Maid who starved for 15 months says employers watched her every move in Orchard condo

Amir Hussain
The Straits Times
15 December 2015

The former employers of a Filipino domestic helper who starved for 15 months, causing her weight to drop from 49kg to 29kg, observed her every move and did not let her speak to anyone.

Testifying on the second day of the trial on Tuesday (Dec 15), Madam Thelma Oyasan Gawidan, 40, who claimed she ate only instant noodles and plain bread twice a day, said she was not allowed to go out on her own and did not get any days off.

She also said she did not receive her salary and had her mobile phone kept from her while she was employed by trader Lim Choon Hong and his wife Chong Sui Foon, both 47, from January 2013 to April last year.

The Singaporean couple are on trial for failing to provide Madam Gawidan with adequate food. Lim faces one charge of contravening the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012. Chong faces a count of abetting Lim in committing the offence.

Madam Gawidan told the court that she was allowed initially to use the toilet in Lim's condominium in the Orchard area. But, after working for few months, she was allowed to use only the public toilet next to the swimming pool.

"Although I sometimes urgently needed to use the toilet, she (Chong) would ask me to wait, and she would accompany me," she said.

Asked by Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Soo Tet whether she could have bought food on her own, Madam Gawidan said her salary was withheld by her employers, who told her that they were saving it for her.

She only received a $500 "allowance" while working with the family, but was made to put it in a plastic bag and asked to hide it among her dirty clothes.

Asked why she did not tell anyone about how she was being treated by the family, she said: "I was scared of them (Lim and Chong). I didn't have the courage.

"They're always guarding me in the house, every movement I make in the house. They're always watching me, guarding me if I make a mistake," she said.

"They're watching me when I wake up, what I eat, what I drink and when to take a shower," she added.

When the helper told her employers that she wanted to speak with her maid agency, they allegedly told her: "Whatever you want to say to the agent, you can tell us, and we can tell the agent about it." She said she just kept quiet after that.

After she started work, she also locked her mobile phone in her suitcase, which was not kept in Lim's house. Her employers told her they would take the luggage to "the storeroom near the airport".

On one occasion, she saw an Indonesian domestic helper at an opposite apartment unit. The Filipina gestured at her stomach, but Chong saw her and scolded her, saying she was not allowed to communicate with anyone.

Another time, she said, a Filipino embassy staff called Lim and asked to speak to her. The staff told her that a Filipina town mate had gone to the embassy to inform him that Madam Gawidan had not contacted her family or sent any money back. She has a husband and three children, aged 17, 15 and 11.

On two occasions, she said, other Filipino maids inquired about her condition. One time, at the market, one of them asked her why she was so skinny. Another time, while she was in a lift in Hong Kong with Chong and her daughter, a Filipino helper told her in Tagalog: "Your employer is not treating you well, you have to report them."

On that family trip to Hong Kong, Madam Gawidan said, her employers also took along instant noodles and bread for her; they ate at restaurants on the trip.

On April 18 last year, she said she could not tolerate the treatment any longer, and sought refuge at a shelter run by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (Home).

She recounted: "They made me clean around the elevator area, and this time they didn't follow me, so I took the opportunity to run away. I pressed the elevator button down and went inside."

She went to Far East Shopping Centre, which is opposite Lim's condominium, borrowed a phone, and dialed the number of a town mate of whom she had memorised .

Her friend, Ms Lilibeth, took her to eat before taking her to the Home shelter.

There, she was given at least three meals a day, consisting of rice, bread, meat, vegetables and sometimes fruits.

The trial is continuing with Madam Gawidan's cross-examination on Tuesday afternoon.

If convicted, Lim and Chong both face a fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment of up to 12 months, or both.

Related article:

Employers accused of starving maid for 15 months -- causing her to go from 49kg to 29kg

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