'Slave' in Singapore: I was too scared to ask for pay

She toiled at her employer's restaurant for 17 hours a day, with no day off or holiday for more than four years.

Ms Maria Luisa Cuizon, 42, who was hired as a domestic helper, was not aware it was illegal for her employer to deploy her in the restaurant.

For two years, the Filipina, who earned $400 a month, was happy. Her employer praised her for being hard-working and even bought her gifts and clothes.

Then, her employer stopped paying her. He said he had financial problems.

Ms Cuizon continued working for him, hoping to be paid later. It never happened, not even when she pleaded for $150 for her son's graduation in the Philippines.

She claimed that this went on for two years and the money owed to her amounted to almost $9,000.

Finally, she decided that enough was enough and sought help from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last year.

This month, her employer, Chia Chuan Huat, pleaded guilty to six charges of failing to pay her salary within seven days of the salary period and a charge for failing to ensure that she worked only at the address stated in her work permit.

He was fined $4,500. As he could not pay the fine, he was jailed for four weeks.

Sadly for Ms Cuizon, she still cannot get the money owed to her.

The prosecution applied to the court for a compensation order of $2,100 to return the salary arrears to her, but Chia was unable to pay up. He was jailed a further two weeks.

She is not the only maid who ended up working like a "slave". Last week, an employer was fined $12,000 for failing to pay his foreign domestic worker (FDW) for more than three years. (See report on facing page.)

For the past year, Ms Cuizon has been in a shelter run by Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), a help group for foreign workers.

Her sister, who also works here as a domestic helper, had urged her to approach the MOM, which referred her to Home. Ms Cuizon still hopes to get some money back from Chia before she returns home.

Close to tears, the single mother who has a 13-year-old son told The New Paper: "I don't want to go back when I have no money." She left her home in Cebu for the first trip abroad in 2009.

Chia's Filipino wife had approached her to ask if she wanted to work in Singapore.

Ms Cuizon and a friend came to Singapore on tourist visas and Chia applied for an FDW permit for her.

BUSY ALL THE TIME

She said: "I was busy all the time. I helped the cook, took the orders, cleaned the restaurant and did the deliveries.

"Although I was tired, I forced myself to think that I was not. I was just smiling on the outside, but even the others could tell that I was tired."

The couple treated her well, buying her jewellery for her birthday and new clothes for Chinese New Year.

"They treated me like family," Ms Cuizon said.

Then they told her they could no longer pay her because they had no money.

When asked why she continued working for them for so long, she said: "They keep telling me that they would pay me, so I just waited and waited. Sometimes I was too scared to ask them."

But when they refused to give her the $150 in March last year and told her to find part-time work elsewhere, her sister told her that she had to seek help. The sisters approached MOM.

The restaurant at Katong Village, which serves Filipino cuisine, has closed down.

Ms Cuizon said: "I'm not angry with them and I didn't want to fight with them. But I was just crying so much."

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of Home, said there is a flip side to treating domestic helpers as family.

"It can't be just a give-and-take situation. She has to be treated as an employee when there are contractual obligations to fulfil and rights to uphold," he said.

Ms Valli Pillai, director of case work at Home, who handled this case, said Ms Cuizon had trusted her employer and had been feeling depressed over her situation.

She said: "You can treat her like family. But when it's the salary date, you have to pay."

An MOM spokesman advised FDWs to approach the ministry as soon as possible if they face any well-being or employment-related issues.

PAST CASES

APRIL 22

Former property agent Wong Pui Kwan, 28, was jailed for a year on April 22 for abusing her domestic worker, Ms Rinonos Analyn Almoite.

Besides deducting money from her salary for mistakes she made, Wong also splashed her with cooking oil, caned her, cut hair off from the top of her head, threw a chair at her and outraged her modesty by pulling her shorts and panties down to her feet.

In all, Ms Rinonos and another maid, Ms Su Su Han from Myanmar, received only $60 in allowance since they started work.

APRIL 8

Rafidah Rahmat, 34, pleaded guilty to 16 charges for failure to pay salaries amounting to $2,944 to her maid and to a charge of failure to maintain a proper salary record.

She was fined a total of $7,000 (in default five weeks' jail) for five charges that were proceeded on.

The maid has since received the salary owed to her.

linheng@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on July 23, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.