The two guys showed up at our office looking for help with accommodation and money for food. But they didn’t look at all like the workers we usually see from China.

Recalls Kenneth Soh, TWC2’s social worker, “They were very fair, smooth-skinned and good-looking, completely different from the sunburnt construction workers we normally see.”

A brief conversation explained it all. They had come on work permits as singers, employed by a business known as Club Giorgio (according to their documents). One had come in November 2012, the other in January 2013. The place where they worked was a bar on a stretch of Lavender Street known for its entertainment outlets – that stretch is shown in the picture above. Our research however indicated that the bar operated under a different name.

The bar was once called Club Giorgio, and perhaps is still referred to as such by regular clients. But, according to one of the two workers, Zhou Jiangwen (not his real name), “It had been raided and shut down. However, after a short period of ‘renovation’, it reopened under a new name. The management remained more or less the same.” TWC2 believes he was referring to an incident in early 2012, well before they came to Singapore. This may also account for the fact that Club Giorgio is currently listed as a “terminated” business in the records of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

In March 2013, the bar was raided again and they (with six others from China) were taken to the Ministry of Manpower. They were released after a short interview since their papers were in order.

Nonetheless, they had lost their jobs. They said that they were still owed their salaries and have lodged reports at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Zhou said he is owed three-and-a-half months of his $1,100 monthly basic pay while Liu Kaozhun (not his real name) is owed two months’ worth of $1,100. The investigation is taking a long time, however, and the other six compatriots have given up and gone home. These two, however, want to stay on till they are satisfied. The problem is: stay where?

Liu explained that MOM had arranged for bedspaces at a dormitory in Kranji. “But there are thousands of workers there and the place is filthy,” he said in Chinese.

“No way we can stay there,” added Zhou.  The dorm, full of sweaty construction, marine and sanitation workers, must have come as a rude shock to these slick urban boys.

Unfortunately, there was little that TWC2 could do to help. We do not have the funds to operate a shelter, and even if we did, it would probably be full of construction workers too.

Would Zhou and Liu too give up and go home without collecting their owed salaries?

It’s not often that one comes across work permit holders with occupations as singers, and this encounter merited a web search. It didn’t take much effort to find a fair bit of online discussion about Club Giorgio from 2010 to 2012. From what’s been said, the place was one of the first, if not the first, Japanese-style host bar in Singapore. The hosts – and presumably these included the China boys – would sit with female customers who were expected to tip handsomely.

A host bar in South Korea. Image from BBC

A host bar in South Korea. Image from BBC

They also took turns performing on stage and, following a Thai custom, patrons were encouraged to buy flower garlands for them as a sign of appreciation. Garlands apparently went for $500 each, with one web report mentioning $10,000-garlands!

Beside the front door, there were photos of hosts in swimwear, an online report said. Other than that, there were few other clues as to what the shows consisted of.

One anonymous online report, claiming to have been a customer at Club Giorgio, said she had had a “take-out” date with one of the Singaporean hosts from the bar – which left her with with a sexually-transmitted disease.

(Given this possible line of work, we decided not to publish the two workers’ real names.)

Putting aside the rather titillating but as-skimpy-as-a-G-string outline of a story, it nonetheless raises an important point. There is a gap in the provision of housing for workers who are out of work, but have to stay on in Singapore to resolve their cases.

One trend that TWC2 has noticed is that the Ministry of Manpower is beginning to insist that ex-employers continue to house their ex-workers till repatriation is due. This is a good step, though we have concerns that when ex-workers are put in commercial dormitories way out in industrial areas with little access to public transport, it isolates them from social services and friends. More importantly, they need paid work, and we see less attention being given to this by MOM.

However, as this story indicates, there is another group of workers – the service workers – who consider the standard in these dormitories totally unacceptable. Service workers have recently exploded in number in Singapore. They can be found in most restaurants, hospitals, and in many shops and supermarkets. They have expectations completely different from “hard labour” types of workers.

Whilst in this case, TWC2 did not enquire deeply into how their employer housed Zhou and Liu when they were working, entertainment workers are typically put into private apartments.

It is necessary to recognise that their expectations are different from ‘hard labour’ workers. If employers are required to provide accommodation to workers while claims are being resolved, a policy that TWC2 agrees with, it should also be required that such accommodation be of a standard no worse than what the employer had provided during employment. Otherwise, it becomes easy for employers to make it extremely difficult for ex-employees to stay on in Singapore to pursue their claims, compelling them to give up and go home. That would hardly be fair to them.