Criminal Justice System
Malaysia asks why Indonesia is upset. We say it’s because [abuse] cases happen, and there is no response from the government. We understand individual cases [will happen], but if the police take action, there would be less of a negative reaction from Indonesia. In some recent cases, the police have taken the necessary steps.
—Tatang Razak, minister and deputy chief of mission, embassy of Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur, February 10, 2010
Governments have a mixed record in responding to criminal abuses against migrant domestic workers. Some governments, such as Singapore, have taken vigorous action to monitor for such abuse, prosecute cases, and to publicize the outcomes as a deterrent. In Saudi Arabia, high-profile cases have demonstrated the barriers to abused domestic workers receiving redress even when there is extensive evidence. Labor-sending governments’ outrage over abuse and the poor response by host governments has periodically led sending countries to impose temporary bans on new migration of domestic workers until greater protections are in place.
Singapore’s measures include increasing the criminal penalties for abuse of a domestic worker by 150 percent, mandating orientation programs for new employers, and ensuring that prosecutions of abusive employers and recruiters receive public attention. For example, in March 2009, a district court sentenced Tong Chew Wei to 20 months imprisonment for hitting and scalding a domestic worker, and another sentenced Loke Phooi Ling and her mother Teng Chen Lian to eight months and four weeks imprisonment respectively for beating a domestic worker and banging her head against a wall.
The Singaporean police reported there were 53 substantiated cases of domestic worker abuse in 2008 in comparison to 157 cases in 1997. The government introduced the steeper penalties for criminal abuses in 1998 and suggests these have contributed to lower levels of abuse. Furthermore, while countries such as Lebanon and Kuwait continue to confront high numbers of domestic workers dying from suicides or in attempts to escape their workplace, the number of such deaths in Singapore has decreased even as the number of migrant domestic workers has grown. In the first 11 months of 2009, nine domestic workers died due to suicide or workplace accidents in comparison to 40 in 2004.
The governments included in this report have claimed they deal rigorously with domestic worker abuse cases. Yet recent cases show multiple barriers to justice, including deportation of domestic workers before they are able to present their complaints to relevant authorities, inadequate investigations by the police, and burdensome and expensive procedures to enable workers to obtain special immigration status to stay in the country during legal proceedings. In Kuwait, there have been several incidents in which police and immigration officers admitted to raping migrant domestic workers in their custody. One officer, tasked with transporting women from investigative detention to deportation facilities, confessed that he had engaged in this practice for a period of fifteen years. Although the Kuwaiti government has responded by prosecuting these officers, these cases suggest the incidence of other such abuses, and many victims of violence may fear to approach the police.
Even in successful prosecutions in host countries, many barriers impose an undue burden on domestic workers, including requirements to remain in the country during lengthy legal proceedings. In the prominent abuse case of Nirmala Bonat, a Malaysian court sentenced her employer, Yim Pek Ha, to 18 years imprisonment (later reduced to 12 years in December 2009) for severe beatings and repeatedly burning Bonat with an iron across her breasts and back. Bonat, who had to defend herself from charges that her wounds were self-inflicted, was confined in the Indonesian embassy shelter during much of the time that the case was before the courts from 2004 to 2009. The Indonesian government, which was awaiting conclusion of the criminal case, will likely file a civil suit seeking damages on behalf of Bonat later in 2010.
The investigation, prosecution, and appeals process often stretches over years. In the meantime, in most host countries, domestic workers involved in legal proceedings face immigration restrictions on working, moving freely outside of a shelter, or returning home. These constraints, the uncertainty of a successful conviction and of any judgments being enforced, and the desire of abused workers, often deeply traumatized, to return home result in many abused workers withdrawing their complaints rather than seeking redress. Furthermore, police and immigration authorities often fail to identify domestic workers who are victims of human trafficking and who may be entitled to special legal status and protection as such.
Domestic workers also have little protection against spurious counter-allegations, most commonly employers accusing a “runaway” domestic worker of theft. In the Gulf, domestic workers raising complaints of sexual assault open themselves to allegations of adultery or fornication. For example, Human Rights Watch interviewed Sri Lankan domestic workers sentenced to prison and whipping in Saudi Arabia after their employers had raped and impregnated them. In 2007, an Indonesian domestic worker in al-Qasim province was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for witchcraft, a reduction from an original sentence of death. The Indonesian embassy did not learn about the arrest, detention, or trial of the worker until one month after the sentencing. Access to translation and legal aid remains spotty and typically depends on the presence, resources, and leadership of labor-sending countries’ diplomatic missions.
 For example, in 2009, Indonesia suspended new migration of domestic workers to Malaysia and Kuwait. The Philippines has suspended migration to Lebanon since 2006, temporarily suspended migration to Jordan in 2008.
 Elena Chong, “Jailed for maid abuse,” The Straits Times, March 13, 2009 available at http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_349679.html (last accessed June 30, 2009) and Elena Chong, “Jailed for maid abuse,” The Straits Times, March 31, 2009 available at http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_356827.html (last accessed April 1, 2009).
 Theresa Tan, “Manpower Ministry says foreign maids faring better today than 5 years ago,” The Straits Times, December 12, 2009.
Shebli Al-Rashid, “Cop, Friend Held for Raping 15 Asian Women in Salmiya,” Arab Times, January 20, 2010; “Office admits rape,” Arab Times, January 23, 2010, http://www.arabtimesonline.com/NewsDetails/tabid/96/smid/414/ArticleID/148558/reftab/99/t/Officer-admits-raping-girls-to-be-deported-for-over-15-years/Default.aspx (accessed March 11, 2010).
“18-year jail term for abusing maid slashed,” Agence-France Presse, December 3, 2009.
Human Rights Watch interview with Zania Murnia, first secretary, embassy of Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur, February 10, 2010.
Human Rights Watch interviews with migrant domestic workers in Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 2006.