They come to work in Singapore with dreams of being able to earn enough to secure a brighter future for their families back home.
For some migrant workers, however, working in Singapore has been nothing short of a nightmare.
Meanwhile, another survey done by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last year found that most Singaporeans still have a negative perception of migrant workers – according to the report by ILO, such negative attitudes “can condone discrimination, exploitation, and even violence against migrant workers.”
The Pride speaks to two abused migrant workers to uncover the uncomfortable truths about their experiences in Singapore.
Yanti, 38, Indonesian domestic helper
I first came to work in Singapore as a domestic helper in 2011 because I ran into financial problems back home in Indonesia. It was a difficult decision for me to come over, because I had to leave my four-month-old daughter and husband behind.
Still, when I first arrived in Singapore, I was filled with hope. I was determined to work hard and save up for my family, so that my young daughter could have a better and brighter future.
Unfortunately, my first employers here in Singapore were unpleasant and abusive. Right from the start, there was a language barrier that contributed to many misunderstandings. And whenever I did something that they didn’t like, they would not only scold me, but rub my face, pull my hair, and even hit me on my arms.
Every night, I would go into my room and cry myself to sleep. It was made worse because they refused to let me contact my family. Still, I told myself that I was doing this for my daughter, so I endured.
After four months, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I requested for a transfer. Thankfully, my employers agreed, and I was transferred to another family.
I thought my nightmare was over then, but I was sorely mistaken. My second employers were equally abusive, and would hit me as well. The only upside was that they allowed me to talk to my family, albeit only for five minutes every fortnight.
Still, those five minutes meant the world to me. It was a link to my family, my daughter. I missed her every day that I was in Singapore. You cannot imagine the pain I felt being separated from her.
However, I soon found it strange that my husband always insisted that I spend that five minutes on the phone with him. He always had an excuse – she was sleeping, she was out with my mother-in-law, she was bathing etc – for why I couldn’t talk to her. Whenever I asked him how our daughter was, he would always give generic answers, like “fine” or “okay”.
More than a year-and-a-half later, I finally found out the truth.
She was dead.
She had died of an illness more than a year ago, when I first started working for my second employers. But my husband never got around to telling me this, because he didn’t want to do it over a five-minute phone call.
My employers knew what had happened. Yet, they chose not to tell me, because they didn’t want me to go back home or get distracted from my work.
I only found out when my employers went overseas for a few weeks, and the friend they rented their house out to allowed me to talk to my husband for a longer period of time.
Learning about my daughter’s death devastated me. She, or rather, the idea of what I wanted her future to be like, was what kept me going through the tough times, the abuse.
Now, there was nothing.
I felt betrayed by my husband. I was disappointed in him for not telling me about this earlier so that I could properly mourn her.
As for my employers, I lost whatever respect I had for them. They showed me no empathy or consideration. In fact, they were more concerned that I had talked on the phone with my husband for longer than the five minutes they allowed.
So, I began to talk back to them, to show them that I was no pushover. When they refused my request to use the phone more often – they even dared to say that I shouldn’t have any need to do so, since my daughter was already dead – I went and secretly bought my own handphone. When they realised that I was beginning to stand up to their bullying, they increased the frequency of their abuse, and would sometimes lock me in the room without any food.
Not long after, I finally decided that enough was enough. I ran away to seek help from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Investigations showed that I had bruises on my body, and they advised me to file a police report against my employer. During that time, I was brought to stay at HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics) while waiting for my case to be settled. (HOME is a Singapore charity dedicated to empowering and supporting migrant workers who find themselves victims of human rights violations and suffer abuse and exploitation.)
Thankfully, I found a network of support at HOME, and I made many good friends there. During my 14-month stay at HOME, I was able to heal, emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Eventually, I decided to close the case against my employers, because I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to find another job.
I’m currently working for employers who are kind and understanding. They treat me well, and I realise that I shouldn’t have allowed my previous employers to abuse me. We all have rights, and we all deserve to be treated as human beings.
I now spend my free time volunteering at HOME to counsel and provide emotional support to other migrant workers who have been abused. Because I want those who have suffered to know that they are not alone.
Together, we can heal from our pain and our scars.
Ms Li, 48, Chinese spa therapist
I’m a single mother of two children – one son and one daughter – who came to Singapore to work last year because my family was in debt due to a failed business venture in China. I needed more money so that I could support my family.
I engaged an agent to help me find work in Singapore, but that was a mistake, as the agent turned out to be dishonest, and I ended up having to pay an exorbitant fee.
Nonetheless, she found me a job as a spa therapist. I had learnt how to do tuina (traditional Chinese massage) in China, so I thought this would be a perfect fit for me.
However, I soon realised that the boss of the spa that I was working for was unscrupulous. He would not only deduct money from our monthly pay for unsubstantiated expenses that we supposedly incurred, but he also encouraged us to provide sexual services to our customers so that we could earn more.
Many of my colleagues agreed to do so, mostly because we were otherwise earning barely enough to survive, let alone save for our families. However, I refused to do so, and because of this, my boss took me out from his stable of masseuses, and made me do the menial work in the spa, like cleaning and running errands.
One day, however, I suffered a fall at work and fractured my tailbone. Because of that, I couldn’t move around, and I spent sleepless nights in pain. My employer refused to let me go for an X-ray, and only brought me to see a TCM doctor. When that didn’t help, he decided to end my employment prematurely and send me back home.
The problem was that I was still in heavy debt to the agent, and my employer did not pay me my salary during the five months or so that I was injured.
At my wits’ end, I went to MOM for help. I found out that I was unable to see a doctor for my injury because my employer did not buy work injury insurance for me.
I eventually got connected with HOME and stayed at their shelter while my case was being processed. They found that my boss owed me about S$25,000 in unpaid salary, injury compensation, and other miscellaneous expenses.
However, my boss closed down his business, and declared bankruptcy so that he could get out of paying me my dues. I subsequently learnt that he went on to open another two such spa establishments under other people’s names.
Throughout this time, I felt alone, ignored, and unfairly treated. I was worried about my health, but also about the financial situation back home.
But I’ve also experienced the kindness of Singaporeans in different ways – through the church and their members who offered me a place to stay, to HOME staff and volunteers who have been supporting me throughout these tough times.
For that, I’m very grateful. It’s thanks to the kindness of these people that I’m now in a better place, emotionally. There’s hope for me, for a better future now at least.
If you are a migrant worker facing abuse from your employers in Singapore, you can contact these numbers for help:
Hotline for domestic workers
+1800-797 7977 (toll free) / +65 6341 5525
+65 97873122 (Whatsapp/Viber)
Hotline for migrant workers
+65 6341 5535