In a commentary published by socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), Jolovan Wham criticised the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) ineffectual moves with respect to abuses committed by repatriation companies. Link to article. It is not clear however, whether Wham was writing in his personal capacity or as Executive Director of HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics).

Recounting a previous encounter with the police when he tried to intervene in cases where workers were confined against their will, Wham wrote:

When our boys in blue arrived, they laughed at me and said that this company was operating a legitimate business. Immediately, I questioned how confining someone against their will was a legitimate business activity. When I pointed out that the penal code criminalises wrongful confinement, they asked me if I was willing to indemnify the employer’s $5000 security bond if the workers went missing. I argued that the security bond and the wrongful confinement of the workers were 2 separate matters and it was not the responsibility of the police to protect the employer from the forfeiture of the bond. They ignored me, and after exchanging a few cursory remarks with [the owner of the repatriation company], they left the scene and refused to take any further action.

He also recalled a case where a worker had been confined by a repatriation company for a month.

. . . after he had been confined by them for almost a month, it took a lot of persuasion before the police finally decided to allow the worker to lodge a report. Even after the report was lodged, no further action was taken against the repatriation company.

Wham contrasted this historical experience with the words of the Manpower minister:

In parliament last week, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that ‘the government takes seriously all cases where members of the public, workers or NGOs claim that repatriation agents may have breached the law. If the worker is confined, MOM and the Police will ensure that the worker is not confined against his will and that his issues are addressed in a timely fashion.’

It is impossible for us to take this statement seriously when this is not the response of the authorities to migrant workers on the ground. While MOM will assist the workers with salary and work injury compensation claims, their response towards workers complaining about being locked up is woefully inadequate.

Platitudes such as this, which urge workers to call the police, sound hollow and empty when they have been trying in vain all these years for the police to take their complaints seriously.

With respect to the recently publicised “raids” conducted by the ministry on offices of repatriation companies, Wham did not think the exercise was meaningful. The ministry in its press statement had reported that

Of the four premises inspected, two companies – A Team Services and Ultimate Security Consultants – were found to have ceased operations at their registered addresses. At 1 Aces Repatriation Pte Ltd, four workers, who have been residing at the premises for durations ranging from a few days to two months, did not highlight any employment issues when interviewed. They are allowed to move in and out freely on their own and held their own personal belongings and Work Passes. At UTR Services Pte Ltd, one foreign worker found at the premises said he had not encountered any issues staying there.

Wham asked, in his commentary article:

Did the enforcement officers interview the workers in the premises of the repatriation company, or worse still in the presence of the repatriation company staff? Were the workers brought to a neutral place to be interviewed with translators who spoke their language to find out why they were living there, and how they ended up there? How was the inspection conducted, how were the questions asked, and what kinds of questions were asked? To conclude that ‘no infringements were detected’ based on just one inspection conveniently ignores and belittles the efforts of migrant workers and all those in the NGO community who have tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade the authorities to take the issue of wrongful confinement more seriously.

Concluding, he pointed his finger at the conflicted political priorities that are operating, but which also shine a light on Singapore’s  attitude to labour:

Repatriation companies and security bonds exist because we want cheap labour but refuse to deal with the problems which are a result of treating human beings as exchangeable commodities, other than taking short cuts and punitive measures to resolve them. The political will to close them down is weak because the authorities are convinced that repatriation companies play a useful social control function.

See also Chinese national cheated of 27,000 yuan detained and threatened by repatriation agents and the full story here: Crime and ambivalence.