SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A Singapore court jailed a couple on Monday for starving their Filipino domestic helper, a case that highlighted what rights groups say is a common complaint in the wealthy city-state.
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 S$10,000 ($7,200), while his wife, Chong Sui Foon, got three months with no fine. They had both pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors said they would appeal. The maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment and a S$10,000 fine.
"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 more 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 younger and had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adult, media reported. The judge said there was no link.
The couple paid the domestic helper, who now works for another employer, S$20,000 to settle civil claims, 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," Gee said, adding that although overall living and working conditions for domestic helpers in Singapore had improved, "a lot more needs to be done."
Jolovan Wham, executive director of rights group Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, said at least 30 percent of the domestic helpers who approached his organization in the past six months complained of "inadequate food".
"Thelma's case made it to court because it was so egregious," Wham said, adding that HOME was approached by an average of 20 domestic helpers a week.
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 fail 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 can use a helpline to seek support. NGOs say domestic helpers rarely complain to authorities fearing 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 of December 2016, there were 239,700 domestic helpers in Singapore, up from 231,500 in 2015, government data shows.
(Reporting by Pedja Stanisic, Fathin Ungku and Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Nick Macfie)