Care Fund Programmes
Whilst the The Cuff Road Project is TWC2’s signature project, we also provide assistance to workers in other areas of need. Around 2008 when we began to provide such direct assistance, it was done on a small scale from a single Care Fund. Thanks to generous donors, activities under the fund have grown and now our programmes can be broadly classified into six main areas: transport, housing, medical care, legal costs, Dayspace, and others. Thus the plural: Care Fund Programmes.
Under the law, employers of foreign workers are required to provide necessary medical care, suitable accommodation (including meals), and medical leave wages when an employee is medically unfit for work (subject to conditions and limits). The reality however is that some employers shirk their responsibilities. Complaints lodged with the Ministry of Manpower can take a long time to be investigated. In the meantime, workers are left with no money, occasionally no medical care and often nowhere to stay.
Unable to work, injured workers often find themselves with a financial problem in addition to their worries over recovery. In theory, they are entitled to salary or medical leave wages (if the doctor has prescribed medical leave), but in reality, bureaucratic or other reasons often mean payment is badly delayed. Moreover, because of their low salaries, they have no savings. Virtually broke, injured workers find that they do not even have the means to pay for transport to the hospital for their medical appointments or physiotherapy. They simply don’t have money for transport.
TWC2’s FareGo programme provides small sums to injured workers so that they can top up their transport fare cards. Strict qualifying criteria are applied: Applicants must be able to demonstrate that they are not allowed to work, that they have an upcoming medical appointment and that a stipulated exclusion period (since the last top-up) has passed.
Although at an individual level, the subsidies provided are small, the total amount adds up to over $30,000 annually since there are so many workers in need.
Under the law, employers are required to continue to house their former employees till their cases are concluded and they go home or they have found a new job. In reality, workers — in the hundreds and maybe thousands — find it impossible to stay on in company quarters. They report a climate of intimidation and constant fear that the company would send in strong-armed repatriation agents in the middle of the night, seizing them and bundling them off to the airport against their will. These fears are not unfounded. TWC2 has heard many first-hand reports of such repatriation tactics. In any event, it is entirely conceivable that some companies may try all means to avoid the cost of housing their workers by making it difficult for them to stay on.
Workers who flee company accommodation may borrow money from friends and relatives to rent a bunk space. But there are some with neither willing friends or relatives in Singapore.
Project Roof helps subsidise their rent. The men find their own accommodation — typically a bunk in a crowded tenement in Little India — and, subject to eligibility criteria and financial limits set out in our programme, we help pay for it.
It goes without saying that there are far more workers in need of such assistance than we can provide. Consequently, we apply strict criteria, chief of which is the severity of a worker’s injury. Top of the queue would be those who have recently had major surgery, or have suffered a serious injury compromising his mobility and ability to help himself.
In a typical year, the largest of our Care Fund programmes goes to providing medical care. Whilst the law obliges employers to purchase insurance and thereby provide medical care, the law also sets out maximum limits to this obligation. There is a cap on how much medical costs need be borne by employers for injuries or illnesses. The cap is not unrealistic — in the main, almost all cases would not require more medical care than permitted by the cap.
Invariably however, there will be outliers. These would be workers who have suffered such severe injures, necessitating major brain surgery or reconstructive surgery, for example, that costs far exceed the amount employers are obliged to pay for. From time to time too, workers come down with illnesses that may require long stays in hospitals or complex treatment, again beyond the legal cap.
Some employers go well beyond their legal obligation, picking up the tab for extra medical care. Others do not. And that’s where TWC2 has to come in, on a humanitarian basis to ensure that the ill or injured worker does not see his treatment truncated and his suffering prolonged.
TWC2 weighs each case very carefully. High priority is given to cases where surgery or medical treatment has a high chance of restoring the patient to an active working life so that he or she can continue to be a breadwinner. Where the prognosis is poor, we scale our support accordingly.
In Singapore, dispute resolution avenues for injury or salary claims are typified by a two- or three-stage process.
For injury cases, the first stage comprises administrative processes under the Ministry of Manpower, keeping costs low for the claimant workers. Should one party disagree with the outcome of this stage, an appeal can be made to the courts — this would be the second stage.
For salary cases, the first stage involves mediation organised by the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM). If this proves fruitless, the case moves on to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) for adjudication. No legal representation is allowed at either TADM or the ECT.
These initial stages in both injury and salary cases may not require much in terms of financial outlay by claimant workers, though extensive casework support is often needed. Our Wednesday Clinic team provides this intensive support, helping migrant workers overcome educational, language or evidentiary disadvantages during these administrative stages. For example, many are unable to calculate exactly how much they are owed, or how to tease out arguments from whatever documents they have.
It is when a case goes beyond the administrative stages to the High Court, in the form of appeals, that costs kick in. Most cases don’t get this far, but when they do, the financial weakness of migrant workers becomes a barrier to accessing justice. They need legal representation and there are all sorts of costs to be borne, e.g. filing fees, production or extraction of documents, forensic reports, fees for expert witnesses, etc.
TWC2’s Wednesday Clinic helps workers find pro-bono lawyers if they have deserving cases. However, pro-bono lawyers are only free in terms of their time and professional services. Another party needs to pick up the disbursement costs, and it is here that TWC2 has to step in through our Care Fund.
In order to make TWC2 easily approachable to migrant workers, we maintain a “field office” in Little India, a district which many migrant workers find familiar. The upstairs space is called “TWC2 Dayspace”, and is really just one large room that can be configured for a variety of uses.
In the daytime and early evenings, volunteers and staff use the space for consultation and various benefit programmes such as FareGo and meal tokens.
The space is also used as an emergency shelter when workers come to us at short notice in need of a place to sleep e.g. because they have been turfed out of employer housing.
In ensuring that the support we give to migrant workers is wholistic, there is no way we can confine Care Fund activities to strict categories. Some flexibility is required.
Our social work team can tap into the Care Fund for small sums to help specific workers in areas not covered by the above-mentioned programmes. For example, a worker may need help to top up her phone card so that she can maintain contact with us and her family. Or another worker with a leg injury and impaired mobility needs to be taken by a volunteer to hospital for his appointment in a taxi since he cannot take public transport. We’ve also had cases where doctors have ordered special diets for worker patients, and these need to be paid for.
Hence, we set aside a portion of the Care Fund each year to cope with these “general” or “miscellaneous” needs. Doing so supports our casework in effectiveness and comprehensiveness.