Maria* was a worker from the Philippines who came to JWB after a history of abuse at the hands of her employer. One of the fortunate few who would see her employer eventually convicted, Maria had already endured several years of a drawn-out criminal trial, spending the time in the care of our front-line partner, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (H.O.M.E.). While she ultimately saw her employer plead guilty to “voluntarily causing hurt”, the victim’s compensation came to only just over S$7,000 (US $5,185), mostly for outstanding salaries Maria was owed.
While certainly a step in the right direction, the victim’s compensation award did not fully address the injuries the young woman suffered. Worse yet, a lack of prospects for new work in Singapore meant that Maria had to return home after the criminal trial, regardless of any claims to civil damages she might have.
JWB took Maria’s case as part of our test litigation program to provide access to just compensation for victims who have returned home. We began our work by identifying a pro bono lawyer in the Philippines who could support the Singapore lawyer secured by H.O.M.E. (Ms. June Lim of Eden Law Corporation). Working with NUS law students and Professor Jaclyn Neo of NUS Law Faculty, we then turned to supporting our Singapore pro bono partner to develop the legal research and litigation materials necessary to begin the civil legal process.
While the cross-border logistics of civil claims can be complicated, the legal team’s goal was simple: apply enough pressure on the employer to bring them to the table for settlement. This would avoid another drawn-out court battle, making Maria more financially whole while enabling her to move forward with her life. Fortunately for us and our partners, the strategy worked, and in a relatively short time. Faced with continued legal pressure despite our client’s absence, the employer chose to settle just a few months after civil action began. With Maria’s approval, our Singapore pro bono lawyer accepted the settlement and returned the monies to the client back home.
This outcome shows the power of JWB’s approach. By enabling workers to go home without giving up their claims, these men and women can more easily recover from the trauma they endured while receiving a critical economic foundation for their future. At the same time, bad employers learn a valuable lesson—sending their workers home no longer means they can avoid responsibility for their actions.
While this case had a happy outcome, we understand that there is much work ahead. Having recently seen a similar test case settle at an early stage, our offices in Singapore and Hong Kong are currently developing additional test cases that will lead to successful models of transnational litigation for migrant worker victims. We look forward to sharing our successes as well as the continued issues we uncover in seeking just compensation for all migrant worker victims, wherever they happen to be.
*The victim’s real name has been changed to protect her identity.