The first major change was a shift in immediate priorities. We diverted resources towards ensuring that Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) were aware of their rights under Covid-19 conditions. Many were uncertain as to whether the information conveyed by their employers was in line with new regulations, or if they were simply exploiting them. The climate was generally one of fear and uncertainty.
In response, we developed a series of infographics that covered the latest information on Covid-19 laws and policies, with a focus on MDW-related issues. These were circulated as widely as possible to MDWs directly or via our frontline partners.
Our usual activities were also impacted. The restrictions on in-person meetings meant that networking and outreach events had to be cancelled. Thankfully, we found ways around the situation to continue our core work, which comprises our casework and capacity building.
We suspended our roundtable discussion with our legal partners. We considered hosting the event online but decided against it as the major highlight of a networking event is the in-person interaction between participants.
We usually conduct outreach efforts to MDWs at events where many of them gather. For example, in collaboration with churches with a large MDW congregation, or at Foreign Domestic Day, an annual event hosted by the Foreign Domestic Workers’ Association for Social Support and Training (FAST). Under Covid-19 conditions, large gatherings were cancelled altogether.
Our caseload expanded by over 60% over 2020, and enquiries continue to stream in. For cases already in litigation, Covid-19 has caused some delays due to the difficulty of obtaining evidence in home countries under travel restrictions. For instance, it took months for one of our clients to obtain a medical report in Indonesia. For clients in remote areas with limited or no legal infrastructure, the notarisation of court documents, which is usually a very straightforward process, became a logistical operation.
Prior to Covid-19, all our capacity building activities were conducted in person. At first, it seemed as though they would all ground to a halt.
We decided to trial-run our training programmes online. These are legal awareness workshops for caseworkers on the frontlines who are often the first point-of-contact for MDWs seeking help.
In August 2020, the Singapore office rolled out its first online workshop for caseworkers at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME). Following its success, we held 6 more workshops in partnership with the Indonesian Embassy, FAST and Suara Kita. Some of these sessions were joined by members of KITA Institute and SERUNI, who dialled in from Indonesia.
To compensate for the lack of interaction, we re-structured the training content to facilitate it. Legal concepts were taught through hypothetical scenarios, and Zoom’s break out room function allowed for small group discussions.
We launched our first year-long legal awareness mentorship in August 2020. During a pandemic, it is all the more important that MDWs – already a high-needs group – are aware of their legal rights and how to access justice when those rights are violated. The success of our short online workshops equipped us with the know-how and confidence to dive into a long-term mentorship, and we were prepared to hold it online.
Overseeing new team members remotely. The Singapore office is small and relies on legal fellows (student volunteers from local universities) to carry out its programmatic work. Each batch of legal fellows joins us for a semester. Without the usual office interactions, it has been challenging to ensure that volunteers are well supported and meaningfully engaged in our work.
Courts are now much more experienced in convening online hearings and in hearing evidence at trials via video link. What was once a rare exception is becoming more regular. We hope this will pave the way for our clients, most of whom are back in their home countries, to be able to give evidence at their own trials via video link, from wherever they are. Turning this into a reality would take us a step forward in making access to justice efficient and affordable for migrant workers.
Going online has allowed us to reach MDWs wherever they are. At our online workshops, some participants tuned in while ironing or mending clothes. That was amazing!
Lastly, going online has allowed us to facilitate cross-border interactions between our partner organisations in different countries, thus creating cross-border networks of support for migrant workers. Recently, we linked an Indonesian frontline partner (KITA Institute) and a Singapore law firm partner (Simmons & Simmons) in a case review. The exchange of perspectives between home and host country partners helped to foster understanding of each other’s challenges in advancing migrant worker litigation.
In these ways, Covid-19 accelerated our path to certain milestones that had always been part of our strategic plans.
To be open. There are opportunities to be found in any given situation.
I see us experimenting with more and more online platforms to engage with migrant workers. When the pandemic is over, I see us continuing our expansion into the Philippines and establishing a practice there that builds on the valuable lessons we have learnt so far, including those learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mental health is a pressing issue, as many MDWs suddenly found themselves in the constant presence of employers now working from home. Imagine living with your boss all the time. Added to this are concerns about the health and safety of their loved ones at home and the uncertainty around when they will be able to return home.
We also saw a rise in domestic abuse cases. In one of our recent cases, the MDW’s employer lost her job at the start of the lockdown and vented her frustration by physically abusing the worker. Others have been forced into transfers against their will and charged extortionate transfer fees along the way. Faced with the dilemma of raising a complaint and potentially losing their jobs, versus putting up with undesirable working conditions, many will choose the latter.
We anticipate that many of these stories will come to light after the pandemic when MDWs start to return home.