We arrive at a black door with no number on it. Jayasurenda (Jaya for short) from Sri Lanka, is about to show me where he has slept for the last 6 months while waiting for his case to be resolved by MOM.
We turn left from a bus stop near Pasir Panjang and walk for about 15 minutes. He’s afraid of showing me his house in case the men that live their object to my presence.
Jaya left Sri Lanka after a long struggle to find work – he had heard from people about the great promise of life in Singapore, and had set his sights on working in the hospitality sector or in security, both sectors he feels confident enough to work in. Sri Lanka hasn’t anything to offer him, he says. At 52, he is too old to find work.
He knows Singapore well, having tried in vain once before to secure work here: he paid an agent $3000 for a restaurant job, only to arrive to find out that the owners had changed their mind. He was sent home. That case led to an investigation in Sri Lanka, that has – as far as Jaya knows – turned up few clues. In all, he says he has made 17 visits to Singapore in recent years, mainly to visit his son who studied here at an international school.
Jaya is a rare case for us: in that he arrived in Singapore on a visitor’s pass and stayed to look for work, illegally. Most of the men we speak to have arrived via an agent in their native country and have been exploited, injured (or both) and are stuck in a long queue of investigations on a Special Pass.
At the time of interviewing him, Jaya is himself stuck on a Special Pass: he was required to stay in Singapore after MOM opened an investigation into his employer, who had illegally hired a group of foreign workers. Jaya was among fifteen Sri Lankans who arrived in Singapore on March 2011 on a Visit Pass, but with the intention of looking to work. Ten of those have been repatriated back to Sri Lanka, and Jaya is among the remaining five required to stay.
The problem is that since he was placed on a Special Pass he has had next to no money to get by; he borrows what he can and given the desperate situation he finds himself in, I suspect he has found the odd job to help him get by, such as food delivery which could pay about $40 a day.
From our conversations it’s clear Jaya doesn’t want to work in construction – which employs most of the incoming migrant workers to Singapore. He has past experience working for an electronics company for five years in South Korea (legally) and shows me photos from happier times when he was part of an amateur dramatics group while living there. Before that he worked for fifteen years in a hotel back in Sri Lanka.
For a 52-year-old Jaya looks a lot younger; he walks with a small bag slung over his shoulder, like a student. The house he has been staying in – rent free – is nestled behind a tennis court, in a sleepy corner of the busy suburb of Little India.
I gesture to enter the house, which is shared by “around 20 to 30” migrant workers (the numbers change as men come and go, Jaya tells me), but Jaya remains outside: “Maybe not go inside, boss is in the house,” he says cautiously.
“Where do you sleep then?” I asked.
“Here,” he says, pointing to an old table on the porch which is surrounded by laundry, boots and bottles. For six months every night Jaya has placed a small blanket onto the table and curled up beneath the awnings.
Until his case is solved he has little choice but to continue to sleep there.
The interview was conducted several months ago. We tried to contact Jaya to follow up on developments, but his phone had gone dead.