SINGAPORE - The promise of a salary five times what she could make at home prompted Nabila to leave Indonesia and her family for a job as a domestic worker in Singapore.
What she did not realise was that it would be eight months before she earned a cent because of deductions made by the employment agency that brought her to Singapore.
With a 17-hour working day that started at 5 a.m., a "very demanding" employer and dinners that consisted of leftovers, the 30-year-old said she was driven to despair.
"I was desperate when I realised that I wouldn't get paid for such a long time," said Nabila, whose monthly salary was S$560. "I came to Singapore because I need money for my two children so that they can go to school. I need every cent."
Employment agencies are part of a complex web spun across Southeast Asia by brokers and agents that allow the domestic workers virtually no say in their working conditions.
Reports of domestic workers being burned, beaten and raped have sparked outrage in Asia, which has the largest share of the world's domestic workers at more than 21 million.
The Philippines is the only Asian nation to have ratified the International Labour Organisation's convention on domestic workers, which bans recruiters from taking money from workers' wages to recoup placement fees, among other measures.
The ILO says recruitment fees should not be charged to any worker.
"Despite this, charging and overcharging of recruitment fees is prevalent across the region and governments need to do more to ensure that recruitment agencies are punished when they overcharge and workers reimbursed," Max Tunon, a senior ILO project officer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
TRAPPED BY FEES
In the wealthy city state of Singapore, charging for recruitment services is not illegal but the government has put a cap on the amount local agencies can deduct at two months' salary.
Many agencies get around the law by saying they need to charge more to cover fees with agencies in Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar where most of Singapore's estimated 220,000 foreign domestic workers come from.
"It's a practice that traps women with a lot of debt and makes them endure all sorts of abuses to eventually get their salary, from emotional to physical and sometimes even sexual abuse," said Jolovan Wham of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a charity supporting domestic workers with legal assistance, training and basic medical care.
HOME says employers withholding payment is the second most common complaint they deal with after emotional abuse.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) says foreign domestic workers are fully protected by the law in the country of 5.4 million people, and errant employers and agencies are subject to scrutiny, fines and imprisonment.
"Singapore has numerous measures in place to ensure the welfare and protection of foreign domestic workers here, including legal protection, education, safeguards and dedicated avenues for redress," a spokesman said in emailed comments.
Next page: Long list of abuses