We need to treat our domestic helpers better

Starving and given little food, frequently beaten, even forced to eat vomit- Singapore has a pretty significant record of domestic helper abuse.

For a city-state as advanced as ours, it’s frankly appalling that some Singaporeans do not even treat their helpers as human.

Earlier this month, a Singaporean couple was jailed for abusing their Myanmar maid.

The couple force-fed her with a funnel, made her eat her own vomit, and threatened to kill her family if she reported the mistreatment.

The case was described by prosecutors as “arguably one of the worst of its kind” in the country.

The married couple were in fact sentenced two years ago over the abuse of another maid, but were somehow still allowed to hire a domestic helper again despite their track record.

It is not just in Singapore that such cases are heard of- reports have emerged from countries such as Hong Kong and Malaysia.

In 2014, a Malaysian couple was sentenced to hang for starving their maid to death. Their Indonesian helper, Isti Komariyah, weighed just 26 kilograms when the died- the weight of a child.

More recently in Hong Kong, a maid was fired after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, leaving her without money for treatment.
The news garnered international attention. She was also a single mother and relied on her income to feed her family of five.

“Modern-day slavery”

Eni Lestari, a domestic worker in Hong Kong and also the chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, says helpers are not even treated as “second class citizens”.

“Migrant workers are like third class, fourth or no class at all. Many of us live in modern-day slavery conditions, because often our legal rights are not recognised and we are treated lower than other workers.”

Admittedly, such cases are extreme. However, domestic helpers still face many struggles. The abuse might not be entirely obvious or physical, but subliminal as well. Not allowing adequate freedom or food, docking pay- these are just some of the small things that subtly infringe on our helpers’ rights.

Furthermore, degrading our helpers and thinking of them as slow-witted or ‘stupid’ is unfair to them as well, because our first language might not necessarily be theirs and they may struggle to understand your words.

Just because we are employers does not mean we have any right to exert forceful control.

Why do we treat our domestic workers as less than us? They are people as well, and are working hard to feed their families back home. They are people as well, who live in small, cramped spaces in an unfamiliar foreign country.

In the past, only rich families in Asia had helpers. But in more recent years, middle-class families turned to domestic workers partly because an increasing number of women went out to work.

“Many people don’t see the problem,” caseworker Paul of Tenaganita told South China Morning Post. “And of course, people, who are so used to having these workers at their beck and call, will lose some of these privileges if some of their rights are recognised.”

According to him, the public tends to acknowledge the issue only when a death occurs, like in Penang last year. Adelina Lisao, a 21-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, died on February 11 of multiple organ failure. She was tortured for more than a month and forced to sleep outside with her employers’ dog.

In Singapore, steps have been taken to further protect the rights of domestic helpers working here. For instance, in 2013, a law was introduced stating that domestic workers should have a day off each week, or be paid in lieu.

However, beyond legislation, it starts with the attitude of each and every one of us- it is our responsibility to properly provide for our domestic helpers. You would like your employer to treat you nicely, right? So treat your helpers right, too.

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