“How many of you received the Chinese-language version of the letter from your employment agent?” asked TWC2 social worker Kenneth Soh soon after commencing his talk to Chinese workers. He was referring to the Ministry of Manpower’s  In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA), a document that a worker had to have in hand upon arrival at Changi airport to show that he was not a tourist.

No one raised his hand. Were they just unresponsive, or did this reaction mean no one did?

“You mean, you all got the English version?” Kenneth asked, in order to be sure he understood.

A ripple of laughter ran through the hall, as if saying: Of course, what did you expect?

“How many of you could read the English version, or had someone to help translate it to you?”

The ripple became a roar.

TWC2 volunteers Emily and Jason behind the 500 bags containing information sheets to be given out

TWC2 volunteers Emily and Jason behind the 500 bags containing information sheets to be given out

But the talk was a serious affair. It looked as if many in the audience learnt for the first time that the contracts they had signed with employment agents in China would not be valid under Singapore law. As pointed out by Kenneth, the In-principle Approval for a Work Permit is the governing document. Should disputes subsequently arise with their employers, the terms stated in the IPA are what the ministry will refer to to resolve the matter.

Not knowing its importance, many workers would have thrown it away after arrival.

This was just one of several points made at a one-hour talk – the first of two – that Kenneth gave to about 500 Chinese workers (98% male) at the invitation of the pastor of the Church of Singapore in Marine Parade. It was held on Sunday evening, 19 May 2013. The chief intention of this talk being to explain the key points of the Employment Act to the crowd, Kenneth also touched on how their overtime rate should be calculated, when salaries are due for payment, their medical leave entitlement and several other important issues.

They didn’t seem to know the most basic of their rights. A worker seated across the aisle from your writer leaned over to ask him whether it was right that his employer should demand that he pay for his own return airfare.

“Are you on a work permit or S Pass?” Your writer asked him.

“Work permit,” he said.

“Then your employer should bear the cost of the airfare home. Don’t let him deduct the airfare from your last salary.”

Once question time was called, numerous hands shot up, but Kenneth found that many questions related to a worker’s personal situation. It would be difficult to provide advice in such a mass setting; in any case, additional details specific to his case would be needed. Hence, most of the time, Kenneth had to ask the questioner to contact him on TWC2’s hotline for closer consultation.

Even when the talk ended, a group of about twenty men came forward to ask more questions. There was no way to handle them on the spot, especially when the church had organised buses for their return to their dormitories – buses which were already waiting outside. It looks like the next few days, our phones in the office will be ringing off the hook.