Candy wrapper resistance

“Boss locked the door,” Shafiq (not his real name) said. “Then he slapped me like this,” demonstrating the boss’ hand movements on a friend’s face.

“Then he took a chain and beat me.”

The boss did the same to two other men. All three had gone to the construction company’s office to ask why the company was not providing accommodation. For months, they had to pay for their own bedspace in tenements, or depend on the kindness of friends, or sleep in void decks.

After being beaten, the three men went to a police station to make a report. The police refused to entertain them, telling the men that they had first to go to a hospital to get a medical report certifying that they had been assaulted. The police would only record a statement after they produced medical proof.

“But we had no money,” the men told me. “To go to see a doctor would cost $70 to $80. How could we produce a medical report?” Yet, without one, they couldn’t lodge a complaint over the assault. In Singapore, if you have no money, the state, for all practical purposes, does not exist to offer you any protection.

They had no money because the company that was officially their employer had not deployed them to any worksite and since they weren’t doing any work, they had not been paid for months.

* * * * *

Earlier that day, I had gone to the two-bedroom-sized office of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) hoping to get a few routine tasks related to their accounts done.  On walking through their front door, I was confronted with a sea of luggage. There were trolley bags, shoulder-sling bags, canvas bags everywhere. I had to pick my way over these obstacles to get in.

“What happened?” I asked a member of the staff.

“Twenty-three men came yesterday,” she said. “When the door opened, one came in, then a second, then a third and a fourth. They kept coming in with their bags like there was no end.” Twenty three men in that tiny office would be like a crowded bus.

Three had been beaten, as described above. Twenty others had not been paid for months and were afraid they’d be next to be beaten.

TWC2’s Executive Director, Vincent Wijeysingha, allowed the men to leave their belongings in the office, and detailed an intern to accompany the men back to the employer’s office to establish the facts. But once there, they found the boss turning aggressive. He seemed like he was intent on locking the door again to beat those workers who had stepped into the premises. Alarmed, the intern called Wijeyshingha, who hurried over, only to be confronted by the boss’ threats of getting physical with him as well.

Obvious that nothing more could be achieved in that situation, the group withdrew and went instead to the Ministry of Manpower. They had gone there before, but earlier complaints lodged by the same men with the ministry over the previous 16 days had borne little fruit — and during those 16 days, the men had been sleeping on the streets. Would this time be different?

Some of the 23 men involved

The story is still developing, so I don’t know how it will turn out. All I knew that afternoon was that if their belongings were there in the office, it could only mean that once again, they had nowhere to sleep that night.

* * * * *

Jothir (not his real name) was badly injured in a workplace accident and had to spend weeks in hospital. During that time he was not paid. Soon after he was discharged, still in pain, still on crutches, he went to an automated teller machine of Maybank to draw out whatever money he had so he could survive. To his shock, the machine told him his account had been closed. He couldn’t withdraw a cent.

“Are you sure you had not closed the account yourself earlier?” I asked him.

He was adamant he had not.

The next day, I mentioned this to a staff member of TWC2. Have you heard of incidents like this? I asked him.

“It happens all the time,” he said, giving me a sinking feeling. He further explained to me that employers, telling their men that they’d be paid through a bank, would open joint accounts with each of their employees. The terms of the joint accounts would be that either party could withdraw money and/or close the account. The employer passes the ATM card to the employee who then thinks that he has exclusive control over the money in the account, not having understood the formal documents he had been asked to sign at the bank.

One fine day, he wakes up to discover that the employer has closed the account and taken the balance out.

Isn’t there something illegal about this? Of course there is, but nobody in our hallowed government is going to bother investigating it until a police report of theft has been made. But as you can imagine from the first anecdote above, lodging a police report is a matter entirely discretionary to the police.

* * * * *

We have created a monster of a migrant worker policy that is almost designed to exploit the vulnerable. One of the key features of that policy which renders all other better-intentioned aspects null and void is that of giving employers a blank cheque as to when to terminate and repatriate an employee. Employers then use this “veto power” to intimidate and silence the workers.

For example, Mosharaf (not his real name) had severe fever for more than a week for which doctors had been unable to diagnose the cause. After the first seven days’ medical leave, the doctors gave him an extension since the fever was continuing.

His employer, however, told him to go back to work: “If you don’t go back to work, I cut your Work Permit and send you back to Bangladesh.” So, despite suffering the chills and all, Mosharraf went back to work in the hot sun. . . . and fainted.

Do you know how dangerous this is? There are machinery and sharp objects around. Faint and you risk a bad injury.

Even so, Mosharaf is not about to lodge a formal complaint.

What this veto power — to terminate an employee at will and repatriate him quickly — produces is a strong motivation on employers’ part to resort to it in order to protect themselves  the moment an employee makes an internal complaint about wages, accommodation or medical treatment, let alone a formal complaint to the Ministry of Manpower or the police (if they will even accept a complaint). Experience has shown that once the worker is repatriated, the investigation is not pursued by the authorities.

In theory, on hearing a complaint, the Ministry of Manpower issues the workers with Special Passes, so they can stay on until the matter is resolved.

In practice, it still leaves the men severely disadvantaged.

  1. Companies are free to send thugs to kidnap the men and forcibly put them on a plane, without paying the balance of their wages. The ministry and our police turn a blind eye to this.
  2. When workers are on Special Passes, employers are excused from having to pay the men, so the men are left destitute.
  3. Employers are, in theory, required to continue providing accommodation for the men, but the men fear being there because it exposes them to kidnap by employer-hired thugs — see (1) above — so the men have nowhere to stay.
  4. Having nowhere to stay, they are harassed  by the police for loitering.
  5. Having no work and no money (typically, they have not been paid for months, that’s why they are aggrieved), they are sorely tempted to find illegal work, which exposes them to risk of arrest and conviction for working illegally.

This half-baked policy that we have for dealing with worker grievances effectively means that employers feel a certain sense of immunity. You could quite fairly say that our government encourages exploitation and crime.

* * * * *

One case officer at the Ministry of Manpower is notorious for his unhelpful attitude. I know his name but this is not the place to publish it.

“I had to see him fifteen times before I could get him to look seriously into my case,” said Amin (not his real name).

“Every time I had to deal with him,” said a TWC2 volunteer who often accompanied the men when they had to make complaints at the ministry, “I found him looking annoyed.” When pressed on anything, he would turn hostile. It was as if he saw his job as one of doing as little as he could to help anybody pursue his rights.

It may be worse than that. It also sounds like he sees anyone pressing him for action as a threat to his ego and his self-defined mission of obstruction, and instead of spending his time making progress on the complaints that reach him, he may be more devoted to terrorising his subordinates to ensure that they too should provide no assistance to the needy.

On the other hand, there are people in the ministry and civil service who can see how wrong everything is with our labour situation, but they probably feel disempowered.

“There was one occasion when I was dealing with a counter clerk, asking for status updates and the like,” the volunteer told me. “This case officer however, was deliberately hovering in the background, and the clerk knew it. She knew she was being watched. She knew that every reply she provided was being monitored.

“So throughout, she gave me the most robotic and perfunctory of answers.

“But as I turned to leave, she flashed a piece of paper on which she had written something. It was just a candy wrapper, with the words, ‘Thank you for doing what you are doing. God bless.’ “

28 Responses to “Candy wrapper resistance”

  1. 1 Anonymous 9 July 2011 at 18:13

    This is really bad, we had created another era of slavery and we had progress from 3rd World to Ancient.

  2. 2 Sgcynic 9 July 2011 at 19:13

    Seems liitle point to lodge a report with the police or the MOM. I would rather lodge a report against the police and the MOM for obstructing justice and shoddy work. Too bad Singapore does not and will not have ombudsmen under this government.

    • 3 Chuangli 13 July 2011 at 02:58

      “JUSTICE” !!!! Hahahaha, what is justice ? There is none even if you were to present your case to the court. I have personal experience with this so call “COURT JUSTICE” with full documental evidence in hand.

      All are wellcome to examine if any interest exsist…..

  3. 4 mano 9 July 2011 at 20:57

    Thank you so much for bringing this to the surface.
    I wish some one will look into this.
    I really appreciate Vincent, for going out of his way.
    Singapore,is become a materialistic country for some employers,all they do is squeeze the blood out of these poor foreigners.

  4. 5 G 9 July 2011 at 21:59

    This is a terrible atrocity of slavery and debasement. It is makes me angry and sad to see how inhumane and cruel people can be to another human being. And it is terrifying to know how deep this vampiric rot has gone into our system. Alex, you’ve done a great job here, but this whistle needs to be blown into the mainstream loud and clear.

    • 6 yawningbread 11 July 2011 at 01:49

      Foreign embassies read my blog; I have a feeling that what I report here helps them form a more complete picture of the Singapore scene.

      • 7 G 11 July 2011 at 16:04

        Alex, thank you for your work on your blog! Good that foreign embassies read your blog, I hope more and more Singaporeans will too. Your work here is so important in providing socio-political commentary for Singaporeans like me, with sound analysis and critical insights that are so sorely lacking in the mainstream media. You have a flair for writing with your head and your heart, and I have to admit that I was so moved by the indignity and cruelty of what you reported that I cried when I first read this article. I have since shared it on Facebook so that others may know too.

  5. 8 soojenn 9 July 2011 at 22:58

    Not surprising.. the SPF treats even Singaporeans like shit..especially the not so literate.. what more of transient workers.. who normally would also not know their rights, and easily intimidated.

    I think a good way will be publish, perhaps on a blog specially set up for this, such employers who mistreat their foreign workers.

    Unhelpful case officers should also be named so that they don’t abuse their “power”

    I believe the foreign are grateful and happy for TWC assistance in their times of difficulty. Kudos to you and TWC.

  6. 9 singaporesforgottencorners 10 July 2011 at 00:44

    Hi Alex,

    This story really moved me and I’d like to do something about it rather than it be just words, how does one get further involved with TWC2? Their website is down so I can’t send them an email directly. Thanks.

    • 10 yawningbread 10 July 2011 at 11:10

      you can write to ” centre @ twc2 dot org dot sg “, giving an outline of your areas of expertise, time available or offer of donation. For example, I have personally “adopted” a worker with an illness and and taking him to medical appointments, paying clinic and taxi fees (he can’t walk well), explain the prescriptions to him . . . but if he needs an operation or specialist (it looks more and more likely by the day), TWC2 may need to run a donation drive to help him.

  7. 11 Thor 10 July 2011 at 01:09

    There is another aspect to this. These workers have to open bank accounts in Singapore. But there is a minimum balance to be maintained. If not, $2 or so is taken by the bank every month. If you calculate all the workers in Singapore including maids, I wonder how many millions is being made by our banks from these workers.

  8. 12 david 10 July 2011 at 14:36

    If what you say is truly happening at MoM, it sounds very very fishy. Since our own Gov’t agencies do not want to look into the matter, please circulate these stories overseas (newspapers, NGO dealing with migrant workers, etc…) to see if pressure can be applied.

  9. 13 Robert L 10 July 2011 at 22:32

    I wonder how many Singaporean workers can see the big picture?

    The more we allow these foreign workers to be bullied, the more unscrupulous employers will prefer to employ foreign workers rather than Singaporean workers. The reason is so simple – they can bully foreign workers while they cannot bully Singaporean workers. Is it so surprising then that employers steadfastly prefer to employ foreign workers?

    NGOs who help foreign workers are indirectly helping to make Singaporean workers more competitive (by increasing the cost of employing foreign workers to humanitarian levels), and therefore I hope Singaporeans will support the effort of these NGOs, and blogs like YB.

    Protecting foreign workers from being cheated and ensuring they get proper housing is a long way to getting their costs closer to Singaporean workers.

  10. 15 yawningbread 11 July 2011 at 13:08

    Wow, the power of social media . . . I saw that someone on Facebook linked to this article, so out of curiosity, I did a search on Facebook for “Candy wrapper”. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw that 610 other people had shared this article with their friends!

    • 16 barffie 11 July 2011 at 14:12

      I have shared this on my Facebook as well.

      This article (and a couple more related ones) enraged me to no end. We need these workers for our city but the authorities treat them like mere dirt. If Singapore wants to move towards a more gracious (and first world?) society, we need to make sure foreign workers do not get exploited in our country.

      When forced to desperation, it’s perhaps understandable that these folks would resort to crime just to get a meal? Unfortunately, when caught, these foreign workers only reinforce the negative impression that the locals have of them.

      What a vicious, vicious cycle.

    • 17 yh2 11 July 2011 at 14:27

      I was one of the 610+. Thanks for writing this. I would have never been aware of such things otherwise.

    • 18 Richard Lee 15 July 2011 at 09:20

      Instead of just posting on Facebook, write to the relevant Minister. This is what I sent Teo Chee Hean (Home Affairs ie Police) & Shanmugaratnam (MoM).

      “Just a short note to draw your attention to

      There are many issues in that report but I feel MoM need to address 3

      1) Abuse of Joint Bank Accounts by unscrupulous Employers.

      2) Laise with the Police to investigate obvious cases of Intimidation,
      Abuse & Assault by Employers.

      It is everyone’s responsibility to help stamp out such Organised Crime
      activities. MoM can greatly assist by eg allowing MoM officers and/or
      undercover Police to pose as TWC2 helpers.

      3) How to make it easier for Low Paid Foreign Workers, and indeed less
      educated or privileged Singaporeans, bring their concerns to MoM and the Police.

      With confidence of your Integrity & Efficiency in this matter”

      This is no different from reporting someone beating up an old lady and you have every right to expect the Police to respond similarly; ie immediately.

      Lets have 1000+ emails to the relevant Ministers.

  11. 19 aeroster 11 July 2011 at 14:46

    wow it seems companies can behave like secret societies,like those in taiwanese beginning to have less faith in the concept of law,a mini version can be seen in online forums whereby the mods or even admins abuse their authority and twist the fact of things in a dispute.or in national service when the commander gives unequal treatment to his men.what we need isnt a women charter;women were never a specific group to be disprivileged;what we need is a underprivileged charter to look after the this light its even less so of a local vs foreign thingy

  12. 20 Peiying 11 July 2011 at 17:15

    ” “But as I turned to leave, she flashed a piece of paper on which she had written something. It was just a candy wrapper, with the words, ‘Thank you for doing what you are doing. God bless.’ ”

    After all the debates on foreign workers, domestic workers and what not – a small gesture and comment like this gives me hope for Singapore.

  13. 21 stevenado 11 July 2011 at 18:46

    Please spread the gospel so that every singaporean knows what is it like be foreign workers working in singapore, so-called 1st world country.
    I hope to donate small amount $$ monthly.

  14. 22 Roy Tan 12 July 2011 at 22:56

    I meet these people everyday. It’s quite amazing that despite knowing and experiencing all this abuse, after repatriation, these foreign workers keep applying to come back to Singapore to work.
    It just goes to show how much overpopulation and lack of job opportunities there are in their home countries.
    It takes two hands to clap. If you don’t practise family planning and have more children than you can afford, you’re selling your children into slavery.

  15. 23 Daniel Ho 14 July 2011 at 00:02

    A first world nation indeed…

  16. 24 Robox 14 July 2011 at 02:07

    Alex, would you have any comments about this? It sounds to me like Tan Chuan Jin could just be sermonizing like PAP ministers frequently do to score points by appearing to have taken the moral high ground. They merely make pious pronouncements, leaving Singaporeans the impression that something is being done about a problem. But there is no mention of what concrete steps are being taken to a) prevent; and, b) protect the most vulnerable foreign workers from wrongful confinement and forced repatriation.

  17. 25 Robox 14 July 2011 at 02:13

    BTW, it would seem that your article, and its eventual linking on facebook is what sparked off Tan Chuan Jin’s response resulting in the ST article:!/notes/tan-chuan-jin/protecting-workers/216066488436134

  18. 26 John John 18 July 2011 at 03:07

    There is much karma to be paid by all for this.

    Work on stopping this now, or we will fall like many ‘invincible’ empires before us thought they wont not.

  19. 27 Richard Lee 18 July 2011 at 15:10

    Many of us will remember Adam Smith from doing Economics in school & university. His “Wealth of Nations” published in 1776, is the foundation of modern economic theory though many rabid proponents of laissez faire have obviously not read it in entirety.

    But Smith was really a Moral Philosopher who regarded “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” his most important work.

    There he proposes that all Morality is based on Sympathy. The person who cannot feel sympathy for those who suffer and / or are disadvantaged, has few morals and is incapable of developing morality.

    Perhaps Adam Smith, whose “Wealth of Nations” is well illustrated by Singapore, also has his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” exemplified by the PAP government.

  20. 28 Luke 27 July 2011 at 14:02

    I would like to share my experience too as a social worker for migrant workers. I brought this Indian worker to the NPP in Aljunied, he sustained an injury at work, was hospitalized, the employer discharged him the next day, got an repatriation company to lock him up and sent him to the airport the next day. He refused to leave when he reached the airport. My director bailed him out and report to MOM. we were instructed to lodge a police report for wrongful confinement and forceful repatriation. So that’s we ended up at this NPP. But when the officer called the MOM duty officer(DO) to inquire about this case, the DO told the officer that there’s no ingredient of wrongful confinement and forceful repatriation, and hence the police refused to make a report for our case. I protested and flashed out a printout on the comment given by BG Tan (Minister of State for manpower) about wrongful confinement and repatriation. I spelled out that dragging a man out of hospital, locked him out, denying his right to medical treatment and repatriate him without his consent, you are telling me that there’s nothing wrong with this? I guessed the printout from the minister may have more impact than my statement, but nevertheless, we finally managed to lodge a report (after 4 hrs in the station). for us social worker, we had come to learned that the law are in theory, but in reality it depend on whose interest they are protecting. in this case certainly not the less fortunate.

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