Couple jailed for starving Filipino domestic helper

A Chinese couple have been sentenced to jail for starving their 40-year-old domestic helper.

Court gavel

Thelma Oyasan Gawidan, 40, weighed just 29.4 kg (65 lb) 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.

Lim Choon Hong was jailed for three weeks and fined 7, 200 dollars, while his wife, Chong Sui Foon, got three months with no fine.

They had both pleaded guilty; but prosecutors said that they would appeal.

The maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment and a fine of S$10,000.

“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 most 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 defense, Chong had said she suffered from an eating disorder when she was younger and had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adult, the media reported.

The judge said there was no link.

The couple paid the domestic helper, who now works for another employer, for S$20,000 to settle civil claims, the 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 however the overall living and working conditions for domestic helpers in Singapore had improved, “a lot more needs to be done,’’ Gee said.

Jolovan Wham, executive director of rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, (HOME) said that at least 30 per cent 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, HOME was approached by an average of 20 domestic helpers a week,’’ Wham said.

The Ministry of Manpower (MoM) said it had permanently barred the couple from employing overseas domestic workers.

“The ministry has zero tolerance for abuse and mistreatment of workers.

“The conduct of Lim and his wife is reprehensible and MoM will prosecute individuals who failed to safeguard the well-being of the worker,’’ said Jeanette Har, Director of Well-Being Department at MoM’s Foreign Manpower Management Division.

MoM said workers could use a helpline to seek support.

NGOs say domestic helpers rarely complained to authorities with the fear that their employers may sack them.

Ministry 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 at December 2016, there were 239,700 domestic helpers in Singapore, up from 231,500 in 2015, government data shows.

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