By Nicholas Kam

Migrant workers are not that different from us. While they are not Singaporeans or permanent residents and hence do not enjoy certain rights and privileges, they are human beings, and, like most of us, simply wish to earn enough to at least support their families.To subject them to grossly unfair conditions borders on inhumanity.

At this point, it must be noted that workers who face problems do not make up the majority. There are many we interviewed who faced no problems at work. However, from the 95 interviews that we have conducted, the numbers are high enough to make this a worrying trend.

Over the course of three weeks, I have found out for myself first-hand that most of the workers’ grievances are financial related. Unexpectedly, workers generally do not complain about their accommodation, even though some may stay in overcrowded dormitories. It took me a while before I fully understood why. For most migrant workers, their salary is of utmost importance, as most need the money to support their families back home. Hence, their grievances typically relate to financial issues.

Nevertheless, even though their problems are mostly confined to financial issues, there are still a wide variety of problems that afflict workers. Some of these problems are so rampant that I am astounded at how some employers can have such flagrant disregard for the law. It is not possible for me to elaborate on all of them in this article, so I shall focus on what I feel are the fundamental issues that give rise to these problems.

What I have found most alarming is the helplessness of these workers when faced with employment problems.

Salam’s case is a good example. Salam’s employer deducted $50 every month from his monthly salary as “savings money”. Salam was promised that the sum would be returned to him at the end of his employment, and he trusted his employer. While $50 may not seem like a large sum of money to most Singaporeans, for a worker who was only earning about $600 a month, a monthly deduction of $50 over several months was significant. Salam did not know whether such a deduction was legal, but did not raise any concerns because this was a standard practice in his company. Moreover, other workers had the money returned to them at the end of their employment.

However, after Salam suffered a work-related injury that would take months to recover, Salam’s employer refused to return this sum to him. Instead, his employer declared that the money would be used to cover his accommodation expenses. Salam was at a loss as to what to do because he doubted that MOM could effectively solve his problems.

Salam’s case highlights the helplessness faced by workers who encounter such problems.

Firstly, many of them are not even aware that certain salary deductions made by their employers areillegal.

Secondly, even if they are aware, many choose to keep silent because they have paid hefty agent fees to secure employment in Singapore. They fear that their employment will be terminated immediately should they bring up these issues to their employers, and repatriation will leave them saddled with huge debts. These fears are not unfounded, as some workers have indeed been repatriated simply for raising these issues. Therefore, most refrain from speaking up, and the minority who do bring up their claims often either have a laundry list of complaints, or may be in such financial difficulties that they have no choice. The rest of the workers who face problems remain “hidden”.

Thirdly, even those who wish to speak up may eventually not do so because they doubt the authorities’ effectiveness in addressing their concerns. As the governments in their native countries are often viewed as corrupt and inefficient, many workers have the misunderstanding that the Singapore government is just as ineffective in addressing their grievances.

In conclusion, problems faced by migrant workers are often hidden and out of sight from the ordinary person. Only when we engaged the workers did we find out the issues they were facing. However, this apparent absence of problems does not mean that we can simply ignore a significant proportion of our labour workforce. More can be done, and should be done, to develop this area in terms of the law and enforcement.

For three weeks of December 2013, four first-year law students from the National University of Singapore were attached to Transient Workers Count Too, and given a project to interview migrant workers — those with jobs, and those without. Their Work Report is summarised at Informed consent, wages, kickbacks, termination and transfersTheir full report (pdf) can be downloaded from that post.

The writer of this opinion article, Nicholas, was one of the four students. Here he provides a free-form reflection on the time he spent with us.