Employers punished but abused migrant domestic worker received little else

This letter was submitted to the Straits Times’  forum page and an edited version was published on 22 March 2019.

Moe Moe Than, the domestic worker who was abused by the employers, stayed at the HOME’s shelter for 2 years and 3 months. She was housed at another shelter prior to her stay at HOME (Couple sentenced to jail for abusing maid, who was caned and forced to eat own vomit, March 19). She was allowed to return home in Myanmar in December 2017 following police investigations and court proceedings, during which time she was separated from her family and friends in Myanmar.

It is heartening to know that justice has been finally meted out following a long and exhausting wait for a victim of extremely horrific abuse. Unfortunately, besides a sense of justice, Moe Moe has received little else. The sentence for the accused persons included a jail term of 47 months and 24 months for the female and male employers respectively, and a fine of $4,000 for the female employer. The judge also ordered that compensation of $9,500 be paid to Moe Moe. HOME understands that the employers’ defense counsel noted that Moe Moe’s employers do not have the ability to pay the fine or compensation. Thus, they will be serving longer jail terms in lieu of the fine and compensation. We hope that going forward, Parliament and the judiciary can consider other solutions to ensure compensation to migrant workers who are victims of such abuse. This is particularly important because of the hardships faced, such as their inability to return home or seek employment, during the course of the investigations. It is worth considering whether the current legal framework can be amended to ensure that the assets of employers who are ordered to pay compensation may be used as a guarantee. This will ensure that compensation orders, or at least a part of them, will be complied with.

Further, this case also points to gaps in the justice system to ensure protection for victims. In Singapore, most migrant workers who are key witnesses of crimes perpetrated by their employers are required to remain in the country. Passports are withheld by the police and victims are expected to stay in Singapore without financial assistance. In some cases, the workers are given permission to find work. However, many are too traumatized to go back to domestic work, and employers are often reluctant hire a domestic worker involved in police investigations.

It is encouraging that the courts and Parliament have signaled their recognition of domestic workers’ increased vulnerability through a more severe sentencing framework for abuse. It is also an opportunity to consider a more rights-based approach to victim protection. There needs to be assured access to decent employment opportunities, financial assistance, legal aid, counselling, rehabilitation services and medical treatment. These rights should be given as a matter of course, rather than on a case-by-case basis and at the discretion of the authorities. In addition, victims’ identities should be better protected during investigation and proceedings, with the media exercising sensitivity in revealing their identity details and photographs.

Further, Moe Moe’s case should also make us reflect as a society on the systemic causes that contribute to the exposure of domestic workers to abuse and exploitation. Practices such as denial of rest days, confiscation of mobile phones, intrusive surveillance, and withholding of identity papers and documents further isolate domestic workers and create barriers for them to develop support systems and seek timely help.

Sheena Kanwar
Executive Director
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home)

Stephanie Chok