years and Edie for nearly a year before deciding to take action, it suggests to us that for every case that comes to light, there are likely to be many more suffering quietly within our nice middle-class apartments.

The delivery guy and the fast-food crew — themselves working people — were the ones who helped Edie. They’re the side of Singapore we can be proud of.