Hell's kitchen for Singapore maids

  Thousands of poor Asian women flock to Singapore to work as domestic helpers, but some end up as victims of extreme physical abuse and even murder. Mark Baker reports.
  The Age, Melbourne
July 24, 2002

MUAWANTUL Chasanah weighed 50 kilograms when she first arrived in Singapore two years ago, a slightly built 17-year-old recruited to the big city state to work as a housemaid in a job that would help support her village family back home in Indonesia. By the time she died last December, she was just 36 kilograms and her emaciated body bore the scars of 200 separate injuries.

Repeatedly bashed by her employer with his fists, a cane and a hammer, burnt with cigarettes and scalded with boiling water, the young woman's skin had been turned into a patchwork of scars, bruises and open wounds. "There were so many times I beat her, I lost count of them," Ng Hua Chye, a 47-year-old tour guide, later told police.

Muawanatul had also been starved, often given only packets of instant noodles for her lunch and dinner, and it was hunger that provoked the assault that finally ended her life. Accused of stealing leftover porridge from Ng's infant daughter, the maid was kicked so severely that her stomach ruptured. She died several days later of peritonitis, lying in agony in a vomit-stained T-shirt before police arrived too late to save her.

A neighbour in the public housing estate where Ng lived, told the Straits Times newspaper he had seen the young woman occasionally before her death, always appearing tired and unhappy. "She was 19 but she looked like she was in her 40s," he said.

Last Friday, Ng was sentenced to a total of 18 years and six months' imprisonment and 12 strokes of the cane for what the prosecution described as the worst case of abuse of a domestic worker in Singapore. "How do you describe a man who would subject a helpless human being to such pain and suffering?" said Deputy Public Prosecutor Lee Sing Lit. "Your honour, only one word: inhuman."

The case has opened a window on the life endured by a small minority of the tens of thousands of foreign women who work as maids servicing the rich and, increasingly, lower middle-class households of Singapore.

While this is the first time one is known to have died because of violent mistreatment, a spate of high-profile abuse cases over the past year has highlighted the vulnerability of many of the young women drawn from the poverty of the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other neighbouring nations to Southeast Asia's most affluent city.

Last November, television news anchor Zahara Abdul Lateef was jailed for two months for pouring a jug of boiling water over her Indonesian maid.

In March this year a 30-year-old hospital worker was sentenced to five years' jail for repeated violent attacks on her maid. The beatings, slashings and scaldings had culminated in an attack during which one of the maid's nipples was bitten off.

But beyond such shocking headlines in a society that prides itself as a clean and law-abiding enclave in an untamed region, the cases have drawn renewed attention to a largely hidden and far more pervasive culture of abuse.

It is the exploitation that stems from the lack of rights and protection for a class of workers seen by many in Singapore as a cheap, compliant and inexhaustible commodity.

Like most other maids in Singapore, Muawanatul Chasanah was not guaranteed a minimum wage, could be required to work all her waking hours and was not automatically entitled to even one day off each week. Like most maids, she could be dismissed without notice or right of appeal and sent home immediately on the whim of her employer. If regular medical screening revealed she had become pregnant, she would also have been put on the next plane out.

"These people are not second-class citizens, because they are not even citizens," says Singaporean social researcher Vivienne Wee, an associate professor at City University in Hong Kong. "Because they are not citizens they are denied proper rights and protections. Equity is only for those who belong."

Dr Wee says that while "top down" punitive measures are now being pushed by the government to counter serious cases of violence against maids, little attention is paid to the plight of women who suffer more subtle forms of physical, psychological and economic abuse. "It seems to be that it is only the extreme cases that are taken seriously, but these crimes are just the tip of the iceberg," she says. "There is a lot of abuse, harassment and exploitation going on, but it's just not visible. If this Indonesian woman had not died she would still be suffering abuse from her employer and probably nothing would have happened."

Melissa Kwee, the Singapore president of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, says many foreign maids also suffer from a common community attitude that they are inferior. "Culturally, Singaporeans don't respect the service class," she says. "We've had access to cheap labour for so long and we've got used to always having someone to clean up after us. There's a real mentality in the community of 'serve me'. There is exploitation and often a lack of empathy for these women."

Unlike Singapore, Hong Kong - the region's other main centre for foreign domestic workers - has legislation enforcing minimum wages and working conditions and a tribunal that adjudicates complaints by maids. In Hong Kong, the minimum wage for a maid is HK$3670 a month (A$847). In Singapore, unless the woman is protected by an individual contract, she can be paid as little as her employer chooses.

According to Wee, the average income of Filipino maids in Singapore is about S$300 a month (A$313), while Indonesians earn between S$160 and S$200. But she says most Sri Lankan and Thai maids get considerably less and she is aware of one Bangladeshi maid paid just S$30 a month - far less than the global benchmark for dire poverty of US$1 a day.

It is not surprising, given such bargain-basement pay rates, that the number of foreign domestic workers in Singapore has more than doubled to 140,000 in the past decade. Now even bus drivers and noodle shop owners have full-time home help.

But the biggest beneficiary is the Singapore Government which, as well as requiring employers to post a S$5000 bond for each foreign domestic worker, imposes a monthly levy of S$345 - more than most of the women themselves receive.The tax, designed to cap the inflow of foreign workers, nets the country about S$400 million a year. "The government is making a lot of money and none of it is being spent to provide support services for these women," says Wee. "The high levy also has the effect of driving down the wages employers are prepared to pay."

The government insists it is serious about giving greater protection to foreign workers. It has amended the penal code to substantially increase penalties for maid abuse. "The government is sending a very clear signal to employers: treat the foreign workers well because if you abuse them you will pay the penalty," says Then Yee Thong, a director in Singapore's Ministry of Manpower.

The ministry recorded 40 cases of maid abuse last year, which led to criminal convictions and 49 people were barred from hiring foreign domestic workers. A new accreditation system has also been introduced to tighten controls on the country's 600 maid recruitment agencies, many of which have been accused of unscrupulous practices and physically abusing maids themselves.

The courts have joined the crackdown. "A maid sells her services, she does not sell her person," Chief Justice Yong Pung How said last year when, on appeal, he raised from three months to nine months the jail sentence of a woman who attacked her maid with a broom handle and a shoe. "A maid's abased social status does not mean that she is any less of a human being and any less protected by the law."

Yet, despite the tougher judicial line, the court that tried Ng Hua Chye inexplicably agreed a day before the hearings ended to change the original charge of murder - which carries the death penalty in Singapore - to manslaughter.

The court also bowed to a plea from defence lawyers not to go "overboard" in sentencing Ng to the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Despite acknowledging there was "little by way of mitigation that merits a lenient sentence", Judicial Commissioner Choo Han Teck sent Ng to jail for just 10 years on the principal charge of manslaughter and a further eight years and six months on four other abuse charges.

But the Philippines - which provides about half of the maids working in Singapore and saw bilateral relations severely strained by the 1995 hanging of a Filipino maid convicted of murdering another maid and the three-year-old son of her employer - believes the authorities are heading in the right direction. "There has been a lot of improvement and the government of Singapore has been showing its resolute determination to punish employers who abuse their maids," says Merriam Cuasay, Labour attache at the Philippines Embassy.

Despite failing to persuade Singapore to legislate basic working conditions for foreign maids, the Philippines has moved to protect its own workers by promoting a standard contract with minimum wages and maximum working hours, and by providing extensive support, training and counselling help for women coming to work in Singapore.

"We want to show not only to Singapore, but also to all countries that host our workers that we are determined to protect them," says Cuasay.

"We want people to recognise that these workers are not just here for the money. They are helping these countries with their work and their skills and they deserve respect and acknowledgement for that."

Mark Baker is The Age Asia Editor