Convicted employers are banned from hiring maids, but some get around rule
Rule covers abusive employers and household members, but some may be getting a new maid by relying on extended family.
A little-known Ministry of Manpower (MOM) rule bans abusive employers - and all their household members - from ever hiring maids again.
Between 2016 and last year, the ministry has permanently banned about 20 convicted abusers per year from hiring foreign domestic workers (FDWs).
MOM did not reveal when the ban was started, nor did it say what the total number of banned abusers is.
But how effective is this ban?
Checks by The Straits Times found a few convicted abusers who have somehow managed to get new maids to work for them again.
One of them, a 31-year-old, said she has had at least three maids since her release from prison.
She was sentenced to 20 months' jail a few years ago for abusing her former helper on several occasions - including punching and kicking her - behind the closed doors of her flat.
The maid had been working in Singapore for just a few weeks when the abuse began.
The employer would not reveal how she went about hiring her new maids. It is also not clear if another employer had illegally deployed helpers to work for her household.
However, the woman said moving on after her imprisonment has been a struggle, including having to look after her three young and active children.
Even now, she is still shunned by some of her neighbours.
"People still ask me about my past. My neighbours would also gossip," she said. "I didn't know why I did what I did, but I've paid the price for it."
BAN DRAWS MIXED VIEWS
Observers believe that some convicted abusers work around the ban by relying on their extended family to hire a maid for their households.
Employment agencies here hope that more can be done to help them filter out clients previously convicted of abusing maids.
Ms Ivy Lee, managing director of Maid-Power, said that currently, an agency "would know the employer is barred from permanent employment of a helper only when the application is rejected by MOM".
"Prior to that, there is no way the agency could know the employer was convicted," she added.
Mr Brian Tan, director at maid agency Nation, agreed, adding that his firm would refer to its internal list for former clients who have flouted regulations.
He noted that interviews are conducted with potential customers to better understand "the household needs and, more importantly, the working conditions and living environment of the FDWs".
Mr Tan added: "If we suspect that the customers had not been honest about their prior history of being convicted of abuse, or we find that the working and living environment may potentially expose our FDWs to abuse, we will not proceed with the recruitment process."
Migrant worker rights groups said the ban is a good deterrent, since the consequences are felt by the entire household. They are not aware of convicted abusers who have managed to hire new maids.
But Ms Sheena Kanwar, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, called for better enforcement of the ban. She pointed to the maid application process, where "an applicant is required to declare all the members in that household, but the applicant can choose to not declare someone who has been banned".
Advocacy groups noted that providing employment agencies with a list of convicted maid abusers would be a step forward.
Ms Kanwar said: "And it should be mandated that all employment agencies refer to this list to ensure that they do not engage with any customers who have previously been convicted of abusing a domestic worker."
But sociologist Tan Ern Ser believes there is leeway for convicted abusive employers to be given a second chance after they have served their sentence. Even so, there still has to be such safeguards in place to protect the maids, he stressed, adding that regular checks could be carried out by officials.
Mr Ethan Guo, general manager of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said that employers who are bent on engaging maids even when they are banned "will always find a way around it".
The key is to ensure domestic helpers have access to help if they face difficulties, he said.
"Some FDWs still do not get a mandatory day off. Coupled with the fact that they may have their phones taken away from them, they would have trouble seeking help if they faced abuse in the home."
WELFARE OF MAIDS
Recent high-profile cases of maid abuse have cast a spotlight on the welfare of maids here.
In one case, beauty salon manager Linda Seah Lei Sie mistreated her Myanmar maid Phyu Phyu Mar for months, forcing her to perform acts of self-harm, including pouring hot water on herself and drinking dirty water mixed with detergent.
Her interior designer husband Lim Toon Leng also assaulted the maid on one occasion, punching her forehead twice after he wrongly assumed that she had thrown away his spectacles.
Mr John Gee, who chairs the research sub-committee at TWC2, said most abused workers leave Singapore, determined never to come back to work here again.
But some have no choice but to return here for work as they need to support their families.
Ms Kanwar said: "It can take a long time to move on from the feelings of anxiety, stress and trauma that are the result of abusive experiences. But, very often, workers find coping ways to continue with their jobs. They have so many financial stresses that don't even allow them to reflect on their emotional status."
She added: "Domestic workers are vulnerable to ill treatment due to the lack of employment protections and the live-in nature of their work. Such conditions embolden abusers and make it difficult for workers to seek help when they need it."
MOM said Singapore has a clear record of strict enforcement against physical abuse of FDWs. Convicted maid abusers "face up to two times the maximum punishment of two years' imprisonment or a $5,000 fine or both, per charge" under the Penal Code.
The ministry has put in place a mandatory settling-in programme for first-time maids and an employers' orientation programme for first-time employers. Such programmes cover areas such as building a better employment relationship and stress management.
One Filipino helper, who was constantly yelled at by her former employer and even slapped on one occasion, said: "We make sacrifices to come here and earn money for our families - not to be treated like animals by employers."
Her employer was let off with a police warning, added the 45-year-old, who has since transferred to another household.
"When employers treat their helper as family, the helper will also treat them well."
ENFORCING THE BAN
It should be mandated that all employment agencies refer to this list to ensure that they do not engage with any customers who have previously been convicted of abusing a domestic worker.
MS SHEENA KANWAR, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, calling for employment agencies to be provided with a list of convicted maid abusers.
HARD TO SEEK HELP
Some FDWs still do not get a mandatory day off. Coupled with the fact that they may have their phones taken away from them, they would have trouble seeking help if they faced abuse in the home.
MR ETHAN GUO, general manager of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). He said that the key is to ensure foreign domestic workers (FDWs) have access to help if they face difficulties.
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.