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Sheena Kanwar of migrant workers' group Home: She’s at Home with fighting inequality

Ms Kanwar, the new executive director of migrant worker advocacy group Home. In her first week on the job, an attempt to arrange a transfer for a troubled maid saw her getting screamed at by the maid's employer instead.
Ms Kanwar, the new executive director of migrant worker advocacy group Home. In her first week on the job, an attempt to arrange a transfer for a troubled maid saw her getting screamed at by the maid's employer instead.ST PHOTO: DON CHI

New head of migrant workers' advocacy group wants better protection for them

Barely a week into her new job, Ms Sheena Kanwar found herself being screamed at by a livid employer.

The 34-year-old had just become the executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics (Home), an advocacy group for foreign workers, at the end of July.

Her first case was that of a Myanmar maid who had run away because of her employer's scoldings.

Said Ms Kanwar: "She had very little food - just a bowl of rice a day - and she hadn't slept in a few weeks because she was being constantly screamed at."

Ms Kanwar called the employer to ask that she grant the maid a transfer, but found herself getting a tongue-lashing instead.

"That really brought home to me the sense of entitlement some people have over foreign workers' labour, over their lives."

She is no stranger to helping people in crisis. She spent five years at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) as a senior manager, during which she helped set up Singapore's first sexual assault care centre.

But her interest in issues at a regional level prompted her to apply for the role at Home.

Home is one of four major migrant worker advocacy groups in Singapore. It raises awareness about foreign worker issues and runs four help centres and a shelter for workers in trouble.

She took over from Mr Jolovan Wham, 36, the activist whose name is synonymous with the organisation.

He held the role for eight years, during which Home campaigned for maids to have a legislated day off a week, as well as for changes to the law in favour of social support for foreign workers and against human trafficking.

He stepped down in July, saying he wanted to "avoid burn-out", and remains at Home as a consultant.

Ms Kanwar was his top choice for a successor. "She has a strong human rights and social justice background and good management experience," he said.

To assume his mantle is "daunting", said Ms Kanwar. "I don't plan to replace what he stands for, but rather to build on it."

Chief on her agenda is to continue Home's push for the Employment Act - Singapore's main labour law - to cover foreign domestic workers. This would better protect their rights to fixed working hours and days off.

She pointed out that other countries such as South Africa have been successful in including domestic workers in their employment Acts.

To achieve this in Singapore, she said she intends to have a "less antagonistic relationship" with the Ministry of Manpower by meeting its officers more regularly.

Another goal is building networks with other non-governmental organisations and embassies in workers' home countries. This, she said, will enable them to better support those forcibly repatriated.

She also hopes to reach out to other hitherto-overlooked communities of foreign workers, such as bin centre cleaners or women who are brought over as entertainers, but are pressured into having sex with customers to pay off high agent fees.

Her taste for fighting injustice was seeded during her childhood in New Delhi, India, where she was constantly exposed to poverty and violence against women, both in the news and on the street.

Not wanting to remain passive, she decided to pursue a degree in development journalism from Lady Shri Ram College, a notable women's university, and later a master's in social work. She became a social worker and then a consultant with United Nations Women.

She moved to Singapore in 2011 with her husband, a human resources manager. As a foreigner, she was struck by the double standards she saw in Singapore society, which she described as "schizophrenic".

"This is such a rich, developed country, yet there are whole populations who lead lives that are unacceptable," she said.

Many cases she handled in her first month at Home shocked her, such as that of a young Myanmar helper who sought refuge after her employer forcibly cut her hair. Her passport said she was 23 years old but after Ms Kanwar got her to open up, she admitted she was 14.

"She had no grasp of English, no cash in hand, no cellphone, no way to contact her family," recalled Ms Kanwar. "She was just a child."

The case is now with the Manpower Ministry and she does not know what has happened to her.

Other cases, however, encourage her. A construction worker from China, who was awarded a "paltry sum of money" in a labour court judgment after a salary dispute, told her he wanted to appeal.

She said: "He faced so many challenges, in terms of his finances and whether or not he could stay on in Singapore - but he wanted to fight anyway. I felt inspired by that. If he can keep fighting, so can we."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'She's at Home with fighting inequality'. Print Edition | Subscribe