5:30 pm. Our social workers Kenneth Soh and Raymond Ang were tidying up their desks — not to go home, but to set off to Little India where Transient Workers Count Too’s soup kitchen operates. Then the phone rang.

A worker, speaking in Chinese, introduced himself and said he had a huge problem.

“My name is Xu,” he said, telling us his story in unusually clear Mandarin Chinese, with little hint of provincial accent: He had arrived in Singapore just three weeks earlier, on March 10, 2012. He had been hired as a skilled carpenter, and in fact had undergone the necessary training prior to coming here. “I have the certificates to prove it,” he assured us. Upon arrival, he went for the mandatory medical examination, but his employer did not take him to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to convert his In-principle approval into a proper work permit, which should have been the next step. Despite this, he was asked to start work on March 13 — which is against the law.

He found himself being tasked to haul cement and do all sorts of general construction work, suffering heatstroke on one occasion. “The climate in China is totally different from Singapore’s,”  he told Kenneth. Even so, this is something that one adjusts to with a bit more time. In his case  particularly, he had come directly from subzero winter in northern China, and hadn’t been told how to protect himself from the tropical sun.

On Monday, April 2, 2012, the employer called him to the office and told him he was not qualified for the job. It came as a shock to Xu, who, like so many other workers, would have paid thousands of dollars to get the job.

He asked to be paid at least for the period he had worked, only to be taken aback by the company’s demand of $99.50 from him.

“How so?”  he asked.

The company said they were deducting from his first month’s salary a “safety fee”, a “Manpower Ministry registration fee”  and the cost of the airticket, Xu reported to TWC2. After these deductions, he owed them $99.50 instead of them owing him wages.

Kenneth informed him that all these deductions sounded improper. Furthermore, he should not have been made to work without first obtaining a work permit. Xu should lodge a complaint at the ministry the next morning, Kenneth advised.

“But I am being sent home tonight,” said Xu. The company had purchased the ticket and expected him to go with company representatives to the airport to catch the 9:25 pm Tiger Airways flight.

Kenneth then placed an urgent call to a senior officer at MOM who concurred that we should provide the usual advice in such situations:

  • the worker should go to the airport as requested by the company;
  • he should check in for the flight and get a boarding pass;
  • he should proceed to the immigration stamping area — a police-controlled area into which the company representatives will not be able to accompany him;
  • approaching the passport stamping counters, he should tell an immigration/passport officer that he has an unresolved employment claim (and ask that his passport not be exit-stamped);
  • and he can then expect the officers to allow him to remain in Singapore.

Kenneth promptly returned a call to Xu, passing on the same advice. “Don’t be afraid, others have done the same thing before you and they were allowed to stay to pursue their cases.” He also told Xu that at the passport counter, should any immigration officer have a question, he can help deal with it through the phone.

8:25 pm. Kenneth and Raymond were at the soup kitchen. Xu called as Kenneth had asked him to.

“Where are you now?” Kenneth asked.

“I’m outside,” Xu replied.

It needed some clarification before Kenneth understood what “outside” meant and what had happened. It had gone according to plan, according to Xu. Although he was accompanied to the airport by company representatives as expected, these others were not permitted to enter the passport-stamping area. Once inside this police-controlled area, he spoke to the immigration officers as he had been advised.  He was then directed to the immigration supervisor (without having his passport stamped), who then allowed him to go back into the public area. Xu felt safe doing so because he had seen the company representatives leave.

That’s when he called Kenneth.

“What I want to know is this,” asked Xu over the phone. “If I decide to stay on in Singapore to lodge a complaint, how long will the case take?”

Kenneth told him that it was hard to estimate since it wouldn’t be under TWC2’s control as the Manpower Ministry would be taking over the case.

Xu then explained his thinking: “If I stay, I do not have a single cent on me. Who will provide me accommodation and food?”

“I am very sorry,” said Kenneth, “but our organisation cannot provide these. We do not have the budget for it.”

“It’s OK, I understand,” Xu said, deciding then that he should take the flight back and give up the chance to fight his case. “In fact, I am very sorry to give you so many problems.”

It seemed somewhat absurd that a worker who had been victimised should be apologising, but it only showed how courteous and considerate he was. In return, all TWC2 could say was to please share his Singapore experience with his friends and contacts when back in Hebei. Let people know the likely problems they may face before they come to work in Singapore and how the system offers no reasonable solution.

And so, Xu flew home that night, a poorer man than if he had never set foot in Singapore.

On paper, a system may exist to permit a worker to lodge complaints, but in practice, the process imposes such a high cost on a worker — indefinite stay, not allowed to work in the meantime — that he cannot avail himself of it. Why have our bureaucrats not thought through their processes to ensure they are workable? It makes a mockery of any notion of fairness.