Tanjong Katong Road. File picture, no intended connection to Mahendra’s case.

Mahendra (not his real name) had two children, five sisters and no income. From his friends in Kandy, Sri Lanka, he got the idea that jobs are plentiful in Singapore. So he bought a return airticket for 57,000 Sri Lankan Rupees  (approx S$434) and flew into Singapore on 14 January 2019, receiving a 30-day stamp on his passport.

Finding work proved rather harder than he expected, but eventually he found a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant in the Tanjong Katong area. The pay was $50 a day. He would stand to make $1,500 if he worked every day without a break — very good money by Sri Lankan standards.

With the social visit pass expiring around 13 February, Mahendra slipped into overstayer status. But things were going fine.

Then on Saturday, 5 March 2019, the restaurant was checked and he was arrested — he had only managed to stay unnoticed for three weeks. The police took him to the headquarters of the Immigration and Customs Authority where he was interrogated, then locked up in holding cells in the basement. He can’t say for certain how long he stayed there — maybe because he couldn’t see daylight from his cell. He reckons it was about three days, after which he was brought to court where a fine of $1,000 was imposed on him for the offence. Not having the money to pay the fine, he served four days in Changi Remand Prison in default.

On release, the Police issued Mahendra a Special Pass regularising his continued stay in Singapore. Perhaps they want him here as a prosecution witness against the restaurant owner who would be accused of employing a foreigner without a Work Permit. Or perhaps the authorities recognise that he simply doesn’t have means to buy his ticket home, and needs time to find some money.

Overstaying a work pass

Unlike Mahendra who overstayed a social visit or tourist pass, Mostak (not his real name) once had a work permit. After a month in the job, he filed a work injury claim in December 2018 hoping that it would result in compensation. However, by February 2019, the Ministry of Manpower had ruled that the injury was not work-related, which meant no compensation.

Mostak became financially desperate. He had only worked a month — starting with the company in November 2018 with the accident in December — and then he had been out of work for almost three months waiting out the ultimately-unsuccessful injury claim. In addition, like all workers, he had paid thousands of dollars to secure that ill-fated job, money he had not yet earned back.

When MOM’s decision that the injury was not work-related was issued, Mostak would have been given a week to prepare for repatriation. Unable to go home with no money, he decided to overstay and took on some casual work as a deliveryman.

Like Mahendra’s case, it didn’t last long, slightly over three weeks. Mostak was checked while unloading a van and arrested. He was also fined $1,000, and served four days in jail in default.

On release, Mostak was also issued a Special Pass to allow him continued stay in Singapore in order to arrange an orderly departure.

If Singapore wants them to stay here for a while, they should have the right to work

TWC2 has seen many similar cases, where the overstayer, after serving his sentence is released back into the community. It is the compassionate thing to do — he’s already paid for the offence. We believe the authorities want them here to complete their investigation into whoever harboured or employed them — these too are offences.

But for the two or three months that the ex-offender is required to stay on in Singapore before being made to go home, he is not allowed to work, and this raises a number of questions. Without income, how is he to have a place to stay? How is he to find food, and if sick, medicine?

The reality is that the released person will look for underground work again. He has no choice, having to keep body and soul together. It is always best to legalise something than to let it operate in the shadows. For example, regulations about safety hazards or injury insurance would be absent in such underground workplaces.

The best thing would be to allow him to work for the three or six months that he is required to stay, and let him find a legal job with a legal employer. How hard is that to do?