Maid abusers may face tougher sentences

Apr 07, 2017 07.00PM |

by Suhaile Md

THAT foreign maids are not slaves should patently be obvious to any decent person. But clearly that is not the case to some as seen by the maid abuse cases that appear from time to time. So much so that the Minister for Law and Minister for Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam, had to say in Parliament on Monday (Apr 3): “They are not slaves.”

While responding to questions on enhancing sentences for child-sex abusers, Mr Shanmugam said that foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are another “separate class of vulnerable victims” whose abusers should also have enhanced sentences. Members of Parliament (MP) Ms Tin Pei Ling and Mr Alex Yam had asked the questions on whether child-sex abusers should get stiffer sentences.

However, Mr Shanmugam emphasised that the above was his own opinion. The laws are currently being reviewed and he did not want to “prejudge the issue”.

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Past cases of abuse

Just last week, a husband-wife pair was sentenced to jail for sustained abuse on their two maids for years. They slapped, punched, kicked, and hit their domestic worker with canes and bamboo sticks as well. The husband was sentenced to two years and four months’ jail for being the instigator while the wife got two months’ jail.

Many other cases made the news in recent years. One foreign domestic worker had a heated spoon pressed against her arms and face. In another case, a mother-daughter pair left their maid with a permanent disability in the left ear. The culprits were sentenced to jail between 12 and 16 months. In yet another case, a maid was hit with a hammer for not cleaning the toilet properly.

However, the Penal Code was amended in 1998 to deal specifically with abusive employers of maids. Section 73 was inserted to stiffen the punishments meted out to maid abusers. For specific offences, like hurting a maid or molesting her, the maximum penalties are one and a half times that of the general penalties a culprit would face had the victim been the general public.

Said then Labour Minister Dr Lee Boon Yang: “I want to tell employers: Your maid lives in your house 24 hours a day, isolated from society. She is female and particularly vulnerable to abuse. If you take advantage of this, the law must come down hard on you.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by Mr Shanmugam on Monday: “They come here, they do the work because we don’t have enough people, and they have to be treated with certain dignity and a certain respect of the law. They are not slaves.”

Other considerations

No decent person will disagree with the good Minister’s sentiments. That said, what constitutes abuse? Could the bar for what counts as “abuse” be set too high given the context in which maids operate?

Working in an environment that is verbally hostile, being subjected to condescension and humiliation, day in and out, is a form of abuse that leaves no marks a physical health check at the clinic can catch. Some maids have their movement and outside contact restricted by their employers. It’s one thing to work for a demanding boss at the office and completely another to live with one – there’s no escape.

While an office worker can complain to the human resources department or change jobs, there is no such recourse for domestic workers. They are not allowed to change employers, unless the current boss agrees to to it. Would a mean-spirited employer allow that? Not likely, so it’s a ticket home.

Perhaps the review might take that into consideration.

It’s early days yet

Still, as Mr Shanmugam emphasised in Parliament, he could not reveal details. He only spoke in his personal capacity. After all, the issues of sentencing and charges are “independent decisions by the Attorney-General’s office”, and “not within the control of the Government”, said the Minister.

That was also his response to Ms Tin Pei Ling’s follow up query on whether the Minister could say if the review would end with tougher sentencing for child-sex abusers. However, he did add that the review would not have taken place in the first place if “everything was okay as is”.

The review comes on the back of the recent case in which child-sex offender, Joshua Robinson, was sentenced on March 2, to four years’ jail. He was found guilty for underage sex with two 15-year-old girls, showing an obscene film to a six-year-old, and possessing over 300 child pornography videos. Many in the public questioned if the sentence was adequate. However given legal precedents, the prosecution decided not to file an appeal.

The review is expected to complete at the end of this year, said the Minister.


Featured image from TMG file.

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