[Edited for clarity]
Uproar over social media broke at the start of the maid abuse trial Monday (Dec 14) for Filipina domestic helper Thelma Oyasan Gawidan. It was not just because of the horrific conditions in which her employers Lim Choon Hong and Chong Sui Foon put her in – starvation, working without sleep and a particular instance of feeding her with only instant noodles and bread when the couple and their kids stayed at the Raffles Hotel.
— Channel NewsAsia (@ChannelNewsAsia) December 15, 2015
But it was also because of the charge that prosecutors laid on the employers: one charge with a maximum jail term of only 12 months. It must be noted that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) maintain prosecutorial discretion in the charges they issue per case. What is this exact charge?
This charge was under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, Chapter 91A, Section 22(1)(a), which also has its accompanying sentence in Section 22(1)(i):
What conditions were Thelma’s employers charged of contravening? The Straits Times reports that it was this clause:
And indeed, in Thelma’s case, the provision of adequate food was the main point of contention as she was presenting her case in court. But at no time in the trial at the State Courts (even in today’s hearing) did she mention anything about her employers laying a finger on her.
Unlike previous maid abuse cases, the trial did not begin with her employers being charged for offences in the Penal Code (Chapter 224) affecting the human body. Under Chapter 224, Section 319, the definition of “hurt” reads as such:
While “infirmity” refers to a physical and mental weakness and “disease” could not be ascertained by Dr Lim Huiyu, senior resident at Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s gastroenterology and hepatology department (“significant weight loss due to insufficient take of food” was Thelma’s diagnosis), the bodily explanation for hurt was added to the definition of hurt in 2007:
And if you thought that the employers had inflicted “grievous hurt” on Thelma, the court’s definition provides some specific examples about what exactly that term means:
Previous maid abuse cases had errant employers charged and convicted under the umbrella of hurt through hitting or similar forms of inflicting bodily pain and wounding subjects. The sentence for that offence is as follows:
The punishment for voluntarily causing grievous hurt? 10 years, and the convicted offender shall also be liable to a fine or caning.
The case presented before the court is one of contravening work pass conditions due to improper upkeep and maintenance; we have yet to hear from the defence who is expected to take the stand after the prosecution submits their case. We also have yet to hear fully from Thelma if there were other alleged misdeeds her employers have done.
Could this have been a maid abuse case? The Penal Code provides for laws concerning hurt, but there remains a case to be made about starvation, emotional hurt and neglect. Where do these fall under, in the eyes of the law?
For now, the charge remains as such. The trial continues in open court.
Featured photo of State Courts: Erwin Soo/Flickr (via CC BY-NC 2.0)
Screenshots from Singapore Statutes Online