How to reduce incidents of maid abuse?

The issue of maid abuse is once again in the spotlight with the recent case of Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan. Ms Thelma’s weight plummeted from 49kg to 29kg in just 15 moths. For allegedly starving Ms Thelma, her employers, husband and wife Lim Choon Hong and Chong Sui Foon, both 47, are now on trial. This comes shortly after a number of other people have been convicted of abusing their maids. Does this indicate that maid abuse is becoming (or already is) prevalent in Singapore?

Let’s look at the statistics. According to the State Courts, 26 maid abuse cases were filed in 2014. According to MOM, there are about 225,000 maids in Singapore in 2014. So it would seem maid abuse cases that were serious enough to be prosecuted in court represent a tiny proportion (~0.012%) of the total number of maids in Singapore. How does this compare to other countries? Let’s look at Hong Kong. In 2013, there were 37 cases of maid abuse out of 320,000 maids in Hong Kong. In other words, in Hong Kong, the proportion of maid abuse cases that were serious enough to be prosecuted in court represent about 0.012% of the total number of maids. So Singapore is comparable to Hong Kong. And maid abuse in Singapore isn’t actually that prevalent.

There are people of the view that many cases of maid abuse just don’t get prosecuted in court either because the maids don’t go to the police or there just wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. While that may be true, without any other pieces of data, information and evidence, how can we justifiably and objectively conclude that maid abuse in Singapore is prevalent?

One can also argue that even if there was a just single maid abuse case, then that’s already one too many. In an ideal world, we would not have any cases of maid abuse. But we don’t live in an ideal world. There are bound to be assholes around. Just as there will NEVER be a country with NO crime, I am sure there is no way we can ever reach a state where we have ZERO cases of maid abuse. What is important is then to take steps to reduce the incidents of maid abuse. Put in incentives and disincentives so that only the most depraved of people who somehow still managed to employ maids will not be deterred in abusing their maids.

I can think of two possible things that we can do to reduce the incidents of maid abuse.

First, the government can be explicit in saying that the 6-monthly medical examinations (6ME) that are mandatory for maids will be used to check if maids are suffering from any form of abuse. Employers would know that if they any scars they left on the maids will be picked up by the doctors during such annual check-ups. Any drastic weight lost would also trigger alarm bells. Employers would therefore be more minded in providing their maids with adequate nutrition. Employers will also be less daring to abuse their maids, lest they leave any scares that would be picked up in the 6ME. In addition to purely medical check-ups, NGOs like HOME or TWC2 can have personnel at the clinics to speak to the maids and find out more about their emotional and psychological state.

The second idea is to give awards for employers who treat their maids exceptionally well. We already have an Foreign Domestic Worker of the Year award. That is useful in celebrating the good work of the maids who voluntarily go above and beyond their call of duty for their employers. Why not have an award for employers who treat their maids exceptionally well?

I can immediately think of one example. Dr Low Guat Tin, who was formerly a lecturer at NIE before her retirement (or re-tyre-ment as she would like to call it), treats her maids exceptionally well. She would pay for her maids to go on courses to learn English, learn to cook or learn whatever the maids would find useful. She helped one of her maids to start a restaurant in the maid’s home country. She never keeps her maids for long because she believes that her maids should earn enough then go back to a good life with their families rather than constantly live away from their families.

I am sure there are maids very well. We should celebrate those heartwarming stories too. Perhaps if these more of these stories gain enough publicity, it will inspire other people to be kinder and more humane to their maids. Also, having an award like that may well play on Singaporeans’ kiasu-ness. Imagine Chinese New Year conversations, “Eh… have you heard, 3rd aunt just won the best employer of maid award last year. We cannot lose to her leh. This year we must win!” How do we implement this? Who nominates? Will it work? Will it actually lead to better treatment of maids? I don’t know. But what’s the harm/cost of having something like that? Besides, I believe that it’s usually a good thing to have more heartwarming stories in the news.

There may well be more things that we can do to reduce the number of maid abuse cases. Or at least prevent the number of maid abuse cases from rising. If you have any ideas, I would love to hear about them.

[Featured image: maids nominated for FDW of the Year award 2015 and their employers. Photo from Channelnewsasia.com]

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