Maids in trouble find sanctuary in Singapore shelters

Kai Portmann

For Eustafania Valdoz, trouble started with some dust in her employer’s microwave oven that she had overlooked.

The employer’s girlfriend wouldn’t forgive the Filipino maid for it.

“We had an argument,” Valdoz said. Then everything went wrong for the 48-year-old, who came to work in Singapore to support her family back home.

“She slapped me in the face,” Valdoz said. “She kept me locked in the bathroom.”

After another fight, her boss called the police and sought to send her back to the Philippines.

“But I want to fight for justice,” Valdoz said, so she went to the Philippine embassy in Singapore and complained.

While her case is pending, she is living in a shelter for foreign domestic workers run by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).

About 180,000 foreign domestic workers live in Singapore, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, said Bridget Lew, founder HOME president.

Eustafania Valdoz is one of 50 women in her shelter. Their stories shed a light on the lives that thousands of foreign women have to endure as maids serving well-to-do Singaporeans.

Some employers don’t pay wages or give their maids no proper place to sleep, not enough food or no days off. Such cases are investigated by the Ministry of Manpower.

“In most cases, the employers violated the law,” Lew said.

Then there are “the police cases,” as Lew calls them, cases of physical abuse or sexual harassment, which make about one-fifth of all cases at the shelter.

News stories about employers who stand trial for slapping their maids, banging her heads against walls or hitting them with brooms are not rare in the local media.

It was the cruel fate of Muawanatul Chasanah that opened the eyes of many Singaporeans, who pride themselves as being part of a law-abiding society.

The 17-year-old maid from Indonesia died in December 2001 after her employer, a 47-year-old tour guide, repeatedly bashed her with his fists, a cane and a hammer, burned her with cigarettes, scalded her with boiling water and kicked her in the stomach.

He was sentenced to 18 years and six months in jail.

“Physical abuse is not common, but it is certainly at a rate that is alarming,” said Anne Bergen-Aurand, a community worker with the advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too.

However, psychological abuse of maids is commonplace, she said, adding, “People treat their maids like children in a lot of ways.”

One of them was Dolores Aracan.

“I was mentally abused,” said the Filipino who ran away from her boss and his family and looked for help at the HOME shelter.

“They never touched me, but they were always scolding me,” the 44-year-old said.

Another 100 maids have found sanctuary at Singapore’s Indonesian embassy in a building with a capacity to house 150.

“We hope it will be never fully booked,” Counsellor Achmad Djatmiko said.

Interviews with women in the shelter are not really welcome, the counsellor made clear.

When a case is still pending, the maids are not allowed to go out freely. “We tell them, ‘You are not here for fun,”’ Djatmiko said.

Rules are not that strict at the HOME shelter. “They have almost been locked in the employer’s houses, so when they come to us, they should have freedom,” Lew said.

In both shelters, maids may take classes in cooking, computers or languages. They may learn new skills for a new start with a new employer.

But once their cases are resolved, most of them go home, Djatmiko said.

“Three out of 10 get new employers, but seven want to go home because they have been traumatized,” Lew said.

She blamed the lack of protection under Singapore law for the problems foreign domestic workers face in the city-state.

“The Singapore government has demonstrated concern about abuse of migrant domestic workers and responded with reform,” a report by Human Rights Watch said.

However, “Singapore excludes domestic workers from the Employment Act, which protects labour rights,” it added.

For community worker Bergen-Aurand, protection by law is crucial to safeguard foreign maids and allow their voices to be heard. For example, so far, maids have no guarantee of a day off.

By law, she said, “You can make a domestic worker work 24 hours a day.”

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