We need to treat our maids like humans

Within hours of the news that a couple who starved their Filipino maid over 15 months had been sentenced to jail and fined, my wife, son, foreign domestic worker and I were discussing the case over dinner at a Japanese restaurant.

“She lost 20kg, sir,” said Rizza, our Filipino helper, while slurping her collagen soup.

“What was your weight when you first joined us?” I asked.

“That’s 16kg gained. I think we’d better set you back to your original weight before we get jailed for force-feeding you,” I said.

“Every week, on Monday, I tell myself I’m going to lose weight, sir, but in the middle of the week I give up,” she said, chuckling, as she fussed over our 11-year-old son, Alex.

“Why don’t you go work for that couple when they come out of jail? They have a dietary plan that would be in line with your ideal weight goal,” I suggested.

Rizza has been with us since late 2009, when Alex was 4 years old. Her primary job is to look after him, a task she performs superbly. She cooks our meals and cleans the home, too, very efficiently. She would be around whenever we are out with Alex, and she eats with us whenever we eat out. Not leftovers, I assure you. In fact, if you saw my slender frame (1.84m, 64kg) beside hers, you might think I’m the abused employer eating her leftovers.

She has three teenage children at home, and with some of her income, her husband has set up a modest transport service in their rural village.

On returning to Singapore from her last trip to the Philippines, she told us how proud and happy she was to see her home – the building and furnishings were financed by the wages we have paid her.

“I was so happy to see the result of my work, sir,” she said.

By and large, Rizza is happy in Singapore, and she and Alex get along famously.

However, it is still an enormous sacrifice she has to make, making a living away from home, missing her husband, missing her children, forfeiting the opportunity to watch them grow up in favour of helping us raise our son.

So we make it a point to make her feel comfortable here. She has her own bedroom with a computer and complete Internet access so she gets to watch all the K-movies and K-serials she wants to or pretend to be a K-pop singer – as soon as Alex goes to bed.

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I am not trying to show you what fantastic employers my wife and I are. I’m just offering a glimpse of how we manage as a family. Neither my wife Cara nor I have a PhD in the science of managing foreign domestic workers, but we can tell you this: We treat Rizza like a human being. We treat her as family.

Which is why it always comes as a shock to us when we hear of maids being abused.

A friend of mine who is around the age of the 47-year-old freelance trader and his wife who were sentenced to three weeks’ and three months’ jail respectively, said that, as a child, he had a “majie” or “amah” – those live-in domestic workers from Guangdong who wore the distinctive white blouse and black slacks – in his home.

“They did the household chores, took care of us, and were basically treated like family,” he said. “With the abuse we are seeing, maybe we should ask ourselves whether we should be allowed to have maids,” he added.

Many of us would respond with outrage if we see animals subjected to such cruelty as starvation or physical abuse. What more if that abuse were inflicted on a human being, especially one who takes care of our children or elderly sick, and who probably has to wake up as early as 5am and not get to bed until after midnight?

There were 26 cases of maid abuse that went to courts in Singapore in 2014, and about 10 cases each in 2015 and last year. NGOs that provide assistance to foreign domestic workers will tell you that there are many more cases which do not make it to court for various reasons, and there are probably others that never get reported at all. Even adding those, it may be a small proportion of the 239,700 foreign domestic workers currently employed in our island-republic.

But every case is a case too many, and each a human tragedy.

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On the flip side, there are maids who lie to and steal from their employers, or even ill-treat the young or elderly left in their care. While there are ways of dealing with these transgressions – a pep talk, a good scolding, sending them back to the maid agency or handing them over to the authorities – abusing them is not and must never be an option, more so when unprovoked, and especially when you consider we have so much of an upper hand over them.

How, then, can we prevent maid abuse in Singapore?

One way is to increase the penalties for crimes relating to such. Another is to impose stringent psychological and suitability tests for potential employers.

A simpler way may be to impose a compulsory interview for the maid with an agency or the authorities once every six months. During such an interview, the maid should be given the freedom to speak privately with somebody without supervision from her employers.

This could be conducted at a maid agency, a Neighbourhood Police Post or even at a doctor’s clinic during the maid’s six-monthly medical review. This would afford an abused maid who has been deprived of contact from the outside world an opportunity to cry for help.

Before such measures come into place, we could start treating our maids better. Treat them like family, and they’ll begin to treat your family like their own. And even if we are reluctant to treat our maids as family, we should at least treat them like the human beings they are.

While on holiday in Krabi, Thailand, a couple of years back, our helper Rizza hurt herself quite dramatically while playing on the beach with Alex: She stepped on some rusty metal rods that were concealed by sand and shallow water and suffered a grisly gash on the sole of her left foot.

We helped her as she hobbled to the rented car and got her to a clinic where she received medical attention. When she was suitably patched up, I asked her how she was feeling, and through the pain, she told us she would be fine.

“Luckily it was me who stepped on the rods, sir,” she said. “I cannot imagine how, if Alex was the one who stepped on them.”

I knew then, as I do now, that if Alex were in any danger, she would protect him with her life.

If you are a maid and feel you are being abused, call the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) 24-hour helpline for maids on 1800-339-4357.