Domestic helpers in Singapore need to be protected

FEBRUARY 28 — Piang Ngaih Don died in July, 2016. The domestic worker had been systematically starved, abused and basically tortured by her Singaporean employers for over a year. 

When she died, she weighed just 25 kilogrammes. 

Arriving in Singapore in 2015 to work as a domestic helper in order to earn money to support her child and family in Myanmar, she  suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of the family that employed her.

Her employer Gaiyathiri Murugayan has been charged with and pleaded guilty to culpable homicide and a number of other charges. 

The High Court is yet to deliver her sentence but even the Attorney General has noted the case is one of egregious abuse and asked for the harshest possible sentence.    

But while a lengthy jail term for the abusive employer in this case is an important step, harsh sentences alone are not sufficient. The truth is Piang’s death is the result not only of an abusive family but of systematic failure. 

While this may be a particularly awful and tragic case of abuse — one that ended in death — the physical and mental abuse of maids in Singapore remains all too common.   

These women, usually from underprivileged parts of poorer nations across Asia, are a legally permitted underclass. They live in this country but have fewer rights and protections than the rest of the population. 

Their wages are far lower than the general population and they are entitled to just a single off day a week. There are no set working hours.  

In practice, they are often exploited by the employment agencies who bring them into the country and then left largely to the mercy of the families that employ them. 

This legally sanctioned system of endless low wage workers has allowed middle-class Singaporeans to enjoy better lifestyles. 

The prevalence of maids has allowed many local women to enter the workforce even as they raise children and grow their families.  

The practice has been good for Singapore in that it has allowed the country to house a pool of low-wage workers doing menial tasks while locals are freed up for more productive employment.  

At the same time, it can be argued that these women earn better salaries here than they can at home and that they can build better lives at home with their wages.  

However, the system doesn’t always offer such clear win wins. It remains far too easy to take advantage of domestic helpers.  

And while Ministry of Manpower guidelines now provide clearer provisions on how helpers should be treated — requiring employers to offer helpers three meals a day and a day off — these remain really bare minimum entitlements for adult humans. 

And even with the few rights they are entitled to, enforcement is a perennial problem.

The reality is both the hiring agency and a relevant government department should be tasked with systematically following up on domestic helpers.   

Checking on their welfare annually and more frequently when they first enter the country.  

While mechanisms for maids to report abuse do exist, in reality their movements are often restricted and they lack the education or knowledge to approach a relevant authority.   

Basic training on rights should be provided to all domestic workers entering the country and there should be a hotline they can call for support. 

All maids should be entitled to carry a mobile phone of their own as a basic minimum protection.    

For now there still isn’t even a requirement for domestic helpers to have rooms of their own — which again seems like a minimum for an adult in someone else’s household.  

To this day, you often find maids sleeping in kitchens, halls or some other public part of the home.  

Also the number of hours they work per day and how these working hours should be quantified remains unclear.   

Fundamentally on many levels, the laws and protections for these vulnerable women in our country are inadequate and this inadequacy played a part in the death of Piang.    

Too little has been done to significantly upgrade the conditions of domestic workers in this country and only real policy changes will put an end to cases of serious abuse.  

Whatever sentences abusers receive without moves to change fundamental laws and policies it seems sadly likely we will  see similar cases again.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.