SINGAPORE — When her new employer declared “from now on, I’ll be your boyfriend”, the 25-year-old foreign domestic worker from Myanmar felt very uncomfortable.
In less than a month since she began work in the household in July this year, her employer had made several suggestive remarks to her in private, including asking her if she liked older men and if she would consider marrying him.
She already felt unsafe because of the lack of a lock on the “see-through” bathroom door and she could not close her bedroom door in her new employer’s household.
He once guided her by her hand to a room and hugged her shoulder, after which she asked to return to the employment agency handling her.
Eden Grace Human Resources, the agency, asked her if she wanted to file a police report about the alleged sexual harassment she had faced by her employer, but the worker said that she did not want to, asking instead to be redeployed to another workplace.
This was one report of alleged sexual harassment that the agency had come across, when it was approached by TODAY to shed some light on the difficulties that domestic workers or maids face when they feel unsafe or sexually harassed and want some recourse.
This week, two employers were sentenced to jail for cases of sexual abuse against their domestic workers.
A 54-year-old man was sentenced to 13 months’ jail for molesting his domestic worker while she was sleeping, and a 69-year-old man was sentenced to jail for 15 years, having raped his maid after she suffered from “depersonalisation syndrome”.
As the live-in domestic worker in a household with no one close to them to turn to for help, these workers are in a vulnerable position when sexual assaults occur.
Judges who have presided over such cases have often chided the offenders as abusing their authority and exploiting the workers’ vulnerability. Justice Aedit Abdullah said in the latest rape case, for instance, that the employer carried out a “flagrant abuse” of his authority over his victim.
It is common that the victimised workers would not report abuse to the police until someone else intervenes or an unrelated incident brings the abuse to light.
TODAY spoke to non-governmental organisations that work with foreign domestic workers, sociologists and employment agencies to find out more on the plight of these domestic workers and why abuse cases are underreported.
WHY SEXUAL ABUSE CASES ARE UNDERREPORTED
The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) said that domestic workers may be hesitant to report abuses by employers for fear that they may be penalised for making a report, jeopardising their source of income.
The organisation is a Singapore-based charity that supports migrant workers who face abuse and exploitation.
Of the complaints that it receives from domestic workers, 5 per cent are related to some form of sexual abuse.
However, it added that it is “very possible” that the actual number of sexual abuse cases involving migrant domestic workers is much higher.
Eden Grace the employment agency said that often, it is very difficult to find evidence of the alleged sexual abuse and the workers usually choose not to press charges because they prefer to return to their home country or find a new employer.
Sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu from the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University said that cases of sexual abuse are particularly sensitive because the nature of sexual abuse is often associated with a lot of shame even for the victim, which could also lead to lower rates of reporting.
“Domestic workers may fear being blamed or reputational risk,” she added.
Associate Professor Laavanya said that migrant domestic workers are a group that is especially vulnerable to abuses because of their position of dependency while working for their employers.
This includes being dependent on continued employment for legal status in Singapore, lodging and food, and basic safety.
However, Assoc Prof Laavanya said that transferring to a different employer after making a report may not always be easy for the maids, depending on their agency.
“A less supportive agency may not believe the domestic worker and side with the employer. Especially if the assertions are not seen to be very grievous or over a long period of time, agents may not take it as seriously.”
As for how agencies can support these workers in cases of sexual abuse at home, Ms Liah Golfo, 46, Eden Grace’s senior after-sales adviser and welfare officer, said that the agency has various “safety nets” to educate the maids so that they may know how to protect themselves.
One example is its in-house orientation before the workers are deployed. The workers are introduced to a protocol for them to reach out in situations of abuse and they are given “very specific” scenarios as examples.
Eden Grace also organises a once-a-week online meeting group for domestic workers to discuss their concerns privately.
It is voluntary if they want to join the sessions, which are facilitated by a “small group leader”, who is a more mature or experienced maid who has worked in Singapore for a while and can provide support and escalate concerns to the agency as needed.
Another recruitment agency, Hope Recruitment, said that agents regularly use WhatsApp to check in on the workers they handle, especially in the first six months since their deployment.
The non-governmental organisations that spoke to TODAY offered other suggestions to enhance the safety of domestic workers. This includes:
Ensuring that the workers have access to mobile phones to make timely reportsHaving other household members check in once in a while when the worker lives alone with the person for whom they careHaving an alternative arrangement for workers to live apart from their employers for greater privacy and delineation between work and non-work hours
Fast has a 24-hour helpline, 1800-339-4357, should domestic workers need to reach out to someone when in distress and the association also offers free counselling sessions for victims who may need emotional support. All cases are dealt with confidentiality, it added.