TWC2’s Cuff Road Project (TCRP) serves the immediate needs of South Asian male migrant workers. Specifically, these are workers who are awaiting resolution of claims, complaints or investigations they’ve lodged with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and have no access to paid work from their employers due to injury or salary problems or other disputes [see also footnote 1]. Without work and income, even daily essentials such as meals become unaffordable. Thus our programme.
TCRP began in March 2008 to reach out to South Asian workers in Little India and Farrer Park area who were prohibited from working while these claims were being processed. They had also left their company dormitories. The main reasons why they left were their fear of repatriation, difficulty in obtaining necessary medical treatment, and threats or acts of violence by the employer. These reasons remain true for the current cohort of workers with TCRP.
After a worker lodges a claim or complaint with the MOM, the employer typically considers him a troublemaker, likely to cause unrest and dissatisfaction among the other workers. Swift repatriation of these workers would relieve the employer of the hassle and cost of providing medical treatment for injuries, or paying salary arrears – responsibilities mandated by the Employment Act. The mutual suspicions make it impossible for some workers to remain in company housing. They find some bedspace in Little India or Geylang but they have to stretch their meagre savings to pay monthly rent. That leaves nothing for food.
In 2018, the project supported 2,631 individuals with a variety of services. TCRP provides meals eleven times each week: mornings and evenings Monday to Friday, and lunch on Saturday. TCRP offers no meals on Sundays because many of the men spend time with working friends who have a day off, and because the restaurants supplying the meals are busy with the usual Sunday crowd.
It would be tempting to assume that the drop in beneficiaries–from 908 in January to 733 in December- results from fewer men facing these hardships, but the more likely reason is the increasing difficulty of finding housing in this area. Ten years ago, most of the second floor rooms of shophouses were used as unauthorised dormitories for foreign workers. Many of these are being closed down by the authorities as they exceed the number of people allowed to stay in residential units. During the ten years that TCRP has been active in the area, we’ve observed more frequent checks on these spaces that are used as worker quarters, and the subsequent closure of these facilities. That probably accounts for the gradually declining trend in numbers of individuals eating with TCRP over the months of 2018.
We maintain a service desk where the meal registrants come each mealtime. Our TCRP volunteers provide the men with tokens for each meal. The men have a choice of four restaurants, two Bangladeshi and two Indian, where they redeem the token for a meal. The red token is used for breakfast and the white for lunch/dinner. The different colours determine the value of the meal: the red token is redeemed for a morning meal usually of pratha and tea ($2.00); the white one for rice and a choice of meat and vegetable curry ($2.80). If the man wants a more expensive dish, he may top up with his own money.
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) offers several other services at the meal program. One team issues EZLink cards to men who have upcoming medical appointments, and another team escorts men to their hospital appointments. Sometimes, other groups such as schools or religious groups donate additional items like toiletries, fruit, clothing, etc., thus helping those workers with other unmet needs. (Various other groups, such as schools, religious groups, or individuals, offer additional donations of sweets, toiletries, clothing, etc. alongside the meals, which allows them the opportunity to provide for the most needy of the migrant workers.)
In the foreground, TCRP volunteers register workers and give out tokens and advice. In the background a school group prepare to give out their donations-in-kind
Not just food
Beyond addressing the immediate food and transport needs, more importantly we provide assistance in navigating the bureaucracy of injury and salary claims and the associated legal complexities. Our volunteers are on hand to assist in a variety of ways: listen and sort out problems, and refer the men to the TWC2 office for help with more tangled issues. Some problems require intricate calculations to determine the unpaid salaries and overtime owed, a process further stymied by the lack of documentation and the false evidence fabricated by some employers. Workplace accidents can also be difficult to validate due to conflicting accounts by employers, repatriation of witnesses and employer threats to keep others silent. TWC2 staff and volunteers offer support that goes well beyond food.
When a new man appears at TCRP, our volunteers conduct a short interview to assess his needs. We collect basic details about the man and the problem that caused him to leave the company. Most of these men’s work permits are cancelled shortly after filing the claim. MOM then issues them Special Passes that permit them to remain in Singapore until the issue is resolved, thus assuring the men that they cannot be arbitrarily deported by their employers. However, the Special Pass also forbids them from working. Click the thumbnail to see the relevant sentence in a Special Pass.
Approximately 150 new men register at TCRP each month. Those with injury compensation claims remain with the program longer, many beyond one year as injuries may take considerable time to heal and assess for permanent incapacity. Salary claims are completed more quickly, although workers often receive unsatisfactory outcomes due to lack of evidence.
When our volunteers are closely involved in assisting with a worker’s case, parting can be emotional for both sides. We often bid farewell to men returning home with compensation and claim sums too small to support the family and too insignificant even to recover the cost of recruitment. Even so, being able to provide emotional and material support during this time is uplifting for the men and meaningful for our volunteers. The situations these men present reinforce the need for better regulation of the recruitment processes, and of working conditions, so that low-wage foreign workers, are provided a working environment that would be considered acceptable to Singaporean workers.
It’s reasonable to expect that a prosperous and well-governed country like Singapore should be able to boast that foreign workers are content with their work, and are able to return home with enough to support their family and improve their circumstances. Unfortunately, the problems plaguing the men at TCRP demonstrate that Singapore is not there yet.
- Other problems include criminal investigation, premature termination, assisting in investigation by MOM to activities by the employer, recruitment scam, etc.