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"A migrant domestic worker, just like anyone else, should be able to get justice": Ijechi Nazirah

Ijechi Nazirah (Naz) is a former student of the Double Degree Programme in Law and Liberal Arts (DDP) at Yale-NUS College. She has a degree in Law from National University of Singapore and currently works at Justice Without Borders (JWB) as their Singapore Legal Officer.

Sylvia: Hi Naz! Can you share the work you currently lead?

Naz: JWB’s main vision is to improve cross-border access to justice for migrant domestic workers (MDWs) across the region. Currently, we're focused on MDWs from Indonesia and the Philippines, and we focus specifically also on Singapore and Hong Kong as host countries.

I'm a legal officer, and serve as a bridge between the client (migrant domestic worker) in Indonesia or the Philippines, and the lawyers. In my day to day, I do casework, which involves screening and reviewing the cases that we can refer to lawyers.

We mostly get referrals from our frontline partners, which are NGOs in Singapore and Indonesia. In Singpore, these include the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME). FAST runs shelters for MDWs, which are quite important because they provide shelter to MDWs who are abused by their employer. There are a substantial number of MDWs in that situation. There are other situations when an MDW is not able to stay with their employer or the employment agency, and they end up being housed in one of these shelters.

Sylvia: What kind of cases does Justice Without Borders take on?

Naz: We focus specifically on civil compensation.

To give context, local NGOs like HOME and FAST work with MDWs who are still based here, in Singapore. Once a migrant domestic worker goes home, it becomes difficult for her to access any legal recourse that she might be entitled to in Singapore. For example, if you want to file a magistrate's complaint, you have to be here in Singapore. But regardless of all sorts of complicated cross-border issues, you know, a migrant domestic worker like other people should be able to get justice wherever they are.

That’s where we come in, to work on cases to win some sort of compensation as a legal remedy, but for some of them, it's also a sense that their story is heard, that people heard what they went through.

That’s where we come in, to work on cases to win some sort of compensation as a legal remedy, but for some of them, it's also a sense that their story is heard, that people heard what they went through.

By the time we enter the situation, the migrant domestic worker has gone home. It is quite unfortunate that once the MDWs go home, legal access is not readily available. For example, a lot of them live in rural places where lawyers and any form of legal option is simply not very accessible, and often their internet signal is not very good.There are a lot of practical challenges and also, they may not have much money. Our main objective is to help them seek the justice that they're entitled to.

Sylvia: You mentioned that as the legal officer, you are the bridge between your clients, which are the domestic workers, and lawyers. Does that mean you're not directly practicing law?

Naz: That’s right, I’m not, and that's an important distinction. So when we work on a case, JWB pairs them up with a lawyer that is based in Singapore and is licensed to practice in Singapore. So I'm not the lawyer that actually represents them.

Sylvia: Given that you have a law degree and are licensed to practice law – what made you decide to serve the community in this aspect, rather than as a pro bono lawyer for JWB?

Naz: It was mostly a personal decision. Towards the end of my first year in practice, I took a step back and reassessed my legal career. It also happened that JWB and a couple of other NGOs were hiring then. Having interned at JWB as a Legal Fellow in my second year of law school, JWB made sense for me because I was familiar with the organisation and the work that they do. Also, within the NGO space, I think a lot of legal roles tend to be more policy and advocacy-focused, meaning that the scope of work is more focused on trying to change the law, and the stakeholders they interact with are mostly government and other lawyers, which is not necessarily my cup of tea.

I like that my role in JWB allows me to deal with different stakeholders and still interact with the law. My work now is more about how we can work with the laws as they currently exist to advocate for better outcomes for our clients.

The firm that I was previously practicing [as a lawyer] at prides itself on being a community law firm. Most of the clients we worked with, especially in the litigation space that I was in, were from a working-class background and were not familiar with the law. The clients at JWB aren't that different. So there also wasn’t much of a transition in terms of the type of clients I was working with as a practicing lawyer and as a legal officer.

Sylvia: What do you think are some of the transferable skills from being a practicing lawyer to working as a legal officer in the non-profit space?

Naz: An example that comes to mind from working in litigation is being able to communicate with people of different backgrounds – for example, at my job I am supposed to be able to break down otherwise complex legal concepts into easily understandable terms. This applies both to my clients at JWB and the law firm I previously worked at.

I like that the role at JWB gives me a bit of that balance in dealing with people of different backgrounds: on one hand, there are the clients that I deal with are not as well-versed when it comes to the law, and on the other, there are the lawyers.

Sylvia: Did you always know that you wanted to do something related to law and social impact?

Naz: That's a good question. I never thought about it. Growing up, I never wanted to study law, I just wanted to study psychology. At the core of it, what I'm interested in is people, and understanding why people do the things they do, or why they think the way they do. The opportunity at JWB has given me a way to practice law but also incorporate that people element. So doing some sort of public interest-type litigation work makes sense to me.

I’ve always wanted to try out different things, so I did internships with big firms and small firms, and decided to try non-profits as well. Over time, I found that I like this sort of work. I actually quite enjoy practicing law as well, but for this period of time, it’s a matter of trying something a bit different and something that I know I enjoy.

Sylvia: How do you see law being used as a tool to address social impact goals?

Naz: In relation to the work that we do at JWB, I think the law can be a very helpful tool in changing perspectives. I think there’s quite a lot that can be done to change the way Singaporeans in general view MDWs.

It's unfortunate, but it's still common for employers to treat workers like children – they keep their passport, don’t give them ATM cards to their own bank accounts, etc.

Among agencies, it's still common practice to overcharge MDWs for placement fees. There are very pervasive recurring issues in this space. If we're able to build up enough legal cases so that more and more migrant workers get compensated for the wrongdoing done to them, then I think that would discourage or deter these harmful practices among employers and agencies.

If we're able to build up enough legal cases so that more and more migrant workers get compensated for the wrongdoing done to them, then I think that would discourage or deter these harmful practices among employers and agencies.

Sylvia: When I hear you talk about there being pervasive recurring issues - I was just wondering, how does it feel to listen to stories like this everyday in your work?

Naz: I am quite conscious of how easily you can get desensitised when you hear so many of these stories. For every new case that we get referred to, most of the time it's not the exact same case, but there are similar issues and threads that connect many of these cases together.

I try to take a step back, almost like pretending that this is the first time I'm doing a case, and go through that bafflement and shock and disbelief – it does help drive me.

I also remind myself of the importance of perspective. For example, sometimes a client will come to us and say that they’ve spent their own money on something that their agency was supposed to have paid for. I then look over the costs and it's $50. From an objective perspective, this amount is smaller than what a pro bono lawyer would end up spending in fees. But I have to remind myself that while $50 is a small amount to me, to a migrant domestic worker, it's a lot, and could be one week’s worth of food.

Sylvia: You mentioned that there are similar threads that tie the cases together. Could you say more about what a typical case looks like?

Naz: So some of the more common issues in relation to MDWs are ill treatment, abuse, and unpaid salary. But I am also conscious that we're taking a select sample of cases, which are the worst of the cases and it’s not to say that these are common problems that domestic workers in Singapore face.

There are also two pools of cases – one where the employer is the errant one, and the other is where the agencies are the errant one.

On the employer side, a common issue is illegal deployment of workers, such as making workers clean their office, a friend's house, stuff like that. And on the employment agency side - overcharging MDWs for services, which is actually a more complicated problem because there are gaps in the law that allow these agencies to keep doing what they do, and it's really hard to hold them accountable.

Sylvia: What does your day-to-day look like?

Naz: It really depends on organisational needs, but by and large it’s casework. Usually, we get a referral from our partner NGOs and I’ll take a look at the interview notes, important documentation, and other provided details. From there, I will provide a preliminary assessment of the case and the potential courses of available action.

At the end of that process, I'll liaise with my NGO counterparts, who will reach out to a client and get us the information that we need. Then we have internal discussions about which are the cases that are strong enough to proceed with. I'll then reach out to partners and lawyers in Singapore about representing that case.

Another big part of my work is strategic legal research. As I mentioned, there are common issues across the cases, and some of these common problems are common because there are gaps in the law. So as much as we can, we get the help of our partners, pro bono lawyers and ourselves to conduct research on the existing laws, and brainstorm ways to resolve some of the gaps that are currently in the law.

Sylvia: What do you think is the importance of organisations like JWB, in connecting migrant domestic workers to avenues for justice and civil compensation?

Naz: The hope is that at some point, cross border access to justice won't be such a issue and complex thing to navigate, and that we will be able to share all the learnings and expertise from over the years with other local NGOs who are looking to do what we do, but without dedicating so much resources into dealing with cross border issues.

For example, at the moment, we have a caseload of about 30 active cases across our 4 offices. So if we can do 30 a year, but another NGO can do 30, and there are hundreds of NGOs that can do 30 cases each year, then that will really improve access to justice for MDWs. That scale is really the goal.

Sylvia: What do you think about the practice of hiring a domestic worker for a household?

Naz: I think it can be difficult for employers sometimes in that the lines between employee and family member are blurred, and I think surely that affects your relationships and your interactions with your employee. It's so bizarre when I think about how a person can hit your own employee - like the idea is insane to me, say, I don't do a piece of work properly and my boss hits me. It's mind blowing. But when you think about it more deeply, I think maybe for MDWs, they're not really always easily seen as just an employee. They're often seen as just another family member, in the way you would “hit” your brother from time to time.

Sylvia: Okay, last question. How do you think your experience attending Yale-NUS has shaped your career path?

Naz: I took a gap year to go to Yale-NUS, otherwise I would have started law school in 2012. Most of my friends from my cohort in high school have been in practice for at least three years. If I had gone down that route I would have probably just – because if most of my friends have been with me – I think it would have been easier for me to go down the typical route. Like doing four years of law school, completing training and becoming a senior associate in a law firm somewhere. It's hard to tell – it's just a “what if” – but I might have been less inclined to try something new if not for the fact that I made the choice to go to Yale-NUS.

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