By Crystal Chan
ONE employer ordered her pet dog to bite the maid.
Another used a marker pen to draw lines on her maid's face. And a third allegedly poured scalding hot water into her maid's mouth.
These were horrific acts that Singapore employers used to punish foreign domestic helpers who, they felt, were not up to par in carrying out their household duties.
Social workers are surprised that punishment methods are also becoming more deviant.
Previous acts of abuse were mostly acts of violence such as punching and slapping, but some recent victims have complained of being forced to perform humiliating acts, such as being made to sleep with dogs.
And it seems the situation of maid abuse is getting worse.
The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), which runs a shelter for maids, told The New Paper on Sunday that it has seen a threefold rise in the number of domestic helpers seeking its help.
Its executive director, Mr Jolovan Wham, said that when Home started in September 2004, there were about 30 cases a month.
Now, there are about 80 to 90 cases a month, a trend that is also reflected in the number of cases reported to the Ministry of Manpower.
The ministry handled 67 maid abuse cases last year, a 60 per cent increase from the 42 in 2006.
The number of foreign maids has also increased - 180,000 last year, compared to 160,000 in 2006.
Psychologist Harry Low said depression could be a major factor pushing maid abusers to the brink.
Hence, he said, maid abusers cannot be compared to hardcore criminals who may have planned their actions.
Mr Low said: 'Having maids doesn't mean the chores are taken care of as some maids need to be trained, and teaching requires patience and time.
'If the maid still underperforms, the pent-up frustration may combine with the employers' poor mental state and the abuse occurs.'
Mr Low also suggests that perhaps some Singaporeans have not learnt how to respect those of a lower socio-economic status. He said: 'Singapore is still far from being a civic society. We may be more affluent but our behaviour hasn't improved. While more people are able to afford maids, they may not know how to exercise their authority over the domestic helpers well.'
Poor work by maids does not give their employers the right to abuse them. Mr Wham said: 'You don't see bosses slapping their employees if they don't photocopy office documents correctly, right?'
What may be worse is that official statistics may not tell the real story as some abuse could go unreported.
Mr Wham said: 'The maids may be afraid of losing their jobs. Abuse may also be verbal and emotional as well.
'It's difficult to prosecute verbal abuse, but it can be equally hurtful.'
Some employers dock their maids' wages, and Mr Wham calls this economic abuse.
'There's a contract that employers have to honour. Mistakes at work don't give employers the right to withhold their maids' wages,' he said.
It does not help that some maids do not get days off and don't have the means to leave their employers' home to seek help. Mr John Gee, president of Transient Workers Count Too, an advocacy group for migrant workers, said increased awareness of their rights could have spurred more workers to come forward.
He said: 'Our helplines are publicised and domestic workers like reading The New Paper, so it's easy for them to report their problems.'
Mr Wham said many of the maids who seek Home's help are Filipinos.
'We get more complaints from Filipino maids than those from Indonesia, because Filipinos have a better command of English and it is easier for them to seek help.
'Home also has 15 Filipino volunteers, so our network with Filipino domestic helpers is better.'
Some calls do not come from the maids themselves, but from their friends and concerned neighbours.
Although Home has a shelter for maids, it does not encourage domestic helpers to leave their employers if the issues can be resolved.
It shelters about 60 maids.
While stress could cause the employers to abuse their maids, this is usually no excuse under the law.
In 1998, the law was amended to make the penalty for offences against domestic workers 11/2 times severer than for similar offences against any other person.
Mr Gee said: 'Even if you are stressed, that's still no good reason for you to attack your maid.
'She's human too.'
Mr Wham said: 'Sometimes, violent incidents occur because the employer and the domestic helper never tried to adjust to each other.
'If conflicts worsen and you don't make an effort to develop a relationship with the maid, things can get out of hand.'
Maid abuser: Once you're convicted, stigma stays with you
FOUR years ago, housewife Tina Yeo, 36, slapped her Indonesian maid and she has regretted it ever since.
The 36-year-old was lucky enough to escape with a $1,500 fine, but she had to give up her secretary job.
She had to stay home to care for her two young sons because convicted maid abusers are banned from hiring foreign maids permanently.
She said: 'Once you're convicted, the stigma stays with you. I should have controlled my temper instead of laying my hands on the maid.
'Now, I can't employ another foreign maid and I have to make up excuses when relatives ask why I don't get one to help me with the chores.'
Embarrassed to reveal the truth, Madam Yeo tells relatives she prefers local maids since they do not need to live with the employer.
She pays $500 a month for a local maid to clean her four-room flat in Changi twice a week, twice the amount she was paying her Indonesian maid.
Madam Yeo admitted her reaction to her maid's inability to do the chores well was out of proportion.
'The maid wasn't good at ironing clothes and I often found lines on the clothes she ironed, despite having demonstrated to her several times,' she told The New Paper on Sunday.
'I guess I just became too tired of having to remind her each time.'
The mother of two sons aged 10 and 5 also claimed that the maid did not know which containers could be used to microwave food.
Madam Yeo considered sending the maid back to the agency, but decided to give her time to improve as she had been working for only two months.
One day in March 2004, Madam Yeo lost her temper when the maid poured hot water into a plastic water bottle meant for her elder son.
She slapped the maid for her lack of common sense.
'I just couldn't understand why she didn't know the bottle wasn't heat-resistant. Part of the bottle melted when it was filled with hot water.'
The maid ran away in the wee hours of the morning to make a police report.
Madam Yeo said: 'If I could turn back time, I would have been more patient with the maid or replaced her. Slapping her was a costly mistake.'
Maid abuse in Saudi Arabia: Locked at home, no rest days, they're treated like slaves
SINGAPORE is not the only place where maid abuse cases are on therise.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, said in a report this week that Saudi Arabia should implement reforms to protect domestic workers from abuses that may even amount to slavery in some cases.
Employers are often not punished if they do not pay their domestic workers for months or years, confine them or commit physical and sexual violence against them.
Ms Nisha Varia, author of the report, said: 'In the best cases, migrant women in Saudi Arabia enjoy good working conditions and kind employers, and in the worst they're treated like virtual slaves.
'Most fall somewhere in between.'
As in Singapore, Saudi Arabia's labour laws deny domestic workers rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly rest day and overtime pay. Many domestic workers must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, the report stated.
Employers often take away the maids' passports and lock them at home, increasing their isolation and risk of psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Human Rights Watch said that rather than seeing their abusers brought to justice, domestic workers are likelier to face counter-accusations of witchcraft, theft, or adultery.
They often face severe delays in getting access to interpreters, legal aid or consular help, or are denied help.
Ms Varia said: 'Many of the women I talked to did not file complaints for fear of counter-charges.
'In other cases, they dropped the charges against their abusers, because otherwise they would be stuck in an overcrowded shelter for years, away from their families and unable to work, and with very little chance of ultimately getting justice.'
This article was first published in The New Paper on July 13, 2008.