“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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- When workers are on Special Passes, employers are excused from having to pay the men, so the men are left destitute.
- 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.
- Having nowhere to stay, they are harassed by the police for loitering.
- 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.’ “