Maids claiming abuse face long wait for justice

Filipino maid Analyn Rinonos, 30, spent two years, three months and two days in a Singapore shelter before she finally returned home to her two young children in March.

That was how long she waited while her complaint of being abused by her employer was investigated and taken through the legal system. In the end, her employer pleaded guilty and was jailed for a year.

Ms Rinonos received justice, but little else. "I came to Singapore with a dream, but it quickly turned into a nightmare," she told The Sunday Times.

There are maids who are beaten, denied food, locked up and deprived of sleep. Many of their tormentors - their employers - eventually go to jail.

But those who complain of physical or sexual abuse face months, sometimes years, of uncertainty waiting in shelters as the police investigate cases and, where possible, take the accused to court.

There are no official figures on the number of complaints, how many reach the courts or how long each case takes to be resolved.

But figures collated by migrant help group Home and the Indonesian and Philippine embassies, all of which run shelters for maids in distress, show that at least one report of physical or sexual abuse is lodged with the police every other day.

The Sunday Times found nearly a dozen cases of women who returned home a year to 18 months after making a report.

One waited four years.

Once a maid makes a police report, she needs the approval of the authorities to leave Singapore.

She is allowed to find a new job, but only as a maid. Many do not want to work as maids again, given what they say they have suffered.

Some cannot work because their employers do not cancel their work permits out of spite. Others need psychiatric help and are in no shape to work.

With no income and with restrictions on their freedom, most just want to go home or be allowed greater flexibility to work as they pursue their cases. There is no guarantee of compensation even if their employers are eventually convicted and fined or jailed.

Ms Rinonos' employer, for example, was jailed for a year for crimes inflicted on her and another Indonesian maid.

Ms Rinonos sought compensation but she was turned down.

Spokesmen for the Indonesian and Philippine embassies and Home told The Sunday Times that the authorities could look at ways to speed up investigations and consider mandating compensation for victims whose abusers are convicted.

Third Secretary and Vice-Consul Oliver C. Delfin from the Philippine Embassy said what would help is a timeline in police investigations, as the women do not have a support system here aside from their embassies.

Their families are also anxious for them to return home.

While some women persevere and wait for the cases against their employers to be resolved, many others give up, said Home executive director Jolovan Wham. Women with pending cases stay at his shelter for 15 to 18 months.

He said up to four out of five withdraw their complaints and go home. Others leave when their claims cannot be substantiated - sometimes even after they pass lie detector tests conducted by the police - and their employers cannot be charged in court.

One such case involved a 36-year-old Indonesian who alleged in March last year that her employer and his family members punched her in the stomach, put a hot spoon on her eyes, beat her with a hanger and jabbed her with needles.

She gave up and went home in February. The police issued a written warning to the employer, but there was apparently not enough evidence to pursue the case.

Two other women told The Sunday Times they went home after being told their claims could not be substantiated.

One claimed her employer had threatened her with her policeman husband's gun and hit her with tongs and a plastic bottle used to water plants.

She left Singapore in June - 10 months after lodging her complaint. Her employer was given a warning letter.

Home has also seen an increase in the number of women from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia seeking help. Indonesians and Filipinas are generally more aware of their rights and have social and embassy support networks, unlike women from some of the newer source countries for maids.

Bangladeshi maids, for instance, are relatively new in Singapore. Most do not speak English and have no idea whom to turn to for help.

Madam M. Aklima, 33, a Bangladeshi mother of two, came to work in Singapore in January, hoping to save for an eye operation for her three-year-old daughter back home.

She claimed her female employer called her lazy and would slap and abuse her every time she did not "clean the flat well".

In one incident, she said, her employer tore her blouse, then called the police to say the maid had gone mad and torn her own clothes.

Initial investigations could not substantiate her charges. Unable to afford being jobless for months on end, she returned home late last month.

Lawyer June Lim from Fortis Law, who has helped maids in abuse cases, said the criminal justice system has "little or no sensitivity" for such cases.

She said she appreciates that once charged in court, the accused person has the right to find a lawyer, make representations, raise the necessary defences or get psychiatric reports prepared.

"But I think the police investigations can and should be speeded up. The authorities should also establish protocols to keep the victim's lawyers and the shelter personnel informed of the status of the case, as it is the uncertainty that is unsettling for the FDW (foreign domestic worker)," she said.

Lawyers such as Mr Quek Mong Hua from Lee & Lee, who have represented employers in maid abuse cases, say every accused is entitled to the due process of law.

Cases may drag on because of three main reasons, Mr Quek said. In some cases, the accused protests his innocence and wants the "fairness of due process".

In others, the accused may admit to the act but has a defence, like a claim to mental illness, that needs to be proved. Then there are those who simply do not admit they are guilty and the prosecution must prove the charge.

The hardest predicament lies with the majority of cases which are minor but still have to be put through the due process.

"As a defence counsel, I would like to suggest that there should perhaps be more room for composition of offences, especially when it is in the interests of the victim, not just the accused," said Mr Quek.

Composition or compounding of an offence - sometimes allowed for minor crimes - does not amount to a conviction but enables the victim to settle with the accused in return for remuneration or an apology.

Mr Wham and some lawyers would like compensation to be made compulsory when the employer is convicted.

Mr Wham also suggested that the women be allowed to get jobs other than as maids, such as kitchen helpers. Funding for counselling and psychiatric care for those who need it would also help.

Although some of the women who allege abuse are witnesses of the state, the Government does not pay for their upkeep while they wait. That too, he hopes, will change. He said his shelter spends $400 per month on each woman.

These suggestions, if taken up, could ease the burden on distressed maids while deterring would-be abusers.

Meanwhile, those who have returned home are learning to rebuild their lives. In a recent Facebook post, Ms Rinonos wrote: "If they disrespect you, (you must) still respect them. Do not allow the actions of others to decrease your good manners, because you represent yourself, not others."

She may never forget, but she is clearly trying to forgive - and move on.

Beaten, bruised – but not broken

The way she tells it, Indonesian maid Khanifah, 34, duelled with depravity and lived to tell the tale.

She claimed her female employer broke her two front teeth with a hammer, stabbed her on the shoulders with a pair of scissors and hit her on the head with a pestle used to make sambal chilli. She said this was because she did not mop the floor cleanly enough, or left a few wrinkles while ironing a shirt.

The mother of two said she was given only one meal a day and could not run away as her employers locked her indoors day and night.

Eventually, they decided to send her back to Indonesia without telling her agent.

"I became very weak," she told The Sunday Times. "Perhaps they were scared I would die."

She said that they told her one day that her daughter had died and she had to return immediately.

She was made to wear a headscarf and dark glasses to conceal her head and facial injuries from the abuse.

It was only when she arrived in Bandung and called her husband that she realised her daughter was well.

She was sent to hospital later and her Indonesian agent took photographs of her injuries and sent them to the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore.

Embassy officials arranged for her to be brought back to Singapore and make a police report. "She was lucky that she had a good agent who promptly reported the case to us," said embassy counsellor Sukmo Yuwono, who helped lodge the police report.

Investigations are ongoing.

More than a year after returning to make the report, Ms Khanifah went home recently for Ramadan and Hari Raya.

A spokesman for the Attorney-General's Chambers told The Sunday Times that as her assistance is not required at this stage of the investigations, the AGC agreed to her request to return home. She will be back when needed.

The police report, filed on April 4 last year, reads like a cold catalogue of clinical abuse. The ring finger on her left hand was broken as her employer forced her finger back.

The "grinding stone ladle" - presumably a pestle - was used to hit her on the eyes and she had detergent poured into her eyes, causing her vision to blur. She was hit on the chest with a hammer and both wrists had "laceration marks" caused by a knife.

She worked more than a year for the family of four with two children aged 14 and 20.

She claimed the abuse began after the family moved to Woodlands from Pasir Ris, around six months into her contract. "They would hammer me at the slightest excuse, like if I did not hear them call me. And they locked me up," she said.

She claimed she was deprived of sleep and told that the flat had closed-circuit television cameras that could catch her if she slept too much. "I had to hide and sleep," she said.

With no phone and no days off, she was cut off from the outside world. "There was no one to complain to. Sometimes, I feared I would die."

She told The Sunday Times she will return when needed for her case to proceed.

"I hope not just my employer but others who do this to maids get justice too," she said.

radhab@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 03, 2014.
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