Rescued maid gives different accounts of her time with employer to TWC2 and MOM
Was she locked in her employer’s home, made to work long hours and starved as she had claimed?
Or did she make them up to get out of her employment contract?
The story of Indonesian maid Wahyuni and her dramatic rescue was first told by non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) on its website.
But in a subsequent interview with Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officials, Miss Wahyuni changed her story. (See report above right.)
So she lied. But to whom and why?
TWC2 is insistent that its version of events is accurate.
The organisation promotes equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore. Last year, it helped 17 maidswho had disputes with their employers. It also provided shelter for 15 of them.
"This year alone, we have already extracted three who had been starving," says TWC2 executive committee member Shelley Thio, 54.
So why did Miss Wahyuni change her tune later?
"A lot of the changing of statements by maids are done out of fear. They are often scared that something will happen to them and they won't be able to go home," says Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of migrant worker welfare group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).
Ms Thio says TWC2 volunteers, including herself, always tell the maids to tell the truth when making statements to the authorities.
"We tell them they are signing legal documents and if they lie, then they are punishable by law," she says.
MOM similarly reminds maids who make allegations about mistreatment or crimes committed against them.
"Wahyuni understood that statements made to public officers have to be truthful, and that her statements would be verified against other available sources including her employer," its spokesman says.
"In accordance with our protocol, a statement was properly recorded with the assistance of an interpreter in Malay, a language understood by the worker," added the MOM spokesman.
"Before finalising, the interpreter read back the statement to Wahyuni and she confirmed the information recorded."
So why did Miss Wahyuni lie?
Ms Thio says it was the maid's first time working overseas, let alone outside her village.
"She was scared, alone and not empowered by her employers. Not having had any day off, she had no friends, no contacts and no access to information," she says.
A counsellor, who declined to be named, says many foreign domestic workers she spoke to feel lonely and isolated "as the only people they interact in the first few weeks in this strange land are their employers and families".
"Those who miss home will lie - that they are sick or a family member is hurt or has died - just to try and return," she adds.
Psychiatrist Adrian Wang says: "Some lie out of fear. Others from greed. It really depends on the context. It's human nature."
Sri Dewi, 25, an Indonesian, has worked here for five years with three different employers.
She tells The New Paper on Sunday that when she first came to Singapore in February 2010, the other maids taught her to lie, "otherwise it will be difficult to change employer or get days off", she says.
Filipino maid Luzmarie Escoba, 42, says maids sometimes lie to get out of trouble. She also says that they sometimes resort to lying "so we don't need to pay back our salaries when we break our contracts".
The tip-off about Miss Wahyuni came in late November through an e-mail from the blogsite TR Emeritus.
Ms Thio and Ms Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, another committee member, went to the house in the Thomson area to investigate.
Both TWC2 and MOM decline to give the actual location of the house or the name of Miss Wahyuni's former employer.
According to the story posted on TWC2 website, the two rescuers had to crouch outside the gate, near a ditch and trash bins, to whisper to Miss Wahyuni as she was being watched.
Through conversations pieced together from several visits, they believed that Miss Wahyuni had not had a day off in over two years, did not get enough food and she did not really want to continue working there.
This, Ms Thio says, was corroborated with the whistle-blower's and other witnesses' accounts.
She also says a large padlock on the gate attested to the fact that Miss Wahyuni was not allowed out of the house.
"We found out later that everyone in the family has a key to the padlock except Wahyuni," Ms Thio says.
However, MOM is disputing the version of events that Miss Wahyuni, who returned to Indonesia on Dec 19, had told TWC2.
"In handling cases, it is important to remain dispassionate and objective, neither favouring the employer nor the employee," an MOM spokesman tells TNPS.
"It is regrettable that TWC2 was so eager to believe a story of alleged abuse and to publish a grossly untruthful account on its website.
"At no time did Wahyuni indicate that she was confined by her employer against her will in the house."
She says that from interviews done with Miss Wahyuni, MOM ascertained that "no offence has been alleged by Wahyuni to be committed by her employer".
"She was neither mistreated, abused, nor did she allege that she was confined against her will. Wahyuni merely wanted to terminate her employment contract to return to Indonesia," adds the spokesman.
"This could have been done lawfully by invoking the termination clause and serving out her notice period as in her employment contract - without TWC2 needing to whisk her away."
One maid, two stories
FURTIVE: A TWC2 member talking to Indonesian maid Wahyuni through the gate of her employer’s house. - PHOTO: TWC2
Indonesian maid Wahyuni's conflicting stories to TWC2 and MOM
Miss Wahyuni said she wasn't allowed out of her employer's house, was made to work long hours and was starved. She also claimed that she had to beg for food from the neighbours.
She said she had sufficient food because she cooked her own, and was well rested, sleeping from 11pm to 6am.
She added that at no time did she indicate she was confined by her employer against her will in the house.
She also agreed to work on her rest days and was compensated with salary-in-lieu, as required by law.
Miss Wahyuni said she wasn't paid in full - for the 28 months she worked, she received only $2,000. It is an offence not to pay a maid's salary monthly.
She also said her employer seized the red packet money given to her by visitors during Chinese New Year.
She said she agreed to the salary-safekeeping arrangement and that whenever she wished to remit her money back to Indonesia, her employer never failed to do so.
MOM ensured that her salary balance of $4,550, which was in her employer's safekeeping, was paid in full before she returned to Indonesia and that her passage was paid for by her employer - as required by law.
Miss Wahyuni claimed she was once slapped by the matriarch of the house.
She said she was never physically or verbally abused by her employer and family. Once, the employer's mother tapped Miss Wahyuni on her right cheek, but she didn't wish to pursue the matter because the elderly woman has dementia and scolds the family members as well.
BY THE NUMBERS
Population of foreign maids in Singapore as of last June
Number of Indonesian maids here as estimated by Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia
Number of Filipino maids here as estimated by Embassy of the Philippines
The rest of the maids here are from Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India.
Q&A WITH TWC2
MOM said it was regrettable that TWC2 was eager to believe a story of alleged abuse and to publish a grossly untruthful account on its website.
How does TWC2 investigate claims?
Q: How do you decide which tip-off to investigate and which not to?
A: We take every tip-off and cry of help seriously. We investigate all of them. We leave no stone unturned.
Q: During these investigations, how many do you find are bogus?
A: Almost never. We don't only take the maid's word. We also speak to the employer and the agent. Most often than not, the cases are true.
Q: What's your modus operandi during the rescue and investigations?
A: Firstly, we do not encourage maids to run away, especially when they are looking after the elderly, the wheelchair- or bed-bound wards or very young children. Otherwise they would put these people in harm's way.
But should they run away and come to us, we will inform the family. We lodge a complaint with the authorities, and meet the employer and agent.
Whenever I speak to migrant workers, I tell them that they can go to jail if they are found to have lied as they will be signing a legal document to say they have spoken the truth.
Q: In the case of Miss Wahyuni, her story to MOM differed from what she told TWC2 - that she had no grievances, was given sufficient food, was well rested and that she had specifically agreed to the salary-safekeeping arrangement. Is it possible that she lied to you to get out of her contract?
A: I don't believe so. Take confinement, for instance. The gate to the house was constantly padlocked. Everyone, except Miss Wahyuni, has the key. The only time the gate was not padlocked was when the house was being renovated and the contractor and his workers had to move freely.
That was also the only time she could make a break for it.
If she had not been starved, then why did she wolf down the plate of rice - piled high with fish, two pieces of chicken, curry and vegetables - that I had bought for her on the day she left the house?
When we asked for her salary back, the employer came with a stack of bills for food she alleged Miss Wahyuni owed. It was for basic necessities like bread, noodles and Milo.
When I questioned the employer, her excuse was Wahyuni had wanted those particular brands that her family does not consume.
If you said they parted amicably, then why did the employer ask for $300 from Wahyuni to send her belongings home? Also, it has been two weeks since Miss Wahyuni arrived home. She has yet to receive her things.