It’s never easy sitting across a table from someone who is distraught. As a non-profit organisation, we do not have legal powers to help; we can only assist with advice and by communicating with the rightful authorities on a worker’s  behalf, but in this case, Tian Jingjing’s tale was that she had tried those avenues already and was getting nowhere.

She’s gone to the police, she’s gone to the Ministry of Manpower, where else can she go?

At several points through the interview, she put her head down against the table and sobbed. “I only want to get my money back.”

She almost got nowhere on her first visit to TWC2 too. Showing up without an appointment, she was met by a student volunteer Jean Yong, who happened to be in the office doing some administrative work. Jean however was not in any position to offer advice, but she recorded Tian’s phone number so we could call back.

It was only on her second visit to TWC2, this time with prior appointment, that this petite twenty-something, newly arrived from Fujian, China, had a chance to tell her story to TWC2 president Russell Heng.

On December 1, 2011, Tian was introduced by a Singaporean friend whom she knew as Richard to a Singaporean surnamed Huang who claimed to be an employment agent. By the 10th, the job placement had apparently been agreed and she was asked to transfer 45,000 yuan to an account, which she did.

With an In-principle Approval (IPA) for a Work Permit in hand, Tian arrived in Singapore on December 16, looking forward to a job as a shop sales assistant with an electronics company. Huang fetched her from the airport and arranged for her to go for her mandatory medical examination. He then asked for another 25,000 yuan which Tian once again paid.

On the 18th, she went back to the clinic to collect the results of the medical check-up and was told that she had failed. Her work permit was revoked and she was advised that she had to return to China. It was a huge blow after having put up 70,000 yuan (about S$14,380).

From that point on, it became difficult to reach Huang on his Singapore mobile phone number. However, with persistence, she finally succeeded, and he agreed to return half the amount by December 26.

Just to be on the safe side, Tian went to Ang Mo Kio Police Station to lodge a police report on the 21st. Both her police reports contained the local phone numbers she had of Richard and Huang.

When December 26 came, Huang denied that he ever said he would be returning half the money, which made her furious. With time running out on her visit pass (she had just 2 weeks from her arrival in Singapore), she made another police report and found her way to TWC2.

The key stumbling block, as TWC2 saw it, was that she had failed her medical, though even on this point, she believed there was more than met the eye. She vaguely suspected that the clinic might be part of the scheme to defraud her, though there was really nothing to support such a theory.

Offering an opinion on this was outside TWC2’s remit. What we could tell her, in between offering lots of hand tissue and sympathy, was that even though she might have to return home, it was still the employer’s responsibility to buy an airticket for her, and that she should contact them.

“But I want my money back,” she said repeatedly. And we understood how important it was. It was a huge sum for her.

Immediately, TWC2 wrote to both the Ministry of Manpower and the Inter-agency Task Force against human trafficking, alerting both departments to her case. Hers was not just a case of a worker likely left stranded, but also raised a  number of problems:

  • She reported using a Singapore agent (Huang) to get the job, but no agent was recorded on her IPA. It is illegal to perform the function of an employment agency without being so licensed.
  • There was a possibility that we were seeing the tip of an organised syndicate.
  • She had been running around between MOM and the police, but still felt helpless.

On the last point, TWC2 president Russell Heng noted how often we see such cases: “Here again is a worker who went to MOM and didn’t get any help out of it. She’s left having to run around in a foreign country trying to find alternative solutions.”

Actually, her case was better than typical. With mobile phone numbers of the Singaporeans who took her money, noted Heng, “she has provided a trail” that the authorities could have used, but “it’ s just that somehow she faced a system that was simply non-responsive.

“The fact is that this non-responsiveness allows all these perpetrators to get away.”

Unfortunately, the day after TWC2 wrote to the authorities, Tian became uncontactable. Did something happen to her when she visited the employer as we had advised her to do to obtain an airticket? Did she run into Huang again?

Or did she decide to go underground? Asked Heng: “Has she decided [in the absence of official help] that the only way to recoup her losses would be to stay on and find other work?”

Staying on illegally would compound her difficulties, and it would not have been a choice she lightly made. But she wouldn’t have had to make that choice if she had got prompt action from the authorities in the first place.