Senior officials from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) met with Transient Workers Count Too this week on a fact-finding visit, engaging in fruitful and cordial discussions that broached a range of legal and workplace issues faced by low-skilled migrant workers in Singapore.

Led by Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin, some 10 civil servants visited TWC2 at the Suthas restaurant on Cuff Road, where part of the group’s eponymously named soup kitchen is run. The rare visit, on the evening of Tuesday, November 1, 2011, marked the first time a minister had come to see TWC2’s frontline operations since the group’s founding in 2004.

About three months earlier, soon after Mr Tan took on the post, TWC2 president Russell Heng had extended an invitation to the minister to come see TWC2’s activities on the ground. MOM confirmed they would be glad to visit when Russell met with the minister at ministry headquarters shortly after. That was when the minister, wanting to familiarise himself with his new portfolio, had organised a roundtable with all non-governmental bodies involved in migrant worker issues.

Tuesday night’s session at our Cuff Road project stretched nearly two hours, far longer than planned. TWC2 volunteers exchanged views with Mr. Tan and his phalanx of officials on a range of problems – from employment scams to bureaucratic kinks – that plague many migrant workers here. Both parties also agreed to strengthen collaboration between government with civil society on migrant-worker issues.

Russell, together with executive committee members Alex Au and Debbie Fordyce, led the sharing session, with contributions from others including social worker Kenneth Soh, and two migrant workers (Amran and Rashid) who described the difficulties they were in. The latter two told of their salary claims, workplace injury and accommodation issues faced not only by them but by many other workers. TWC2 volunteers also put forth policy alternatives that would go some way to addressing problems systemically.

The minister and his team – comprising policy makers, operations officers and communications executives – were attentive and receptive, probing TWC2 volunteers on their concerns and seeking details on the workers’ cases. While acknowledging administrative shortfalls and TWC2’s concerns, ministry officials also offered clarifications and counterpoints on policies, as well as insights into their thinking on migrant workers’ rights.

Mr. Tan expressed his appreciation for the work of TWC2 and other civil society groups in supporting migrant workers who have fallen through cracks, and recommended more regular and timely communication between officials and civil society on individual workers’ cases and identification of broader industry problems.

The discussions, which subsequently migrated to Dibashram on Rowell Road, a drop-in centre run by Debbie Fordyce and AKM Mohsin, publisher of Banglar Kantha, also drew a small crowd of mostly migrant workers, keen to witness the historic meeting unfolding before them. They knew their troubled stories were being told, but on a more hopeful note, they also sensed that the proceedings could have a profound impact on their lives. Here was a sign that TWC2’s work was paying off and that the government’s pledge of concern and commitment was real.

More photos from the visit:

Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin is welcomed by TWC2 president Russell Heng on arrival at Suthas restaurant where our Cuff Road free meals programme was running that Tuesday evening


Mr Tan reads brief notes about Amran’s and Rashid’s cases, which typify many other cases


Mr Tan listens to Amran and Rashid as they provide additional details of their experiences


Amran, who had suffered a workplace injury and been out of work since December 2010, describes the bureaucratic quagmire he was put in.


Other workers gather around as Kenneth, Debbie, Russell and Alex offer suggestions to MOM officials


Minister checks facts with his officials


After one hour at Suthas, the entire group adjourned to Dibrashram for another hour of discussions, going way beyond the allotted time


Debbie goes into considerable detail describing problems encountered by workers; the minister remained fully engaged with the details


Mr Mohsin (at right) sits briefly beside the minister after having explained to him his work publishing the Banglar Kantha newspaper


Debbie exchanging final thoughts with Mr Tan as he prepares to leave

Photo credits: Doreen Siow