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Pre-Departure Abuses

In the training center, it was very bad….  We received rice once a day and in the morning bread….  I was there for three months.  There were over a hundred girls there.  The gate was always locked.  The security guard had the key.  If my friends ran away, the rest of the girls received punishments.  They wouldn’t give us food for a day, or we would have to do three or four hundred sit-ups.

I was so depressed.  I wanted to give up, but I could not because I have family problems.  I was so tired once [during training], I fell asleep.  The staff woke me up and made me do two hundred sit-ups until I almost fainted. Sometimes they used very harsh words, like, “If you’re not successful, you’ll become a prostitute!”  They used all bad words.  My passport was held by my agent….  They didn’t explain the employment contract, I just had to sign it.  I did not receive a copy.  I did not know what was inside.

─Dewi Hariyanti, newly-arrived Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty, Singapore, February 27, 2005

Prior to arrival in Singapore, many domestic workers encounter violations of their rights during recruitment and placement with an employer. Human Rights Watch interviewed women from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka who had suffered such abuses. Problems are especially rife in Indonesia, where thousands of licensed and unlicensed labor agents operate with little monitoring from the government. Abuses include deception about work conditions; forced confinement in training centers; poor living conditions in training centers such as overcrowding or inadequate food and water; and at times, beatings and sexual harassment. A 2004 Human Rights Watch report, Help Wanted: Abuses against Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia, describes pre-departure abuses in Indonesia in more detail.42

Labor agents often fail to provide prospective domestic workers with complete information about their working conditions, immigration requirements and fees, and their rights. The lack of information puts domestic workers at risk of exploitation and abuse by unscrupulous agents and employers. One domestic worker said, “I was offered a job in Singapore as a waitress.  I am not sure what happened, they didn’t send me. It was only after I came to the training center that they told me my only choice was to go to Singapore [as a domestic worker].”43 Another domestic worker, Dwiyani, told us, “I had to sign a contract in English.  It was translated by my agent in Bahasa Indonesia….  I got no copy.  No one explained [where I could turn for help if I had problems].”44 Some labor agents take money and contact information away from domestic workers, stripping away the few resources they have to find help. Amina Hidayat said, “If someone brought money, the agent would keep the money in the office, and wouldn’t give it back.  Some agents took phone numbers.”45

Many Indonesian domestic workers endured overcrowded, locked training centers, where they stayed for periods between one and eight months. Eko Mardiyanto told Human Rights Watch that, “there were about one hundred others.  It was very crowded, we slept on the floor….  We were not allowed outside of the training center, not even with permission.  I was sad, I wanted to fly quickly.”46 Another domestic worker said:

I was in the training center for three months.  I didn’t know [I would be there for that long.]  I thought it would be fast but it took a long time.  I wanted to go out, but I was not allowed, we could not get permission.  There were security guards.  There were a hundred of us, we slept on the floor.47

Triwulandari said, “Conditions were not so good.  There was not enough food and not enough sleep.  We slept on the floor, with no mattress and no pillow….  We were not allowed out, we had no permission.  I was sad, I wanted a good life.”48 One agency kept a young woman in a training center for eight months after she was diagnosed with worms and deemed unfit for deployment. She said, “There was a very high wall, it seemed like a jail.  It seemed like a mental hospital, sometimes I saw women crying, laughing, or running here and there.  Or sitting like this, rocking back and forth.  I felt stressed….  I didn’t want to run away because I have a lot of loans to repay for my parents.”49

Human Rights Watch interviewed many domestic workers who likened the training centers to prisons and described other restrictions on their freedom, including agents forcibly cutting their hair and taking away prayer materials. One domestic worker, Anis Rukiyah, said, “The gate was locked all the time.  They would pass food through the gate.  There were guards day and night.”50 Another told Human Rights Watch:

There were 250 girls….  We were not allowed outside.  The gates were locked and we could not go out, even with permission.  There were security guards.  Some women tried to run away….  I felt like I was in prison….  I used my same age, but a lot of my friends changed their age on their passports.  Some were under eighteen, they were going to Malaysia and Singapore….  We had a medical check, they checked our body, urine, blood.  I don’t know what they were checking….  They cut my hair.  I had no choice.  I was quite sad, who likes to be forced?  They said I could not pray, that I could not fast during Ramadan.51

Domestic workers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines tend to encounter problems if they are recruited and placed by agencies operating illegally, without licenses or accreditation. As a leader in the expatriate Sri Lankan community said, “If you come through the right channels, there is not much problem at all….  If you bypass this, and come through an [unlicensed] agent, the agent could be a crook.  The agent promises this, promises that.  [The agent may] bring them here, desert them, and run away.”52 An official with the Sri Lanka High Commission said that abusive recruitment procedures could result in trafficking: “Others are brought on tourist visas with return tickets.  They are brought on the pretext of working and lured into prostitution.  We have to stop this.  The emphasis should be on recruiting only through accredited agents and inclusion in the Employment Act.”53 Filipino diplomats said that “99 percent of complaints are from maids who didn’t pass through the POEA [Philippines Overseas Employment Administration].”54

Labor agents sometimes overcharge prospective domestic workers. Domestic workers often have no other choice given they may already be locked in a training center, have taken out large loans for the initial payments, or have commitments to help ease the desperate poverty of their families at home. Tuti Prihatin was cheated out of all her money by an agency that had no real operations. She said, “The first agency I went to was a bluff one.  I was angry.  I already had no money….  The first agency I paid two million rupiah [U.S.$198].  The second agency I also paid two million.  My mother had to borrow a lot of money to pay these fees. We paid one million [U.S.$99] for transport.”55

As is discussed in greater detail later in the report, many domestic workers feel trapped in abusive employment situations as a result of the large debts they must repay to labor agents, often six to eight months of their salary. Some labor agents also threaten domestic workers if they fail to repay these fees.  Dewi Hariyanti, a domestic worker told us:

I paid 500,000 rupiah [U.S.$46] and then they sent me to the shelter [agency].  The [agent] told me it would be a seven-month deduction, but when I arrived, I found out it was ten months.  So I had no other choice but to carry on.  If we return [to Indonesia early] we have to pay ten months salary.  The agent in Malang told me this.  If we didn’t pay, they would abuse us and send us to Batam [an area notorious for sex trafficking].  A lot of friends [other domestic workers] who are unsuccessful with their employers, they go to Batam and face abuse from the agent.  Some girls got hit, they could not go out.56 

She added that the agents would both intimidate women individually and control them by threatening to punish their peers. She said, “If we wanted to go back home, we had to pay the agents.  Before we paid, we had to be punished and sit out in the sun….The agents threatened us that, ‘if you go to the police, we will make it worse for your friends [still in the training center].’ We had to take care of our friends, so we had to keep quiet.”57

Some domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said agents told them or implied that if they did not repay debts or complete two-year employment contracts, they could face large fines or be trafficked into forced prostitution. One Indonesian domestic worker said that her labor agent imparted the following message:

We must finish the contract.  If we want to go home before two years, then we would have to pay five million rupiah [U.S.$495].  If the employer returns me to the agency and they can’t find another employer, then they will send me to Batam.  We would be given work in Batam, I don’t know what type.  I heard rumors, if sent to Batam, they would make prostitutes out of girls like me, but I don’t know if it’s true. That’s what happens if we do not finish the contract.  There is lots of pressure.

These threats prevent many domestic workers who confront workplace abuse in Singapore from seeking help because they fear the consequences if they do not finish their two-year contracts. Aisyah Fatah said that in Singapore, her employer “threatened often to send me back.  I was not allowed to talk to other people….  If I was caught, I could be sent back.”58

Lack of information about pre-departure procedures, domestic workers’ rights, and options on where to seek help compounds these problems. The level of government monitoring of recruiting agencies also affects the likelihood of pre-departure abuses. The Philippines has the most developed system for overseeing labor migration through the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). The diplomatic missions of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka have guidelines for accrediting employment agencies and issue standard employment contracts, but these may have little binding power in Singapore and are difficult to monitor and enforce. For example, employment agencies in Singapore that are not accredited by the Philippines embassy still recruit and place Filipina domestic workers.

Many sending countries have begun instituting pre-departure orientation programs that, among others things, provide domestic workers with information about their rights. These programs do not yet reach all migrant domestic workers, and often reach them only after they have already endured poor conditions and forced confinement in training centers. A Singaporean woman who works with abused domestic workers said, “The pre-departure orientation is important.  Lots of problems could be reduced if sending countries did their job. Slavery in the modern era, it starts with girls themselves….  Educating them here [in Singapore] is too late!”59 One domestic worker said she was much better able to negotiate her working conditions the second time she migrated. She said:

I asked the agent to show me the contract and explain it.  Last time I was too stupid to say no.  Because we need money, our first priority is to go to the country; we never think about [what is written in the contract] here in Indonesia, because of money.60

Immigration officials in sending countries may turn a blind eye to irregularities in travel documents in exchange for bribes. Michelle Udarbe, a Filipina domestic worker said:

I came on a tourist visa.  Other girls tried, but they couldn’t go because immigration caught them.  I was so scared because I’d never gone out of the country. The agent told me to just try my luck….  There was one lady working as a nursing aide on the same flight.  When I got to Immigration the nursing aide told me to put money in my passport.  I had 200 pesos only, but I made it through.61

An employment agent in Singapore told Human Rights Watch, “I don’t know how much.  But I’m very very sure that a certain amount [of the fee paid to labor agents in sending countries] goes to immigration officials.  In the Philippines, the agents instruct the [women] to go to which [immigration] lane and that official will have the names of the girls.  It is very obvious.” She added, “There was a time that Indonesia threatened not to send domestic workers.  I wasn’t the least bit worried, because I knew with the right amount of money, we could get around it.”62

[42] Human Rights Watch, Help Wanted: Abuses against Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia, July 2004 [online],

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with Kartika Hatmoko (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty, Singapore, February 27, 2005.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview with Dwiyani (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty, Singapore, February 22, 2005.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview with Amina Hidayat (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty-seven, Singapore, February 25, 2005.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Eko Mardiyanto (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-one, Singapore, February 20, 2005.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview with Budi Puspita (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-four, Singapore, February 20, 2005.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Triwulandari (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-four, Singapore, February 20, 2005.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with Suwarti Haniwijaya (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-five, Singapore, February 25, 2005.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with Anis Rukiyah (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age thirty-eight, Singapore, February 27, 2005.

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with Muriyani Suharti (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, March 8, 2005.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Reverend Gunaratne, Buddhist temple, Singapore, February 21, 2005.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with diplomat, Sri Lanka High Commission, Singapore, February 18, 2005.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Miriam Cuasay, labor attaché, and Crescente Relación, first secretary and consul, Philippines Embassy, Singapore, March 3, 2005.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with Tuti Prihatin (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-six, Singapore, March 6, 2005.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with Dewi Hariyanti (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty, Singapore, February 27, 2005.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Aisyah Fatah (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-one, Singapore, March 4, 2005.

[59] Human Rights Watch interview with private organization aiding migrant workers, Singapore, February 24, 2005.

[60] Human Rights Watch interview with Tuti Prihatin (not her real name), Indonesian domestic worker, age twenty-six, Singapore, March 6, 2005.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview with Michelle Udarbe (not her real name), Filipina domestic worker, age forty-two, Singapore, February 23, 2005.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with employment agent, Singapore, March 3, 2005.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>December 2005