The Cuff Road Project (TCRP) has provided more than 360,000 meals to migrant workers since it began in March 2008. The eligibility criterion for admission into the meal programme is that a worker must be out of a job due to injury, dispute with his employer or similar reason.
They are no longer permitted to work, but are required to remain in Singapore to wait for the outcome of salary disputes, injury claims, or ministry of Manpower investigations. (See footnote 1)
Currently, more than 600 men, from India and Bangladesh, register for meals each month. Because we serve South Asian food, the scheme attracts those from India and Bangladesh.
The way the project works, eligible workers have to re-register each month. The majority of the approximately 600 per month would be re-registrations.A minority would be new cases seeing us for the first time.
This article analyses the data from a (roughly) four-week period, mid October 2012 to mid Nov 2012, for a closer look at the patterns.
Within this period, 610 men were registered with the Cuff Road Project for meals. Of these, 497 or 81% have injuries and have made a claim for permanent injury compensation. According to the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), they should be housed and fed by their employer. However, these men have left the accommodations provided by the company or been forced out. They describe their employers doing things such as:
- refusing to acknowledge the injury
- failing to allow proper diagnosis and treatment
- making use of a local clinic rather than a government hospital to minimize the injury
- withholding medical forms and medical leave certificates
- failing to lodge accident reports, or failing to assist with injury compensation claims
- attempting forced repatriation
- refusing to provide letter of guarantee for medical treatment, or refusing to pay for medical treatment
- making verbal and physical threats to evict workers from the company dormitory
- disputing that the worker’s injury was sustained at the workplace
- refusing to pay medical leave wages
- reducing the average monthly earnings in order to reduce compensation
- contesting medical assessments
The 97 men with salary claims or illegal deployment make up about 16% of the total. They have experienced:
- non-payment or under payment of salary
- miscalculation of overtime pay or holiday pay
- unreasonable / arbitrary deductions for tax, forced savings, utilities, fines
- deductions for medical expenses, airfare, training, protective equipment
- kickbacks to middlemen or employers for job placement or work permit renewal
- forged or forced signatures on salary slips
- illegal deployment to another company or sector
The 16 men categorized as overstayers/tourist pass refers to men who arrived on a tourist pass, usually to work illegally. If caught having overstayed more than 90 days, they are jailed, caned, and released until the investigation into their illegal deployment is concluded; if they have overstayed their tourist visa, but less than 90 days, they are jailed but not caned. We typically see these two groups only after they have served their sentences.
If caught soon after coming to Singapore, before the expiry of their tourist pass, they are investigated for illegal deployment, but they avoid jail and caning.
Our data show that the number of overstayers/tourist pass cases in TCRP has decreased over the last three years. (See footnote 2)
Complexity, Uncertainty, Difficulty
Men waiting for the outcome of injury claims, salary disputes or investigations are left without financial support for what in some cases is a very long time. Most of the men are utterly lost and distraught in this situation. They expect that Singapore, with its excellent laws and systems, will protect them. Many have a hard time coping physically and emotionally when confronted with the complexity, the uncertainty, and the difficulty of their situation.
Being without work places a great hardship on both the workers and their extended family. Often their family has sold land or gone into debt in order to raise money for their opportunity to land a job in Singapore. The men agonize over whether to inform their family of their injury or the problem that left them without work or salary. If they reveal their problems, the family will worry, and their wives/mothers will insist that the men come home immediately. Yet going home would mean abandoning their case, and forgoing medical attention, injury compensation, and salary claims. Staying in Singapore could mean months, even years, without any assurance of a successful outcome, while still needing to meet the daily cost of living, travelling and eating in Singapore.
We are aware that some of the men find casual jobs while waiting, but they take a huge risk in doing so. If caught working without a valid work permit, they could be subject to 12 months jail and/or a $5,000 fine. The men are often given a stern warning, and this may remain on their record and prevent them from returning to Singapore to work.
Through word of mouth, Bangladeshi and Indian men without work or housing gravitate to Little India and eventually find their way to the Cuff Road Project, where they can eat 12 meals each week and access other services. Through TCRP they can visit a free medical clinic (Karunya Clinic run by HealthServe, which charges TWC2 $5 for each visit). For more serious medical problems they may turn to TWC2’s CareFund. At every meal service we have volunteers who offer advice on how to manage the cases, and on how to communicate with the doctors, MOM (Ministry of Manpower), or the police. Some volunteers accompany the men to the hospital for their appointments or to the police station to report beatings or stolen items. Volunteers also assist the men in their communication by email or phone with the hospitals and MOM.
TCRP participants are issued meal cards each month with their name and a few particulars of their case. The meal cards allow us to track how long workers remain in the program, and thus how long until their case is resolved. Some men eat twelve meals a week with TCRP, others only evening meals, others only on certain days. A few of the participants ask friends to collect packet meals on their behalf. If a man comes only a few times a month, it’s likely that he has found a place to stay far from Little India and finds it too inconvenient to come most evenings for meals. Some may be absent for months due to the distance, and return only on public holidays to shop or socialize in Little India.
Through our extended association with the men, we come to know about their families, their medical problems, and their personal lives. Many become close friends of our volunteers. They also assist newcomers to TRCP by informing them of MOM regulations and procedures, and offering personal support. As important as the food and other services are, this program alone doesn’t address the deeper issues that cause so many men to remain in Singapore jobless and without food or shelter for so long.
See also Cuff Road Project 2012: Statistics
1. We have no way of knowing the total number of workers in this situation. The Cuff Road Project attracts men from India and Bangladesh because of the location of the restaurants and the type of food served. We don’t know what numbers there might be among other nationalities of migrant workers and in other parts of Singapore.
2. In 2010, TCRP participants included a total of 265 men who were jailed and caned for having overstayed their tourist pass, and none who were caught working on a valid tourist pass. Lower numbers in 2012 (less than 100) suggest increased surveillance of workplaces likely to hire workers without a valid work permit.