‘This is so real’: Reflections on 32 months with The Cuff Road Project

Posted by on January 2, 2017 in Articles, Facts, research, analysis

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By Shona Loong

It is Saturday, 17 September 2016: Tito is in tears. He is being sent home after just six months in Singapore. His boss has bought him a plane ticket for this evening. This is already an extension of sorts: three days ago, his work-permit was cancelled and he was made to board a plane to Bangladesh. But at the airport, he had managed to grab the attention of immigration officers nearby, who issued him a pass that would allow him to stay in Singapore for a few more days.[1] At this point, he had already been physically abused by both his employer and the repatriation agents — the men call them “gangsters” — whom his boss had hired.

Today, he has approached us at lunchtime at The Cuff Road Project (TCRP) in Little India. When we ask him why he has come here, his narrative is interrupted again and again by his insistence that he is deep in debt; that he cannot face his family in this state. His papers tell me that he was being paid a mere $150 a month — a basic salary of $270 with $120 of deductions for housing and food. At this rate, it would have taken him more than five years to repay his debts. Yet, Tito is being sent home after just half a year, during which he was only assigned a job fifteen days a month. Ruffling through Tito’s documents, I realise with a start that he is my age: 23 years old, alone and in a foreign country for the very first time. As his eyes well up, I try to give him a pat on my back, but words fail me. The truth is that there isn’t much I can do. Tito’s employer has paid his salary on time. We could lodge a police report for abuse, but it’s likely that Tito will only be stuck in Singapore for longer, without an income and uncertain when his police case will conclude.

Debbie speaks to some workers about their case on a weekday evening.

Debbie speaks to some workers about their case on a weekday evening.

Tito’s account is an extreme example of issues that TWC2 volunteers encounter on a daily basis: crippling debt that weighs heavily on the minds of migrant workers, broken promises, times when we want to help but when we know that the system will not work in their favour. Tears, however, are not a common sight. Many of these men remain stoic when they speak to us at TCRP, which is not to say that they are less deserving of help. Many do not even tell their families about the problems they face in Singapore, for they are afraid to worry those they are responsible for from far away. Before Tito came by, I was speaking to another Bangladeshi man, Rahaman, who was owed $8,000 because his employer had cut his salary from $25 a day (what he was paid in his first year of work) to $20 (what he was paid for four years thereafter). It’s difficult to break the news that his case will probably amount to nothing as well, since his persistent compliance in the face of injustice will probably make his case look less — rather than more — valid. Even then, Singapore’s law states that he will not be able to claim for more than a year of unpaid wages. Rahaman smiles and thanks me before leaving. I am amazed by his tenacity, and irked by the irony that he will be punished for staying silent. I wonder why he did it: did he hope that he would get the money eventually, without having to kick up a fuss? Did he fear losing his job; for the consequences that might have on his family back home?

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The Cuff Road Project: the nuts and bolts

'Makan cards' (in orange) are used to verify that workers are on our programme.

‘Makan cards’ (in orange) are used to verify that workers are on our programme.

Every Saturday, I arrive at noon at TCRP, when we volunteers on duty prepare to provide lunch for more than a hundred migrant workers over two hours. The setup is simple. The men who arrive present us with a ‘makan card’ that signifies that they are on our programme. We give them a button, which they will exchange for a meal at the restaurant. Some familiar faces stop to make conversation; many leave us with only a smile. One of the men has been trying to teach me Bengali for the longest time: “Kemon achen, sister!” he says with a grin. “Bhalo achi, bhai.”

The majority of workers we see have an ongoing injury case.

The majority of workers we see have an ongoing injury case.

At its most basic level, TCRP is simply a food program for migrant workers who are not permitted to work. We provide breakfasts and dinners on weekdays and lunches on Saturdays. Meals are provided from either a Bangladeshi restaurant on Rowell Road, or a South Indian one on Dunlop Street. Over a six-month period, we provided 41,000 meals for 1,298 workers. The migrant workers who see us are not permitted to work for two main reasons. The first is that they have made a claim for work-injury compensation. Under the conditions of a Special Pass,[2] he is barred from working while he is receiving treatment for his injury and while he awaits the outcome of his claim. During this time, which typically ranges between six months and two years, he may or may not be receiving the medical leave wages from his employer that he is entitled to for up to a year — many don’t — meaning that a migrant worker with an injury claim will often be left without an income. After receiving injury compensation, a migrant worker will almost invariably be sent home.[3] While injury cases make up about 75% of TCRP’s beneficiaries, most of the remaining 25% of workers come to TCRP because they are put out of work by a salary claim they have made. This usually means that they have lodged a claim with MOM about having their salaries unpaid for months at a time, and — like in injury cases — are barred from employment while their claims are investigated. Besides injury and salary problems, we also see a smattering of other cases in which migrants are disallowed from working, such as recruitment scams and police investigations.

We work together with workers to piece together their cases from the papers they bring along.

We work together with workers to piece together their cases from the papers they bring along.

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Debbie inspects an injured man’s X-ray.

Debbie inspects an injured man’s X-ray.

But TCRP is far more than a meal programme. Every worker we encounter at TCRP is out of work because he has had something go wrong for him. In addition, each injury or salary case can come with additional complications. What is a worker to do when his employer refuses to pay for his treatment? What about when witnesses to a work accident refuse to speak up, possibly for fear of being sent home? As for salary problems, how is a worker to prove that he is underpaid if he is paid in cash? Or if his signature has been forged by his boss? The stories we publish on our website, almost all of which are about workers who have sought help at TCRP, are testament to the array of perplexing situations that workers find themselves in. For workers who are caught adrift in a regulatory and legal system that they do not understand, TCRP’s regular cast of volunteers provides the reassurance that they can seek advice whenever they need it. We listen to a migrant worker’s story, look at the documents he has brought with him, and try and determine how to best help. This sounds easier than it is. When I first began at TCRP, I felt completely at a loss for how I could be of use. I discovered that it is one thing to read up on the work-injury compensation scheme, but it is quite another to be able to craft a coherent case from the stack of papers that a migrant worker hands to you, each of which is labeled with an equally incomprehensible acronym (think: NOA, IPA, LOG…[4]). From these bewildering experiences, I learnt three things. The first is that injury and salary cases take a massive emotional toll on workers.[5] If I could not make sense of these documents, what more migrant workers who do not read English well, and who are now subject to a system they are unfamiliar with? The second is that policies that sound good on paper do not necessarily translate into better outcomes in practice. If they did, migrant workers would not need to approach TWC2 volunteers at all. Elsewhere, TWC2 has pointed out that Singapore’s employment policies do not serve the interests of migrant workers that are already put in a position of vulnerability in the workplace. And thirdly, I saw that there was much to learn from the people around me. The senior volunteers I sat with at every meal readily guided me through the process of interviewing workers and offering advice to them. TWC2 sometimes gets requests from students who want to jump into interviewing “interesting cases”, but I found that I learnt most when I did it slowly, filling out ‘makan’ cards and working with people who were far more experienced than I.

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‘This is so real’

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Someone falls off a lorry; another man is crushed by a coil of cables; yet another has a machine slice a deep gash into his hand. At TCRP, you learn that these things happen, and that they happen with alarming regularity. Not a meal goes by where we do not have a new sign-up. You learn to ask the usual questions in a particular brand of broken English: ‘bhai, when injury? Where injury?’ you’ll say, gesturing up and down your own body to signal that he can point to where it hurts instead of grasping for words he has never needed to know. ‘Salary OK?’ ‘Oh. Salary problem also. Two month no pay? Oh — no, three month. OK. Timecard have? Salary paper have?’ You learn to sift through stories for what is important, for problems you can solve. ‘Assessment finish already? Any objection? Who object, bhai? Ok, I tell you first. This one must wait some more two or three weeks. Maybe higher, but maybe lower also. No guarantee.’ You find yourself giving advice you never thought anyone needed: ‘If gangster take you to airport, no give passport to anybody. Must tell police. Tell police you MOM meeting have. Show MOM letter to police. If problem have, you must shout. It’s okay.’

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The first time I saw a serious injury, I felt sick. The man was missing two fingers after a bloody accident on construction site. Today, I fear getting desensitised to issues that are serious, because I have learnt that it happens so often. It becomes mechanical: ask about the injury, fill up a form, smile and nod. On another Saturday afternoon, I am showing a few undergraduate students around TCRP. They have come to learn about TWC2’s work as part of an assignment for university. ‘This is so real,’ they tell me after hearing us talk through a worker’s injury case. And they are right: this is real. It is ridiculous to think otherwise. At TCRP we come face-to-face with the toll that Singapore’s migration regime has on real people. We see that there are people out there who have pains and scars that will remain with them the rest of their lives because tight project deadlines cause bosses to cut corners when it comes to work safety.

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Nearly three years after I began volunteering at TCRP, I find that when it comes to migration policy in Singapore, little has improved. I find my life fuller, having learnt so much from volunteering here. But I also find myself disappointed in the realization that in Singapore – where buildings are flattened and built up again in the flash of an eye – there are some things that resist change. I realize that while I have graduated from university in this time, there are also people who work the same jobs, day in and day out, with no hopes of a better salary or even the assurance that they will be able to remain in this country in the next year. But I will keep going for two reasons. The first is that TCRP is not all doom and gloom; there is also laughter and warmth between workers and volunteers. Recently, I have been trying to eat with my hands at the Bangladeshi restaurant. I know I look silly. Mynul – a worker that I have come to know through our programme, who is eating with us – stifles his laughter. It is these little moments that keep me going. The second is that I believe that there is something very wrong with Singapore’s hardline approach to economic growth. This approach is one that has disadvantaged not just migrant workers, but various groups of Singaporeans. Indeed, to volunteer at TCRP is not just to learn about “migrant workers”, but to come face-to-face with the human costs of the “Singapore story”. And in the process of doing so, I hope that I will never become used to what is happening in front of me—or, worse still, feel good about myself—but that I will continue to be deeply, deeply uncomfortable with how my city’s so-called success can damage so many others’ lives.

Footnotes

[1] That is, a Special Pass issued by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), as distinct from the Special Passes most of TCRP’s men are on, which are issued by the Ministry of Manpower.

[2] Special Passes are issued to workers whose work-permits have been revoked, but who must remain in Singapore to complete the injury compensation or salary claims process. The Special Pass protects workers from repatriation before the outcome of the claim is decided. However, it also bars workers from working in the meantime.

[3] Those who wish to return to Singapore to work will have to pay thousands of dollars of recruitment fees all over again. Add this to the fact that most first-time migrant workers are mired in debt for up to two years and that many are the sole breadwinners of their families back home, and we find that even basic needs like meals can emerge as a serious concern for an injured worker.

[4] Notice of Assessment, In-Principle Agreement, Letter of Guarantee… to name a few.

[5] For more information about the emotional health of migrant workers, please see: Harrigan, N., & Koh, C. Y. (2015). “Vital yet vulnerable: mental and emotional health of South Asian migrant workers in Singapore.” Lien Centre for Social Innovation: Social Insight Research Series.

 

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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