TWC2 community worker Kenneth Soh together with five volunteers devoted a Sunday afternoon distributing information leaflets in the Geylang area, targeting workers from China. Four of the volunteers are in the header image above (left to right): Chan Weng Hong, Guo Quanzhi, Serena Tan and Chou Yahuei. Chloe and Kenneth are not in the picture.

Dressed for a warm afternoon, they put up with the discomfort of working streetsides amid dust and noise for a good cause.

But almost immediately, they were in for a shock. Thinking that giving out a booklet published by the Ministry of Manpower (held up by volunteers above) would attract workers, they quickly found that many shunned it. Seeing the logo of the ministry, workers would wave their hand, dismiss our volunteers as representatives of the government or say something like, “Oh, MOM’s no use. They’re no help at all. I don’t bother with them.”

Their reaction gave our newish volunteers a quick lesson in how the authorities are perceived by the very workers the ministry claims to help. And despite having several boxes of the booklets, they couldn’t even manage to give half away. The heavy boxes had to be carted back to our office at the end of the day.

It was TWC2’s cheap, black-and-white-photocopy leaflet that was in demand — in the photo below, Weng Hong explains something about it to a worker. These they managed to give away quickly although the small flyer didn’t say much, except to tell workers what TWC2’s mission is and the kinds of cases we attend to. It also gave our hotline number and advised workers to call to make an appointment for a more detailed consultation about the difficulties they found themselves in.

“We had lots of questions from the workers we met,” said Yahuei, “although they usually took the form that it was about their friend. They asked about their rights and about pay issues.”

Added Kenneth: “Not all of them opened up, but when they did, they would tell us about how salaries were not paid, or that there were deductions and they were not clear what those deductions were for.

“They also had questions about MC money,” he said, using a term that refers to salaries due to workers when they are ill or injured.

The question of blacklisting came up too. Workers were not sure how and why they could be blacklisted such that they would be banned from returning to Singapore for another contract.

“They are scared about losing their jobs,” reported Kenneth based on an overall impression he got.

Yahuei also had workers coming to her mentioning the problems they faced with “companies closing down, and then they are sent back [to China] by MOM.”

Their sense of the situation was this: There were a lot of issues bothering workers from China, but they also felt rather helpless, unaware of avenues available to them. What avenues that have been designed by MOM are not readily used because there is a widespread feeling that the bureaucracy’s attitude is an unfriendly one and so the workers are reluctant to use these processes.

But if they don’t use these processes, their frustrations may boil over and further victimise themselves by taking things into their own hands, as happened, for example, with Ai Yong Li in Chinese worker, who climbed scaffolding to protest, jailed for criminal trespass. Thus the importance of TWC2’s outreach to Chinese workers. TWC2 is the friendly party they need to explain their rights and MOM’s processes, and guide the workers through them successfully.