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They controlled my every move, says maid at centre of abuse trial

SINGAPORE — She was scolded for trying to speak to people she met, had her mobile phone kept locked away leaving her unable to get in touch with her family, and even had the bulk of her salary withheld for safekeeping.

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SINGAPORE — She was scolded for trying to speak to people she met, had her mobile phone kept locked away leaving her unable to get in touch with her family, and even had the bulk of her salary withheld for safekeeping.

Filipino domestic worker Thelma Oyasan Gawidan today (Dec 15) cited these examples of the tight rein her employers allegedly kept on her, causing her not to dare to reach out for help, even though she was starving and saw her weight plunge from 49kg to 29kg in 15 months.

“Every movement I do in the house, they are always watching me, scolding me if I make a mistake,” said the 40-year-old, who broke down repeatedly on her second day on the stand in the trial of her employers for flouting the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. Lim Choon Hong is accused of failing to provide Ms Gawidan with adequate food, while his wife Chong Sui Foon is alleged to have abetted the offence.

Today, Ms Gawidan said she brought a mobile phone over when she started working for the Singaporean couple in January 2013 but Chong allegedly forbade her from using it. The phone was locked in her suitcase which she claims was kept away from the couple’s Orchard Road condominium.

“I had no communication with my family and I haven’t sent any money (back) ... it was as if I just disappeared from them,” she said, sobbing.

When she asked to call her maid agency, her former employers said they would relay her message, Ms Gawidan said. Although she had the contact details of Lilibeth, a countryman from her hometown who was also working here, she was not given the chance to call her, she added.

Lilibeth later went to the Philippines Embassy here because Ms Gawidan’s family had not heard from her. Someone from the embassy named Larry called Lim to ask to speak to her, but all she said was she was “not okay” working for the family.

Her skinny appearance was noticed by fellow Filipino domestic workers she did not know when she went out with her former employers, Ms Gawidan said. 

For instance, during a trip to Hong Kong with her employers, two Filipino domestic workers sharing the elevator had asked why she was so skinny and told her to report to the authorities if her bosses were not treating her well.

But Ms Gawidan said she had been warned by the couple not to speak to others, so she only shook her head and kept silent.

Despite working for the family for 15 months, Ms Gawidan had only S$500 on her when she fled to a shelter in April last year because her former employers allegedly withheld her pay for safekeeping. 

This would entitle her to more money eventually, she was purportedly told.

Recounting how she took the first opportunity to flee when she was asked to clean the elevator area outside the condominium unit, Ms Gawidan said: “I (could not) take it any longer.”

During cross-examination, defence lawyer Tan Hee Liang sought to make the case that it was out of Ms Gawidan’s own fears of his clients that stopped her from leaving. 

Lim and Chong were never physically violent towards her, the lawyer argued.

But Ms Gawidan said: “There are so many things I’m considering. I still want to continue earning money for my family. If I can withstand the treatment, I will complete the contract.”

Mr Tan also disputed Ms Gawidan’s claims of the kinds of meals she was provided with, saying Lim had bought food for her on various occasions. Ms Gawidan denied this but conceded that eggs were offered to her on some occasions for her daily meals of instant noodles and bread.

Today, Dr Alan Ho from Kai Clinic, a general practitioner who examined Ms Gawidan in April last year, also took the stand, noting that her body mass index then was “exceptionally abnormal” and he found no pathological causes for her weight loss other than the “disparity between intake and output”.

Asked by both the prosecution and defence whether depression could be a cause, Dr Ho said patients have differing symptoms. 

Some could lose appetite and weight while others could binge and gain weight.

The trial continues tomorrow.

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