Kopi with Bertha: A fault in the system

Mar 26, 2017 11.00AM |

by Bertha Henson

IT BEING the season of Lent, I am going to confess to a sinful act of omission: I stood by while bullying took place. My excuse is that I was restrained by my mother, who shot me a “don’t you dare interfere!” look. So, both of us pretended that we didn’t see or hear what was taking place five metres away from us. Now, this isn’t about a big boy bullying a smaller one or a gang of girls beating up one of their own. This was a maid employer-versus-maid scene taking place in a maid agency.

It’s all too common to see maids “returned” to their agencies because their employers are dissatisfied with their work. The maids are the ones who are teary-eyed with a big suitcase standing in one corner while Mom harangues her or the maid agent.

I have never got used to such sights but this one I witnessed last week took the cake. The screaming Mom emptied out the maid’s suitcase onto the floor. Clothes, slippers, toiletries and underwear spilled out. Her purse was unzipped and coins poured out. The Mom was presumably checking if the maid was taking away anything that was not hers. I thought to myself that she could have done that at home while the maid was packing up.

There were other maids in the shop, waiting for placements, looking on. They kept an absolute silence. As did the maid agents who looked to be in despair over Mom’s antics. And you know what? The Mom had brought her son who looks to be no more than six years old. While she was screaming away, he busied himself eating his packed lunch of chicken rice. But he got up to pick up the coins that had been thrown all over the floor, stacking up the 10 cents and 20 cents for the maid to return to her purse.

I am not sure what the problem was but it had to do with the maid complaining about not getting her eight hours of rest and the Mom responding that she can’t help it if the maid can’t sleep when she’s supposed to. It also had to do with the maid talking back, referring to a Ministry of Manpower booklet on maid rights. Of course, the maid said nothing in the shop. Her face was set in stone in a formidable attempt at self-control but which she quite quickly lost…

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The maid agent who was talking to the two of us made a concerted attempt to engage our attention during the kerfuffle. It wasn’t very successful. Our ears were otherwise engaged even though we kept our eyes on him.

The maid re-packed her belongings and the Mom proceeded to discuss arrangements with the maid agent, who looked like she’d rather be elsewhere. Then she was off, with son in tow.

It was only then that I burst out in consternation at the humiliation I had witnessed.
Was the Mom trying to show who’s boss? Was she showing her son how a maid should be treated? Didn’t she feel any embarrassment at being such a public spectacle? What a disgraceful human being!

The maid agents agreed that the Mom was “too much” but said there was little they could do with the “customer”.

Whatever wrong the maid had done, no one deserved such a public shaming. I think of her pitiful belongings spread out on the floor and the little boy who was doing his best not to draw attention to himself. I think of how frightened the row of maids must be. What if their next employee was a carbon copy of this particular Mom?

The law isn’t equipped to deal with maid employers who don’t know how to behave like decent human beings. It’s only equipped to deal with those who pinch, punch, slap, scald and starve their maids. I am not asking for the law to intervene in the confines of a home; that would be an invasion of privacy. I am musing aloud at the sort of arrogance some people have and the power they think they wield when they are given the charge of another person’s life.

What would that particular Mom think if her own employer at work dismissed her and swept her belongings from her desk to the floor in full view of her co-workers? I don’t think anyone would stand for such treatment. Even if the victim kept silent, there’s a chance that the co-workers would speak up for her or lodge a quiet complaint to “upstairs”. But we’re talking about foreign maids here who are trying to make a living away from their families and friends.

I am compelled to write this because of the maid who was sentenced to four months jail for “ill-treating” her four year old charge. She had tried to retrieve a medical device from his throat, using her hand and tweezers, and didn’t inform her employers when she couldn’t.

I can just imagine the consternation of the parents when they found out that their boy, who has muscular atrophy and needs support ventilation and oxygen, had been gagging on the plug for hours and turning blue. I can also imagine the terror the maid was feeling about being found out, which would be sooner or later, and being sent packing.

The prosecution asked for 18 months jail term after she pleaded guilty earlier this month, a sentence which District Judge Low Wee Ping had described as “manifestly excessive”. He said that “the system” is at fault for allowing domestic helpers to perform “such medical work”.

“We employ maids too generally. We employ them as car washers, plumbers, house painters, medical caregivers… when we shouldn’t be. And when they do something wrong, we point our (fingers) at them.”

Noting that she had no legal representation, he asked if there was a lawyer in the courtroom who could do the job. Lawyer Mahmood Gaznavi stood up to the plate.

In a later hearing for sentencing on Thursday, Mr Gaznavi described the case as “akin to a specialist carpenter asked to perform complicated mechanical works. She is a person of no skills, let alone skills required to nurse a child who is bedridden.” The maid had two days of instruction on the medical device to suck phlegm from the boy’s throat.

“The accused did not commit the offence out of malice, but out of overzealous attempts to correct an initial act gone wrong,” he said. He distinguished her case from others in which children are deliberately and repeatedly abused by their caregivers.

The prosecution is appealing against the sentence, so not much more can be said about the case. But it’s worth noting that maids cannot be the Jill-of-all-trades in the household. More importantly, they must be treated as human beings who have similar fears and anxieties and who should be accorded the same dignity we expect for ourselves.

People would say that the maid should have told the parents immediately about what happened instead of quaking in silence, just like how I should have intervened in the bullying case.

It’s not comparable, I know.

Except for Mr Gaznavi, nobody behaved very well in this article. My apologies to all maids for the terrible behavior of that particular Mom. Rest assured that not all employers are like her. And dare I say that in the court case, justice was tempered by mercy.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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