The lead story in the Home Section of the Straits Times last Monday looked into foreign workers working illegally. (‘Workers find illegal jobs through informal network’, 25 Nov 2013).

It was accompanied by a photograph that Transient Workers Count Too considers somewhat irresponsible. Only the lower half of the photograph is on this page. In the Straits Times, the man’s full height can be seen including a profile of his face. He may not be identifiable to those who don’t know him, but enough of him is shown that those who do know him can make a pretty good guess as to his identity. Journalists need to be more responsible to their sources.

The story opens with reference to Kazal, a worker who gets the odd job through an “informal network”.

Reporter Amelia Tan explains: “Most of them are injured as a result of their legal work. They ran away from their official employers because they were not paid and are afraid they may be sent home.”

When their work permits are cancelled, they are issued Special Passes and allowed to stay on as they wait for compensation.However, they are not allowed to work when holding Special Passes, “but many ignore the law.”

The newspaper adds:

This clandestine job market is lucrative: bosses pay workers up to $80 a day. The men take home about $60, with $20 going to the middlemen as commission. In contrast, the men earn $30 a day working for their legal employers.

Workers interviewed on the condition of anonymity said they do a diverse range of jobs and have managed to go unnoticed as the tasks are largely innocuous.

They clean HDB estates, work in wet markets, help karung guni (rag and bone) men, wash cars, move furniture, paint homes, assemble goods in factories, do electrical wiring and general maintenance work in offices.

Workers told the newspaper that while their daily wages from illegal work are higher, the work is irregular, and hence, they don’t earn as much as it may seem. There is a constant fear of being caught. Moreover, these workers run a higher risk of injuries as they often are not provided with safety equipment such as harnesses and hard hats.

They can be fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed for up to two years for working while holding a Special Pass. The report added that in October 2013, a Bangladeshi was jailed for six weeks for making up an accident and working illegally.

As for what the workers really want, they told the Straits Times that they wished the authorities would allow them to be transferred to other employers so they could work legally.


Update: Transient Workers Count Too wrote to the newspaper’s letters page in response to this article. We were concerned that the article focussed too much on workers, leading readers to think the problem is located there, when in truth, working illegally is largely a survival response to a flawed system. The solution must lie in fixing these flaws. See TWC2’s letter archived at Plug gaps in system to reduce illegal work.