By Mark Lamb
Thursday, 5 May 2016. “An emergency” whisks through the room where we’re convening to discuss communication plans for Transient Workers Count Too. My barometer perks up but it is no time for self-interest as this appears to be a serious matter and one of immediate urgency.
In a calm but pressing voice, TWC2 caseworker Min Yi interrupts our meeting and explains to Alex Au, her superior, that she has to go to the airport. There was a last ditch call for help — a migrant worker is at the airport being ‘shipped out’ unwillingly. An employer’s agent had masterfully persuaded the worker that he must leave the country. The worker is now on the phone asking for help to extract himself from the situation.
Min Yi explains to Alex that she has been able to speak to the police officer seeking the officer’s assistance in holding the worker back from immigration and the point of no return. The TWC2 team – Min Yi and an interpreter Dharmaraj – has to reach the airport. Immediately.
Someone is being pushed out of the country against his will. The rescue alarm had sounded. A qualified caseworker and volunteers race to the scene.
Tension throughout our drive to the airport is released by many questions. Who is this guy? He’s still faceless to me. What do we know of him? Why is he being sent away? What workplace injury did he suffer? Why did he call TWC2? Also pounding somewhere amongst my subconscious is this question: What will we encounter in the very public eye of Singapore’s Changi Terminal 2?
Upon pulling up outside the departure hall the team of two step into action. This is no business trip or holiday airport jaunt. They quickly locate the migrant worker, Raman Murugaraj. Not far away but close enough to exert authority stands the employer’s agent, a man in his forties. An awkward but confident approach is made. The employer’s agent asserts that, much like damaged-goods, an injured worker may be returned. In response, Min Yi sternly lays out the worker’s factual rights: Murugaraj has an injury compensation case pending with Singapore’s authorities, and so long as the case is not yet concluded, Murugaraj should remain in Singapore.
Meanwhile, police observe the confrontation. The lady officer is seemingly accustomed to these circumstances playing out. Appreciating the worker’s vulnerability, she had knowledgeably followed established protocol upon receiving Min Yi’s earlier call for assistance, safely guarding Murugaraj’s passport, thus preventing the employer’s agent from pushing him through immigration.
The employer’s agent stands down. Murugaraj is ‘released’ into the care of TWC2’s volunteers.
Raman Murugaraj’s appearance is that of a proud young man. Athletic build. Strong worker. Solid. His face though is overcome with fear and anxiety. He had just resisted returning to India, having paid $9,000 to work abroad, after only four months. Shattered. Hopeless.
He is still uncertain what will now follow. Should he have more reason for anxiety?
The team carefully explains the situation to him and what they will be doing next. Slowly, they return dignity to Murugaraj. He becomes hopeful. Dharmaraj, TWC2’s Tamil-speaking interpreter, is invaluable. Cordial exchanges continue for some time inside the very public airport building just outside an entrance to airside and what could have been Murugaraj’s personal abyss: passport control. All this time surrounded by excited travellers unaware of the unfolding dilemma.
Consciously, the agent’s representative slips away. Hope is restored. Murugaraj squeezes a small smile to break the pensive atmosphere engulfing us.
Marginally more relaxed, we leave the airport heading back to Singapore’s Little India district. Again many questions swirl around in the car. Murugaraj speaks with calm and confidence, even using some English, to answer what had happened.
He explains to us, the uninitiated, a seemingly well-trodden path adopted by malicious employers aimed at washing their hands of migrant worker problems. He’s lost an index finger on his right hand – amputated following a workplace accident. That was a couple of months ago soon after starting employment with a local construction company. Yesterday however Murugaraj was summoned by his employer’s agent and told he was to leave Singapore, because he “cannot work, lah.”
Murugraraj shared this news with Min Yi in an earlier conversation, but did not at the time imagine that coercive measures might be in the offing.
His work injury compensation claim had already been filed a week or two earlier, with help from TWC2, through correct government channels. But he wasn’t clear whether he should nonetheless go home and await the compensation from there, or would departure nullify the claim.
The conniving agent arrived unannounced the next day, i.e. today, at the company’s worker dormitory presenting Murugaraj with a one-way air ticket to India. Cheap solution. So he obediently packed his belongings into two small backpacks ready to be escorted out of the country for good. No contact with authorities. No official paperwork. Compliantly he sat in the car, silently driven by the employer’s representative, to the airport. In desperation, around 7:45pm, not long before the flight’s departure, Murugaraj finally decided he should sound the alarm rather than be meek. He called TWC2, the only organisation that seemed to care. TWC2 responded.
Back in Little India Murugaraj, still harbouring a sense of disbelief, calls friends to explain that miracles do happen, he is still in town, he will be staying at one of TWC2’s safe houses. An honest smile of relief eventually crosses his face. The look of fear is replaced with an expression of thanks. Strength and hope return to his demeanour, attributes Raman Murugaraj will need in abundance for his next battle – seeking dignified treatment and fair compensation.
Murugaraj smiles only for now though. Reality is he is not permitted to work, earn a wage, until his case runs its course. A case he funds at his own expense or with the support of humanitarian organisation, Transient Workers Count Too.
See our commentary: Forced repatriation can lead to death, needs to be addressed.