Singapore employers using police to threaten domestic workers, report says

Migrant domestic workers in Singapore can be prevented from future employment if they are accused of a crime, even if they are never convicted [File: Wong Maye-E/AP]

More than 80 percent of police reports made by bosses against their maids do not lead to charges, rights group says.

Singapore – Singaporean employers are using the justice system as a “tool” to threaten and control domestic workers, with more than 80 percent of police reports made by bosses against their maids not leading to charges, according to a new report.

Employers in the Southeast Asian city-state hold “unprecedented” power over domestic workers, who face disadvantages in the criminal justice system due to their precarious status as work-permit holders, according to the report by the rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

Domestic workers accused of a crime are typically prevented from continuing to work and can be barred from future employment in Singapore after receiving a police warning, despite never being convicted of an offence, according to the report.

“Importantly, the findings demonstrate how the police and the criminal justice system are used as a threat, and punitive – and often retaliatory – tool against migrant domestic workers,” HOME said in the report.

The report, which was released last week, based its findings on 100 cases involving migrant domestic workers accused of crimes between 2019 and 2022.

HOME compiled the report in response to the high-profile case of former domestic worker Parti Liyani, who was accused of stealing 30,000 Singaporean dollars ($22,103) worth of items from ex-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family.

Parti’s 2019 theft conviction was overturned by the High Court in September 2020. In April, Liew’s son Karl was sentenced to two weeks in prison for lying during the domestic worker’s trial.

HOME said the most common accusation against domestic workers featured in the report was theft, most cases of which were “petty in nature”.

In one case, an employer reported their maid to the police for allegedly stealing 10 Singaporean dollars ($7.30)

“Accusations of theft can be made very easily, require little to no proof and do not negatively impact employers (regardless of the outcome), while having disproportionate and potentially disastrous outcomes for migrant domestic workers,” the report said.

Physical abuse was the next most common claim, accounting for 13 per cent of the cases involving migrant domestic workers.

All in all, only 18 percent of reports led to criminal charges. Thirty-six percent resulted in no further action and 43 percent led to a “stern warning”, which authorities can issue at their discretion in lieu of prosecution.

Heavy consequences

Although most complaints do not result in a criminal conviction, domestic workers can suffer heavy consequences from an accusation alone.

HOME said accused maids spend an average of four months at the group’s shelter and that the allegations inflict severe financial and psychological strain on them as well as their families back home.

HOME said helpers can also face “revenge accusations” after they leave their place of employment.

In one case highlighted in the report, a domestic worker, who sought help at a HOME shelter after being refused repatriation for a year, was accused of stealing money when she returned to her former employer to collect her belongings.

The helper was forced to remain in Singapore for an additional nine months pending the outcome of the investigation, which concluded with no further action.

In its report, HOME recommended that domestic workers who cooperate with investigations should be allowed to continue to work and that those issued stern warnings should not be barred from employment in the future.

The group also called for live-out options for domestic workers and greater freedom to change employers.



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