After facing abuse and battery at the hands of their employer, Myanmar domestic workers in Singapore are confronted with a difficult choice: stay and press charges, in often lengthy investigations that rehash their pain, or return home and relinquish any opportunity for recompense.
Twenty-three-year-old Ma Ei Phyu Tun made the decision to stay and file a complaint. Her employer, another Myanmar woman, had left her covered in bruises and scars – injuries that required hospital attention.
At the outset, the job had seemed like a good prospect.
After graduating from university, the Mohnyin township, Kachin State, native found the job through a mutual contact. Her cousin’s high school classmate needed help around the house. There was no broker or middleman involved, and no recruiter fees, so in April, Ma Ei Phyu Tun took up the offer. But then the abuse started, spiraling from slaps to blood baths inflicted by beatings with a metal rod and coat hanger. With the help of a neighbour, Ma Ei Phyu Tun escaped and reported the case to the Ministry of Manpower.
Such allegations are common in Singapore’s foreign domestic worker industry, with women reporting being starved, beaten, overworked, not paid and sexually abused. In October, a Myanmar worker fell 18 storeys to her death. In January, a Myanmar maid told The Myanmar Times that she jumped out of a fifth floor window in a desperate bid to escape, breaking almost all the bones in the left side of her body in the course of doing so.
But to file a criminal case, Singapore requires domestic workers stay in the country, a stipulation that some rights group say prevents many maids from seeking justice.
“[The] police investigation and subsequent court process [is] lengthy and many women who suffered minor physical abuse decide not to file the case because they just want to go home leaving behind the bitter experiences,” Dr Thein Tan Win, from the Singapore-based NGO Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics said by email.
Once they’ve filed a case, the domestic workers have to stay in the country, which means finding somewhere to live and another way to earn a living.
“Some women stayed in our shelter for more than two years while waiting for the court to settle the case,” said Dr Thein Tan Win.
Singapore police were not able to comment on Ma Ei Phyu Tun’s investigation or a usual timeline for such cases as they cannot provide details to media not accredited in Singapore.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Manpower however said that 2000 foreign domestic worker cases were received this year, accounting for only 1pc of the total domestic workforce.
While the number of formal complaints may not be high, the reports of poor working conditions and exploitation are rampant. And HOME has been involved in an average of 13.5 cases per month from Myanmar domestic workers – a notable figure for a job sector that has supposedly been placed off limits to all Myanmar nationals. Nay Pyi Taw issued an indefinite ban last year, but the prohibition has clearly been flouted with some ease; HOME estimates that around 40,000 Myanmar women are currently staffing Singaporean houses.
U Soe Myint Aung, former vice chair of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation said the government’s ban applies to maids in all destination countries, not just Singapore.
“Some [workers] go themselves through other channel,” he said.
But as the pipeline is technically illegal, there is little way for the federation to get involved in providing assistance to the domestic workers, he said.
The Myanmar Embassy in Singapore did not return repeated requests for comment. The embassy lacks a labour attaché and has previously come under fire for doing little to help Myanmar nationals stuck in precarious working conditions in Singapore.
Operating in an official policy void, Myanmar domestic workers aren’t just vulnerable, research has shown that as a bloc, they fair worse than most other nationals staffing the maid industry.
A report by HOME released earlier this year found that Myanmar maids are, on average, younger, paid less, more isolated, and less likely to have a regular day off than their Filipino and Indonesian counterparts. Yet the report also indicated an annual influx in the number of Myanmar domestic workers making their way to Singapore, estimated as 33 percent higher this year than last.
The MOEAF and HOME suggested more bilateral agreements are needed between Myanmar and Singapore to handle a workflow that is clearly operating regardless of any ban, and that will allow workers a realistic complaint mechanism.
Without such a system currently in place however, Ma Ei Phyu Tun and others like her are still waiting for their cases to make their way to court, and for the day they can eventually return home.