Swifter justice for abused foreign workers

Filipino domestic helper Evangeline, who silently suffered abuse by her employer's adult son for more than four years, has been staying at Home's shelter while her case is being investigated and has been unable to work. Her plight is typical of the c
Filipino domestic helper Evangeline, who silently suffered abuse by her employer's adult son for more than four years, has been staying at Home's shelter while her case is being investigated and has been unable to work. Her plight is typical of the cases that come before a special group of AGC lawyers, including prosecutors from the criminal justice division who volunteer their time.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Average time taken to bring closure to cases has nearly halved - thanks to AGC group of lawyers

Domestic helper Evangeline (not her real name) was called all manner of offensive names by her employer's adult son.

He also slapped her a few times on her face and back.

The 33-year-old from the Philippines suffered the abuse silently for more than four years until last June.

But when she raised the issue with her employer, he told her he was sending her home and cancelled her work permit.

Alarmed, she sought help from the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) and has been staying at its shelter while her case is being investigated. She has not been able to work during this time.

Ms Evangeline's plight is typical of the 244 cases that came before a special group of lawyers in the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) between October 2014 and June last year.

Formed in October 2014, the group's task is to bring a swifter end to the ordeal of abused foreign workers who may have to stay for months or even years in Singapore to resolve their situation in court.

ENSURING JUSTICE IS SERVED

We want to make sure their hardship is not exacerbated by the system in any way. At the same time, we want to ensure the quality of the process is maintained and justice is served.

DEPUTY PUBLIC PROSECUTOR SHARMILA SRIPATHY-SHANAZ

There were 237,100 domestic workers in Singapore as of June last year, the latest figure available.

The group's work has borne fruit. It has nearly halved the average time taken to bring closure to the cases. And the median time taken from the first police report to sentencing has plunged to 356 days, compared with the 741 days in the two years before the group was established.

Some of the prosecutors from the AGC's criminal justice division, who have at least three years of experience, form the group. They volunteer their time, taking on the cases on top of their regular work.

Said Deputy Public Prosecutor Sharmila Sripathy-Shanaz, a member of the group: "We want to make sure their hardship is not exacerbated by the system in any way. At the same time, we want to ensure the quality of the process is maintained and justice is served."

In handling the cases, the prosecutors worked with teams in other agencies such as the Manpower Ministry and Singapore Police Force to set up specific points of contact. That reduced the time taken to locate liaisons in other agencies, and gave the AGC better oversight on all cases.

They also identify the straightforward cases that could be expedited. These could be cases where the accused persons are forthcoming with information or there is clear evidence like closed-circuit television footage.

The group also streamlined internal processes so that lawyers are ready to go to trial as soon as the case is brought to court, instead of having to wait for a later occasion to set a trial date.

In the past, there were delays when the prosecutors were not immediately ready for trial, said Deputy Public Prosecutor Sellakumaran Sellamuthoo, another member of the group.

If a victim urgently needs to go back to her country, the team tries to apply for a special hearing date ahead of time to present the evidence, so that she does not have to stay for the full trial.

The group also seeks compensation for all the cases they prosecute if employers do not voluntarily compensate the victim.

DPP Sellakumaran said the group's mandate includes helping abused male foreign workers as well but, so far, the cases predominantly involve women.

Home's executive director Sheena Kanwar, in lauding the initiative, said the long wait victims face "can be mentally detrimental, because they're stuck in limbo. They can't go home and they can't work".

Although the AGC lawyers often have to interview the maids after a day's work or on weekends, DPP Sharmila said the work is fulfilling.

"I want to ensure justice is served, and help the women regain a degree of dignity they may have lost from being abused," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'Swifter justice for abused foreign workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe