For migrant workers in trouble, navigating Singapore's legal system can be a challenge

Published date12 September 2020
Publication titleMalay Mail Online

Ms Simpen, 49, who goes by one name and has worked as a domestic helper in Singapore for 13 years, was among those in the Indonesian community here who were cheered by the news of the acquittal of their compatriot, Ms Parti Liyani. 'She did not do anything wrong so it is good she is not going to jail,' said Ms Simpen.

Ms Parti, 46, had earlier been found guilty by a district judge of stealing S$34,000 (RM103,272) worth of items from her employer, former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, and his family. She was sentenced to two years and two months' jail.

But on appeal, her conviction and sentence for four counts of theft were overturned by the High Court on September 4, with Justice Chan Seng Onn ruling that the district court had failed to consider several points, and that Mr Liew and his son had an 'improper motive' in accusing Ms Parti of theft back in 2016.

On Tuesday (September 8), Ms Parti's case was formally concluded when she was given a discharge amounting to an acquittal on her last outstanding charge.

Reacting to the news, another Indonesian domestic helper, Ms Dewi Cahyani, 33, said she was not only happy for Ms Parti but also proud that a fellow Indonesian had stood up for herself. Ms Dewi added that she doubted that she would be able to do the same if she were in Ms Parti's shoes.

Though they are from a different country, several Filipino domestic workers based in Singapore whom TODAY spoke to similarly applauded Ms Parti for her courage.

'I salute her,' said Ms Grecilda Capopez, 47, who has worked here for 21 years. 'She is a very brave woman to fight for herself. I think some maids in her position will just give up.'

Apart from being an inspiration, Ms Parti's protracted journey to clear her name also resonated with the foreign workers interviewed as they worry about the possibility of being accused of a crime they did not commit.

Earlier this week, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said Government agencies are looking into what 'went wrong' in the chain of events that led to Ms Parti being found guilty of stealing.

Mr Shanmugam added: 'We have to find out what happened, why it happened and then deal with it. And be accountable. That's the best way to build trust in the system. To come out in public and say what steps we have taken once the reviews are done.'

Mr Bilal Khan, 28, who is a construction site supervisor, said it is very sad that a migrant worker has to go through such an ordeal.

'(Migrant workers) also have their own families. If something happens here, he or she suffers and the family suffers too,' he said.

Indeed, Ms Parti's conviction and subsequent acquittal have also shone the spotlight on the challenges that migrant workers here could face in getting access to justice when they are in legal trouble.

TODAY's checks with lawyers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) revealed the same thorny issues: Migrant workers often face difficulties obtaining legal representation and struggle with language barriers when navigating the legal system. Compounding the situation, they have to cope with a loss of income - and the added anxiety - while waiting for their case to conclude, which could take years.

Sometimes, these workers also do not know who they can turn to for help, or what they are up against, as pointed out by Mr Anil Balchandani, Ms Parti's defence lawyer, in a recent interview with migrant rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home). The NGO had provided support for Ms Parti during her trial, which stretched for four years.

When asked if they know who they could turn to for help should they be accused of a crime, most of the foreign workers whom TODAY interviewed said they will seek help from their respective foreign embassies, as that was what they had been told to do before they arrived to work in Singapore.

Otherwise, they said they would seek help from the local authorities - be it the police or the Ministry of Manpower - if they find themselves accused of a crime. Apart from these, most of them said they are not aware of any other channels that they can seek help from.

As of December last year, Singapore has about 261,800 foreign domestic workers and 293,300 foreign construction workers.

An issue that surfaced repeatedly in TODAY's interviews with NGOs and lawyers is the difficulties migrant workers face in securing legal representation when they are accused of a crime.

As low-wage earners with limited means, these workers by and large...

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