Maid worked 17-hour-days for two years with no pay
Filipina is owed almost $9,000 after employers stopped paying her
She toiled at her employer's restaurant for 17 hours a day, with no day off or holiday for more than four years.
Ms Maria Luisa Cuizon, 42, who was hired as a domestic helper, was not aware it was illegal for her employer to deploy her in the restaurant.
For two years, the Filipina, who earned $400 a month, was happy. Her employer praised her for being hard-working and even bought her gifts and clothes.
Then, her employer stopped paying her. He said he had financial problems.
Ms Cuizon continued working for him, hoping to be paid later. It never happened, not even when she pleaded for $150 for her son's graduation in the Philippines.
She claimed that this went on for two years and the money owed to her amounted to almost $9,000.
Finally, she decided that enough was enough and sought help from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last year.
This month, her employer, Chia Chuan Huat, pleaded guilty to six charges of failing to pay her salary within seven days of the salary period and a charge for failing to ensure that she worked only at the address stated in her work permit.
He was fined $4,500. As he could not pay the fine, he was jailed for four weeks.
Sadly for Ms Cuizon, she still cannot get the money owed to her.
The prosecution applied to the court for a compensation order of $2,100 to return the salary arrears to her, but Chia was unable to pay up. He was jailed a further two weeks.
She is not the only maid who ended up working like a "slave". Last week, an employer was fined $12,000 for failing to pay his foreign domestic worker (FDW) for more than three years.
For the past year, Ms Cuizon has been in a shelter run by Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), a help group for foreign workers.
Her sister, who also works here as a domestic helper, had urged her to approach the MOM, which referred her to Home.
Ms Cuizon still hopes to get some money back from Chia before she returns home.
Close to tears, the single mother who has a 13-year-old son told The New Paper: "I don't want to go back when I have no money."
She left her home in Cebu for the first trip abroad in 2009.
Chia's Filipino wife had approached her to ask if she wanted to work in Singapore.
Ms Cuizon and a friend came to Singapore on tourist visas and Chia applied for an FDW permit for her.
BUSY ALL THE TIME
She said: "I was busy all the time. I helped the cook, took the orders, cleaned the restaurant and did the deliveries.
"Although I was tired, I forced myself to think that I was not. I was just smiling on the outside, but even the others could tell that I was tired."
The couple treated her well, buying her jewellery for her birthday and new clothes for Chinese New Year.
"They treated me like family," Ms Cuizon said.
Then they told her they could no longer pay her because they had no money.
When asked why she continued working for them for so long, she said: "They keep telling me that they would pay me, so I just waited and waited. Sometimes I was too scared to ask them."
But when they refused to give her the $150 in March last year and told her to find part-time work elsewhere, her sister told her that she had to seek help. The sisters approached MOM.
The restaurant at Katong Village, which serves Filipino cuisine, has closed down.
Ms Cuizon said: "I'm not angry with them and I didn't want to fight with them. But I was just crying so much."
Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of Home, said there is a flip side to treating domestic helpers as family.
"It can't be just a give-and-take situation. She has to be treated as an employee when there are contractual obligations to fulfil and rights to uphold," he said.
Ms Valli Pillai, director of case work at Home, who handled this case, said Ms Cuizon had trusted her employer and had been feeling depressed over her situation.
She said: "You can treat her like family. But when it's the salary date, you have to pay."
An MOM spokesman advised FDWs to approach the ministry as soon as possible if they face any well-being or employment-related issues.
They keep telling me that they would pay me, so I just waited and waited.
- Ms Maria Luisa Cuizon
Indonesian maid went to MOM to seek help
An employer failed to pay his Indonesian maid in full for more than three years, depriving her of salaries amounting to $7,450.
Finally, Ms Umi Kholifah went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to seek help.
Her employer, Razalee Rasdi, 51, ended up facing 23 charges under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA).
He was fined a total of $21,000, in default 105 days' jail, by the State Courts after being convicted of eight charges. The other charges were taken into consideration during sentencing last Tuesday.
The MOM has also barred him from employing foreign domestic workers (FDW).
Razalee was fined $12,000 for six charges for non-payment of salary, $1,000 for failure to maintain a proper salary record, and $8,000 for illegal employment.
Ms Umi lodged a complaint with MOM on June 11 last year that her employer had not been paying her salary.
Investigations revealed that Razalee failed to pay her in full from February 2010 to May last year, and the arrears amounted to $7,450.
He was also unable to produce any record showing the breakdown of salary payments, and had continued to employ Ms Umi after her work permit was revoked in February 2012 because he had defaulted on his monthly FDW levy payments.
Ms Umi is now placed with a new employer, and Razalee has paid her salary arrears in full.
This is not an isolated case, said an MOM release.
In the first half of this year, three other employers were convicted of not paying their maids' salaries.
In 2013 and 2012, five and 12 employers were convicted of the same offence respectively, and were fined up to $7,000.
Employers must ensure prompt payment of salaries to their FDWs at least once every month, MOM said.
Those who fail to do so can be fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed for up to 12 months if convicted under the EFMA.
- DEREK WONG
Not common for employers to default on pay
The director of casework at Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics has seen her fair share of cases where employers default on salary.
Ms Valli Pillai said most domestic helpers will approach them or the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) if they do not get paid after a few months.
But sometimes, it goes on for years because the maids feel attached to the family.
"Last year, a domestic helper was not paid for two years because of the family's financial situation. She agreed to continue working because she was worried that no one would care for the elderly family member if she left," said Ms Valli.
But most bosses of maid agencies said it is not common for employers to default on salary.
Mr Karl Tan, owner of Inter-Mares Management Services, said his agency has not seen such a case since it started in 1983.
"Such cases usually do not happen. I estimate only about 10 cases I have heard about in the last five years," he said.
Island Maids director Gabriel Ee said he has not encountered such an issue in his five years in the industry and attributed this to the strict regulations of the law.
"Some employers may not pay their maids as they are not satisfied with their performance," said Mr Ee.
Mr Tan added: "Some people are plain dishonest and want such services for free. But others may have their financial constraints and barely qualify to hire a maid in terms of their household income."
He said there could also be cases where employers withhold pay from their maids with the latter's consent.
In such cases, employer and maid may create a joint account where the maid's cash withdrawals have to be made with the consent of the employer.
But Ms Valli discourages domestic helpers from this practice.
"They are adults, after all, that's why they are working here. Seeing their own money every month is also motivation for them to keep working.
"I've also heard of cases of fraud when the employer took $1,000 from their domestic worker's account. Both the employer and the helper had an ATM card to the account, but the employer denied taking out the money," she said.
Foreign domestic workers seeking assistance or advice on well-being issues can call the MOM helpline for distressed FDWs at 1800-339-5505.
- DEREK WONG
TNP PHOTO: JEREMY LONG
Last year, a domestic helper was not paid for two years because of the family's financial situation. She agreed to continue working because she was worried that no one would care for the elderly family member if she left.
- Director of casework at Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, Ms Valli Pillai
Former property agent Wong Pui Kwan, 28, was jailed for a year on April 22 for abusing her domestic worker, Ms Rinonos Analyn Almoite.
Besides deducting money from her salary for mistakes she made, Wong also splashed her with cooking oil, caned her, cut hair off from the top of her head, threw a chair at her and outraged her modesty by pulling her shorts and panties down to her feet.
In all, Ms Rinonos and another maid, Ms Su Su Han from Myanmar, received only $60 in allowance since they started work.
Rafidah Rahmat, 34, pleaded guilty to 16 charges for failure to pay salaries amounting to $2,944 to her maid and to a charge of failure to maintain a proper salary record.
She was fined a total of $7,000 (in default five weeks' jail) for five charges that were proceeded on.
The maid has since received the salary owed to her.