There are a few photos, slightly blurry, as if they had been hastily taken. A mountain of chopped onions, valleys created by sliding mounds of sliced tomatoes, and two women grimly making yong tau foo – a popular dish in Singapore featuring tofu stuffed with minced meat and vegetables. Through the window in the backdrop, the sky is blue with predawn dimness.
These women are migrant domestic workers, and they have sent these photos to Desmond Phoon, the owner of A.Pratama Employment Agency, in order to seek help. The women, hired through Work Permits to work as migrant domestic workers in a Singaporean household, were also unexpectedly thrust into the job of yong tau foo stall assistants.
Dealing with workers in bad situations is, unfortunately, par for the course for Desmond and Susan. The couple established A.Pratama Employment Agency in 2004 with the explicit aim of protecting and helping workers.
Desmond and Susan Phoon run A.Pratama Employment Agency together.
The beginnings of A.Pratama reach back to Desmond’s childhood. A framed black and white photograph of Desmond’s mother hangs on the wall of his office, alongside meticulous newspaper clippings highlighting cases of employment relationships gone awry.
Desmond’s mother was a domestic worker of her time, a part-time amah who raised her children by hand-washing endless loads of laundry.
“When I was a small boy, I saw my mother cry on many occasions. I was brought up in a very tough environment, seeing my mother work as a part-time helper.”
On Sundays, domestic workers often drop by, sometimes to seek advice, and sometimes just to say hi.
For Desmond, minimising the worker’s placement fee – also known as the “maid loan” – is the best way to protect migrant domestic workers.
Much of this placement fee is ostensibly derived from costs incurred by the worker overseas, to pay for accommodation, transport, and training.
Agents collect placement fees to remit to their overseas counterpart, but Desmond sees a loophole in this system.
“By law, you cannot charge the maid more than two months’ salary, but you can charge the employer any amount, up to the sky,” he says.
“Yet we have seen agents who charge employers $1 agency fee, zero agency fee… if the employer pays zero agency fee, how does the agency survive? The costs that are supposed to be borne by the employer are actually passed on to the helper through a manipulation of the ‘maid loan’.”
He says that, by bearing a significant debt in order to work in Singapore, workers’ vulnerability is heightened.
“The helper is financially exploited,” Desmond says. “With a big debt, even though an employer physically abuses her, illegally deploys her to work two or three houses or even forces a Muslim helper to eat pork, the helper has got to submissively accept it.”
Susan shares an orange sponge cake with her visitors.
Desmond keeps a wall of newspaper clippings to warn employers and workers of the dire consequences of an employment relationship gone wrong.
To counter the possibility of strained employment relationships and suboptimal working conditions, Desmond holds employers to specific requirements to ensure that there are clear expectations between employers and workers: two rest days per month and a hand-phone for workers to use at night, when they are done with the day’s work.
“I’m a big advocate of the off-day,” he says. “Without off-days, workers cannot tell me that they are making yong tau foo at 4 am in the morning.”