SINGAPORE – A court has jailed a Singaporean couple on Monday for starving their Filipino domestic helper, a case that highlighted what rights groups say is a common complaint in the wealthy city-state.
Thelma Oyasan Gawidan, 40, lost 20kg and weighed just 29.4kg in April 2014 after being given too little to eat for about 15 months, prosecutors said.
She was given two or three slices of plain white bread and one to two packets of instant noodles for breakfast, while for her second and last meal of the day she was given five or six slices of plain bread, prosecutors said.
In slightly more than a year, her weight dropped from 49kg to 29kg, and she had to be admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital in April 2014.
The prosecution noted that Ms Gawidan, now 41 years old, lost 40% of her body mass, stopped menstruating, and suffered emotionally and psychologically.
She also had to ask for permission before drinking water and was not allowed to use the bathrooms in the couple’s home.
Instead, she had to use the toilet meant for visitors in the estate’s common areas.
Apart from that, she was allowed to shower just once or twice a week, with Chong watching over her inside the toilet.
Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Tan Soo Tet did not hold back as he called for the maximum jail term of one year for the married couple.
“It is sickening that the victim had been forced to endure inhumane treatment of such cruelty and duration in what must have for her been an unspeakably hellish and unbearable existence”, Tan told the court.
He said even though Chong has a history of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), there was no link between her mental condition and her offence.
“She deliberately and selectively exercised blatant discrimination against the victim,” he added.
Lim Choon Hong was jailed for three weeks and fined S$10,000 (US$7,200, 247,000 baht), while his wife, Chong Sui Foon, got three months with no fine. They had both pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors said they would appeal. The maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment and a S$10,000 fine.
The prosecutors, who sought a maximum jail term of 12 months for each of them, will appeal against the sentence.
A spokesperson from the Attorney-General’s Chambers said that the prosecution is appealing “on the grounds that both sentences imposed are manifestly inadequate”.
Pending the appeal, the couple are out on a bail of S$3,000 each.
“I accept that… you are remorseful and that you did not intentionally seek to starve your maid,” Judge Low Wee Ping said.
Defence counsel Raymond Lye said his clients had no intention to cause harm. The more common cases of domestic helper abuse were of “physical assault, which are intentional offences”, he said.
“Clients, they feel a sense of relief. They were hoping to commence their jail term but in light of the appeal by the prosecution, that will have to be delayed,” Lye said.
In her defence, Chong had said she suffered from an eating disorder when younger and had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adult, media reported. The judge said there was no link.
The couple paid the domestic helper, who now works for another employer, S$20,000 to settle civil claims, prosecutors said.
John Gee, head of the research team for rights group Transient Workers Count Too, said cases of domestic helpers being given inadequate food “happen with alarming regularity”.
“This is definitely a familiar practice, especially by employers who want to save money,” Gee said, adding that although overall living and working conditions for domestic helpers in Singapore had improved, “a lot more needs to be done.”
Jolovan Wham, executive director of rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said at least 30 percent of the domestic helpers who approached his organisation in the past six months complained of “inadequate food”.
“Thelma’s case made it to court because it was so egregious,” Wham said, adding that HOME was approached by an average of 20 domestic helpers a week.
Government rules state that employers are responsible for providing “adequate” food, “acceptable” accommodation and medical treatment for domestic helpers.
The guidelines suggest three meals a day. An example of what adequate food means includes four slices of bread with spread for breakfast and one bowl of rice, with three-quarters of a cup of cooked vegetables, a palm-sized amount of meat and fruit for lunch and dinner.
As of last December, there were 239,700 domestic helpers in Singapore, up from 231,500 in 2015, government data shows.