(c) The Straits Times
July 1, 2019
Legal aid group helps exploited migrant workers seek civil claims after leaving S’pore
When a foreign domestic worker was bitten by her employer’s dog, her employer did not want to pay her medical bills and deducted the costs from her salary.
Over the next few months, Nisa – not her real name – was also abused verbally and physically. Her employer’s adult daughter struck her repeatedly and she was not given any days off throughout her four months of working for the family.
Nisa eventually took shelter with migrant worker group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) for two months before returning home to Indonesia two years ago.
Like many other foreign domestic workers who face mistreatment or salary disputes, Nisa’s story could have just ended there.
But a non-governmental organisation with offices in Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia called Justice Without Borders (JWB) stepped in.
It worked with volunteer lawyers, who sent a letter of demand to the employer last year.
The woman and her daughter agreed to a settlement, and Nisa received compensation of a few thousand dollars in March.
This was no mean feat given that she was living and working in Malaysia by then, and pursuing the case required resources and contacts in three countries.
In the past five years since JWB set up its first office in Singapore, it has screened more than 200 potential claims on behalf of maids here.
Of these, 38 were found to have merit or evidence for a legal review. The maids won settlements averaging about $6,750 each.
The organisation, which is funded by companies, foundations and individuals, assists them for free. It now has 14 cases in progress.
“To the best of our knowledge, we are the only non-governmental organisation in Singapore providing this kind of service – assisting with cross-border civil claims for domestic workers,” said JWB founder Douglas MacLean, an American lawyer.
Access to justice is provided to migrant workers who are victims of labour exploitation or human trafficking. JWB helps them seek compensation from their abusers, even after they have returned home.
Claims include overcharging of agency fees, salary violations, mistreatment, injury and abuse.
Maids can also get recourse from the authorities, though the incidence of salary violations is low, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), adding that between 2016 and last year, fewer than one out of every 10,000 foreign domestic workers encountered salary violations every year. It declined to give figures for other types of exploitation or abuse faced by maids.
Any migrant worker can turn to JWB, but the majority of the cases handled here have concerned foreign domestic workers.
As the middleman, JWB works with local charities for case referrals, as well as volunteer lawyers. In Singapore, it works with 13 law firms. Related Story
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Blessed Grace Social Services (BGSS) is a recent partner. “We see this gap that needs to be filled so that bad employers do not get away with their deeds, even after the maids are sent back,” said BGSS executive director Billy Lee.
The charity assists by referring cases to JWB and helping the domestic workers with the process, such as gathering evidence.
Pastor Lee said some employers take advantage of their maids while they are home on break, cancelling their work permits so they cannot return even to collect their things.
Other non-profit organisations and agencies that work with JWB include Home, the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training, and the Centre for Domestic Employees.
“There can be instances where workers cannot afford to stay in Singapore, or have pressing family emergencies that prevent them from remaining long enough in Singapore to pursue their cases as normal,” said Mr MacLean.
“Hiring lawyers to pursue a claim from another country is expensive, and many of our migrant worker clients cannot afford to do so.”
MOM said foreign domestic workers who have outstanding salary issues should not leave Singapore, and advised them to seek help even from airport officers if necessary.
“If she has returned home without resolving her salary issue, she could alert her employment agency to lodge a formal complaint to MOM or to write directly to MOM. She may have to return to Singapore to assist with the investigations,” said a spokesman.
JWB conducts training where it advises workers to keep all relevant paperwork, write down important incidents in a journal and keep all electronic communications, so that case workers or the authorities can establish the truth of their claims.
Mr MacLean said MOM’s In-Principle Approval (IPA) letters, which must be given to workers, may help other parties understand the salary and benefits owed to a worker.
An MOM survey found that more foreign workers arrived here last year without IPA letters. Not knowing their employment terms makes them vulnerable to exploitation.
Domestic worker Genevive Lazaro, 34, was in such a quandary when she first came to Singapore six years ago. “The contract that I signed in the Philippines was not the same as the one I signed here in Singapore when I arrived. I did not know who to ask for help and had no choice but to accept the job as I was already here,” she said.
Said Ms Glory Jane, 28, another domestic worker from the Philippines: “It is good that there are lawyers who will help helpers to claim our rights even if we think nobody is on our side.”