Migrant Investigations

by Noor Adilah (17S06B)

Migration is fuelled by the basic desire to improve the human condition. Migration has shaped human history since our ancestors first learned to put one foot in front of the other. Entire countries, like Singapore, were built on the backs of migrants and travellers. It continues to shape our city in immeasurable ways.

An Introduction to Singapore’s Migrant Narrative

Today, migrant workers on Work Permits make up a majority of foreign labour. The migrants who hold such Permits are familiar faces – they are made up of construction workers, technicians, domestic helpers and shipyard workers, to name a few. Most of these workers come from Bangladesh, India, China, Philippines and Indonesia.

From time to time, we hear about the different cases of abuse and unfair treatment that migrant workers face. These human rights violations can range from verbal or physical abuse to late salary payments and even unfair repatriation. In short, the situation of migrant worker welfare is systemically problematic, a result of flawed systems and loopholes.

As a young student with almost no experience in this area, the only reliable information that I could get about migrant worker welfare came from the news or government websites. But what I was looking for was a more personal understanding of migrant worker welfare, to witness first-hand the real-life reverberations of the problems these workers face.

So I did what any other young, inexperienced 17 year-old student journalist would do. I spent five and a half months personally talking to, volunteering at, and even interning for different stakeholders of these issues. Some of them were individuals, like Kalam, a gardener in RI. Some were organisations like the non-profit NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). One of them was a government body — the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) itself. With this level of immersion into the different corners of the migrant worker welfare issue, I hoped to be able to make more sense of the entire equation.

Starting from School

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my heart pain, thinking Bangladesh” — “working here, no problem”

One of the people I talked to (and still chat with regularly) is a migrant worker who works on our very own school compounds — Kalam. Kalam is a familiar, friendly face everyone sees around school. I often see him operating an enormous branch-clipping tool, which he likes to joke about. Whenever I get the time to talk to him, I get the sense that he would be much chattier if he could speak more fluent English. He is bursting at the seams with untold stories. Kalam is from Bangladesh, and he speaks fondly of his home. One day, on a phone call with Kalam, he told me “my heart pain, thinking Bangladesh”. Every single migrant worker I have spoken to feels the same way. Being away from home is, simply put, painful.

When I asked Kalam about any problems that he has had working in Singapore, he beams and says “no, working here, no problem”. Kalam gets the compulsory itemised pay slips that the government mandated in April this year, and has a good relationship with his direct boss. He receives his salary on time, and without any unnecessary cutbacks. He is also given a day off and reasonable working hours.

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Kalam shares his experiences as a migrant worker during Advofeste. [Photo: RI CA]

And yet, he talks frequently about his friends who do not have it as easy as him. His friends have gone through late salary payments, unfair repatriations and even physical abuse. He stands in stark contrast to many migrant workers who have been barred from the rights that they are entitled to. Yet, his story is still proof of the fact that being a foreign worker in Singapore can be a pleasant and painless process, without conflicts of interest.

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A lesson at SDI. [Photo: ST]

I also had a chance to interact with foreign workers in a different kind of learning environment. Social Development Initiative (SDI) Academy is an organisation that aims to teach English to foreign workers of varying competencies. Unfortunately, there are no existing programmes in place to teach workers English, leaving most workers with a limited proficiency in the English Language. While learning English may seem like an arbitrary concern to us, the consequences of not understanding and speaking it can be dire for the migrant workers.

In fact, many workers face work injuries, exploitation, miscommunication or unnecessary conflicts when they cannot articulate their thoughts or understand what others are saying. Fast forward to my internship at MOM, more than half of the workers I spoke to were unable to fully communicate their needs to government employees without an interpreter. Some, who did not request or were deemed not to require an interpreter, would miss out on key information regarding their situation because of their lack of fluency. Workers I have spoken to who faced work injuries said that doctors had trouble understanding them. Misdiagnosis and its consequences loom over the injured worker who speaks fleeting English with a thick foreign accent. The repercussions of inarticulacy can be disastrous. This is a huge systemic flaw that has yet to be fixed.

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Migrant Workers learning English at one of SDI’s locations, The Leo Dormitory. [Photo: DS]

Sazzad Hossain, the founder of SDI academy, recognised these problems at a young age. This is no wonder, as he is a Bangladeshi migrant himself who struggled with English when he first came to Singapore as a student. He started teaching workers English from his primary school textbooks from a park bench at the young age of 19. Today SDI has clocked in more than 10,000 hours of lessons delivered, with a growing base of volunteers and a well-tailored curriculum that has successfully taught many workers basic to executive level English, and even computer literacy skills.

However,  these courses do still come at a price to the workers, understandably for the resources and manpower required to sustain SDI’s staff and expenses. An ideal system would be the availability of free or affordable English classes for these workers to learn basic conversational English and useful terminology associated with their line of work from the moment they start working in Singapore. Learning basic English has become a necessity for the welfare of these workers, a basic right and not a privilege.

When A Work Permit Becomes A Special Pass

A significant number of migrant workers are subjected to late salary payments or are denied their salaries for months on end. Poor housing standards can also lead to very bad illness. Furthermore, due to the dangerous environments they work in, the risk of injury — especially permanent incapacitation — is very high. In the event that any of these occur, a worker can declare their case to MOM for processing in the hopes of getting compensation through insurance and a ticket back home. Once a legitimate cause has been established, the worker’s Work Permit is cancelled (meaning he / she can no longer work) and a Special Pass is issued. The Special Pass is used to keep the worker in Singapore while awaiting the resolution of their case.

The law naturally requires employers to support workers under such Special Passes (as the workers are legally required not to work) by providing basic necessities of food and living quarters. However, a significant number of employers are reluctant to provide such food and shelter to cut down on financial losses. This means workers are left without proper lodgings and without a source of income for basic necessities.

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This worker had been sleeping on the street, as he had nowhere to live after his employer forced him out of his dormitory.

This is where TWC2’s The Cuff Road Food Programme (TCRP) comes in. TCRP began in March 2008, and is still going on today. Free meals (paid for with TWC2’s own funds) from a restaurant in Little India are given to migrant workers every day for breakfast and dinner on Mondays to Fridays and lunch on Saturdays. Volunteers can be seen marking off days on a worker’s “makan card” that keeps track of the meals he has eaten. A worker is then given a button to exchange for his free meal. Of course, the work that volunteers do during TCRP runs much deeper than giving out free meals. Volunteers “give advice on what rights and options [the workers] may have, and how they can pursue their cases”. The environment of TCRP is largely informal, and the familiarity between workers and volunteers means that friendly chatter intermingles with the running of the programme itself.

As a volunteer at TWC2, I have made many friends amongst the workers. Almost all of them are injured, with some in crutches, limping, or with amputated fingers. One worker I have become acquainted with sleeps in the Dayspace, an area allocated to workers with nowhere to live. He is recovering from a horrendous work injury that left his foot in a cast. He walks up and down the stairs between the Dayspace and the Isthana Restaurant in crutches. Every week, he greets me with a big, beaming smile. “Hello sister! How are you doing!” is his go-to greeting. When I ask him how his foot is doing, his smile falters. “Ok my leg, improve a little bit somewhere.”

His story is reflective of the hundreds of other workers that TWC2 assists on a daily basis. After obtaining the work injury, his employer refused to accommodate him and provide him with basic necessities. When he went to the doctor for his work injury assessment (a crucial step in the process of obtaining enough salary compensation) his employer also falsely told the doctor that the injury was much more minor than it actually was. As such, an inaccurate medical report was submitted to MOM. Of course, the doctor then spotted the true severity of the situation, and treated him accordingly. To this day, his claim is still being processed by MOM.

Whenever I am living my life outside of TWC2, and my thoughts wander to his injury claim, I am immediately gripped with anxiety, because of his sticky situation. What if he never gets his compensation? What if the compensation is not enough? What if he is sent back to Bangladesh without having gained enough money for his family back home? How long will he have to stay in Singapore? While these thoughts may be troubling for me, he has to actually live with this anxiety for months, enduring the pain from his injury and the trepidation in his heart. So do hundreds of other workers who walk through TWC2’s doors every day.

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The first step to helping a worker in TWC2 is to register him using this small piece of paper.

While the law may require employers to provide for the workers, this law is not enforced at times, and thus these workers have to deal with the consequences. Workers who try working illegally while holding on to a Special Pass (understandably, to sustain themselves) risk being caught. Conversely, workers who stay within their legal boundaries have to find ways to sustain themselves. A worker I talked to once resorted to sleeping on the streets, while leaving his few belongings in a locker at Mustafa Center.

The lack of proper shelter, a source of income or food are human rights violations that nobody should be subjected to.

And yet, this is a reality that the thousands of workers entering Singapore may face.

Appreciation — Please the Public, Propagate the Problem

While the narrative of migrant worker welfare may seem dire and very dark, I am relieved that progress is being made in creating positive awareness about migrant workers amongst the public. The concept of appreciation has become the go-to approach that we are currently seeing amongst initiatives and events like SamaSama, and the International Migrants Day. Through valuing the work that workers do, such events aim to change public perception about migrant workers, to counteract regressive stereotypes and assumptions that Singaporeans have internalised. This is very suitable, given ever-present xenophobic attitudes amongst Singaporeans today.

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One of the featured photos in the SamaSama Exhibition. [Photo: DS]

However, an increasing concern about these “feel-good” channels of advocacy is that they divert attention from the more pressing issues that workers face today, which tend to be more systemic (instead of social) in nature. Valuing workers is an important factor in addressing attitudes that dehumanise these workers. Unfortunately the overwhelming advocacy in this area obscures the need for resources and manpower in ensuring that workers are guaranteed their rights. Furthermore, members of the public may be mistaken in thinking that xenophobia and negative perceptions are the worst problems that workers may face.

Furthermore, short-term efforts to give migrant workers things like bathroom necessities, household items or clothing, amongst other things may prove to be generally unsustainable or unnecessary. In fact, most organisations would prefer for donors to send in money or specific items, which will be channelled accordingly by the organisation to the migrant workers, according to their needs. For example, earlier this year TWC2 called for donations of old 3G phones for migrant workers who needed to replace their 2G phones. This was a great and successful opportunity for members of the public to chip in where they could.

I’m glad that dialogue and discourse surrounding migrant workers is being created today. Going back to RI, there have been many student-initiated efforts to value these workers for who they are.

We have now come back full circle to Kalam. A majority of my friends know who Kalam is, if not from chatting to him, by seeing the handy Appreciation Boards that Student Council has put up around the school. When I ask students in our school whether they are aware of migrant worker issues, they respond positively, but often fail to accurately identify the rights that these workers are denied and the systemic flaws and unethical practices that they face.

How then do we redirect all the eyes on migrant workers to the structures and loopholes that continue to oppress them and deprive them of basic human rights? We need to educate ourselves about the “boring” laws and systems that migrant workers go through. We need to expose ourselves to the facts of transient labour in Singapore — about the real problems that these workers face as a result of systems and unfair practices. With increased public education comes increased pressure on different stakeholders to change these systems to improve migrant worker welfare. These efforts have worked before. We need to use the appreciation we have for these workers to play our part in increasing critical awareness and an attitude geared towards change.

The opinions, views and experiences expressed in this article are not representative of any party other than the author herself.
Header image from here.

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