Tweak laws to ensure employers who abuse their domestic workers compensate them

This letter was submitted to TODAY’s Opinion and was published on 7 August 2019.

We refer to the case of Ms Khanifah, a migrant domestic worker (MDW) whose employer was sentenced to 11 years’ jail for abusing her. 

Zariah Mohd Ali, her employer, was also ordered to pay her about S$56,500 in compensation, or face an additional five months in prison.

Zariah's husband, Mohamad Dahlan, will serve one year and three months behind bars, and was ordered to pay S$1,000 in compensation for hurting Ms Khanifah.

The Criminal Procedure Code provides that a court may order compensation to be paid by the accused to the victim. It also provides for these alternatives:

That the accused's property may be used as a guarantee for the compensation order; and

If the accused is being committed to prison, that money found on him when he is searched may go towards the payment of the compensation order.

These measures are, however, not mandatory and are ordered at the court's discretion.

Furthermore, the Criminal Procedure Code allows the accused to serve a default jail sentence in lieu of paying compensation.

In other words, our current legal framework does not guarantee that the money in a compensation order reaches the victim. 

In Ms Khanifah’s case, if her employers’ appeals are unsuccessful and they cannot pay the compensation, she will be left with little apart from a sense of justice.  

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics suggests that the laws be amended to ensure the amount stated in the compensation order reaches these MDWs.

This can include a provision mandating a compensation order be made for MDW victims, the compulsory use of the property of the accused as a guarantee for the compensation order, and the removal of the provision where a default sentence can be served in lieu of payment of the compensation. 

We must also be aware of the difficulties faced by MDWs who are victims of abuse and who choose to report it.

Even if they are given permission to work during investigations, many are too traumatised to return to domestic work. Employers are often reluctant to hire MDWs involved in police investigations. Thus, they spend long periods away from their families, unable to make a living.

Some MDWs, like Ms Khanifah, also have to relive their trauma by facing their employers in court hearings. To at least partly compensate for such trauma, compensation orders for MDWs must be realised. 

The horrific nature of Ms Khanifah’s abuse enhances the need for monetary redress.

Further, this is her employers’ second conviction for abusing their MDW. Even though the Ministry of Manpower has stated that it permanently bans convicted abusers and their spouses from hiring MDWs, Ms Khanifah’s employers were not caught under this ban, thus perpetuating the abusive behaviour.

We note that little is known about the enforcement of this ban. Loopholes that allow convicted abusers to rehire MDWs should be plugged.

Stephanie Chok