A hard-knock life

These past few years there’s been a fair bit of talk about how migrant workers are being mistreated in Singapore; tales of unpaid salaries, unfair wages, or poor working and living conditions have even led to sit-ins and strikes that were previously unheard-of in this country!

How could this happen in a nation which prides itself on being just, egalitarian, and based on the rule of law? Are we lacking enough laws to protect the rights of foreign workers here? Are they not being enforced properly? Are foreign workers more vocal today than before? Are there more unscrupulous employers today than before? Are there too many foreign workers for the authorities to properly manage or monitor their working conditions?

According to the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC), it’s a little bit of all of the above. Not only that, things are getting so difficult that a few extensions are planned over the next couple of years.

To be honest, I’d never heard of the MWC before.

It turns out that the MWC has been around since 2009. Located at Rangoon Road, the organisation is a joint effort by NTUC and SNEF to improve the welfare of foreign workers in Singapore.

Apart from initiatives targeting the assimilation of migrant workers locally — including English proficiency classes and other similar training courses, the Centre also helps resolve disputes and provides relevant legal advice and counselling.

But the evolution of these workers’ rights and obligations have made it necessary for the MWC to expand its umbrella of care to foreign workers in more proactive ways.

For starters, it will be relocating to larger grounds on Serangoon Road before the end of this year, where a temporary shelter will cater for up to 12 workers at any time. This is for the relief of workers who sometimes require emergency housing and care.

A new branch in Geylang will swiftly follow this move, reaching out to the mainland Chinese workers there. That centre will also offer emergency housing and care apart from assisting them with employment-related issues and MOM claims.

A similar initiative targeted at migrant fishermen at the Jurong Fishery Port (called the Seafarer’s Welfare Centre) is also coming up soon. These combined efforts at expansion reflect MWC’s growing reach, which is currently at 1,500 workers a year (25% more than in 2009).

While MOM does its fair share to defend the rights of foreign workers in general, and the law does its part to put away bad bosses who persistently mistreat their workers, the workers themselves still usually end up with the short end of the stick.

Here are a few stories of people who have benefitted from the MWC’s assistance:

– Ms. Maylin, a Filipino national, was falsely accused of stealing $65 from her employer (a spa). The employer filed a police complaint while Ms. Maylin was unable to defend herself or even give her side of the story. Not knowing who to turn to, she approached the MWC who got in touch with the Police Investigating officer and convinced him to talk to both parties. The complaint was withdrawn the next day as there were no grounds to accuse Ms. Maylin in particular.

– An Indian national was brought to Singapore to work in a hospital as a nurse. Once here, the person realised there was no such job and that she had been the target of human trafficking. The person only spoke Telugu and was thus unable to explain her situation to the police. The MWC was called and staff arranged for the Indian Embassy to flow her back to India in safe conditions after the victim was reassured she had done nothing wrong.

– Sandeep and Egan, two Indian construction workers were victims of the Kallang slashing that took place in June 2010. Their employer, who was responsible for their safety in the workplace, did not want to house the workers or settle their hospital bills. The MWC visited Tan Tock Seng Hospital to check on their condition and arranged for their prolonged stay under medical care. The MWC worked with HOME to collect donations and coordinated with the Ministry of Manpower to provide both workers with jobs once they were back on their feet.

– Mr. Zhang, a Chinese national, contacted the MWC after realising the job he had being doing for 3 months (cleaner at Tiong Bahru market for 16-18 hours a day) didn’t correspond to the job he had signed up for (cleaner at Fairprice for standard working hours). After multiple unanswered pleas to his recruitment agency and his employer, Mr. Zhang decided to leave Singapore. Only he couldn’t do so because neither parties wanted to fulfil their legal obligations to pay for workers’ return ticket, to pay for any remaining salaries, and to return workers’ travel documents (passport). After the MWC intervened Mr. Zhang was given what was rightfully his and was able to return to China.

These testimonials really warm my heart! It’s nice to see that efforts are being made to effect social change for this voiceless minority group. After all, they should be accorded human dignity and rights like the rest of us!

So I urge our readers to do everything in their power to support MWC’s activities to ensure foreign workers – an integral part of our development into a modern, thriving city – are thanked for their hard work!

Be really honest with yourself: could you endure their harsh living conditions?

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Samantha Wong

I'm a hobby writer!

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