Dewi Sukowati
Indonesian maids undergo infant care training at a private recruitment agency in Jakarta before being sent to work in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

A Singaporean couple who starved their live-in Filipino maid over a period of 15 months have been handed jail terms and a fine.

Trader Lim Choon Hong was sent to prison for three weeks and fined S$10,000 (£5,700), while his wife Chong Sui Foon was given a three months sentence.

Prosecutors, who had asked for 12 months sentences, have said that they will appeal the verdict.

Lim and Chong, both 47, had pleaded guilty in March 2016 for failing to provide their domestic helper Thelma Oyasan Gawidan with enough food while she was working for them. During that period, she lost almost 20kg (44 pounds), after being fed with only slices of white bread and instant noodles twice a day for more than a year.

Her employers had seized her mobile phone and her passport, rendering her helpless in seeking assistance elsewhere.

However in April 2014, Gawidan managed to escape, breaking free by finding a pay phone and calling a friend. She was then taken to a welfare organisation for migrant workers in Singapore. When she was rescued, she weighed only 29kg. Channel News Asia reported.

Chong, in her defence, claimed mental illness was to blame. She suffered from an eating disorder when she was a teen and has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adult.

She told the court that she fed Gawidan bread or noodles as the food would not "dirty" the house and could be consumed quickly, allowing the domestic helper more time to do her work.

The defence also likened the maid's weight loss to someone who loses weight under a weight loss programme. "She was starved ... beyond the imagination of most people. To suggest this was not severe and unnatural is preposterous," Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Soo Tet said.

Maid paid £11,421 in settlement

In addition, the couple, who have four children, also paid Gawidan S$20,000 (£11,421) as part of a settlement deal which precludes the domestic helper from suing them in civil proceedings.

Prosecutors however accused Lim and Chong of using the settlement "as a tool to get a lower sentence", noting that the offer was only made after District Judge Low Wee Ping said he was considering a jail term.

DPP Tan said the settlement was aimed at removing any civil claims that the victim might bring against her former employers and should not be seen as a "genuine show of remorse."

Tan pointed out that the issue of compensation was only raised almost three years after the victim ran away and more than a year since their trial started in December 2015.

Couple barred from hiring maids

In a media statement issued shortly after the sentencing, the Ministry of Manpower said the couple have been permanently barred from hiring foreign 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." Jeanette Har, the director of the well-being department at the ministry's foreign manpower management division.