The above photo came into TWC2’s email box one day in June 2014. Taken around 7am and sent to us by a Singaporean resident in a block of apartments, it shows 25 – 30 foreign workers sleeping in a pavilion amid a housing estate. She told us that she was concerned about them.  It didn’t look like they had proper accommodation and they seemed to work till very late, making their way to the pavilion way past midnight.

“It’s been going on for a month,” she added. She had reported the situation to the police, but nothing appeared to have changed.

Promptly, TWC2 volunteers made their way to the location late that same night and waited (at some distance so as not to scare the workers off) till nearly 2am. None of them showed up.

However, while there, we met with the resident and she recounted how she noticed them in the early hours of one morning. As is common during the Southwest monsoon, a Sumatra squall had come in. Getting out of bed to close her windows, she saw the men getting soaked as the heavy rain beat in sideways, and shivering in the cold. She felt for them. This is no way to treat any human being, she added.

Undaunted by a fruitless first attempt, TWC2 tried twice more. It would have been easy for TWC2 to just report the matter to MOM and let MOM officers make visits late at night, but we felt that we really didn’t know what the facts were. Were the men really homeless? What would happen to them if an official complaint was made? Would the blunt hand of officialdom come down so hard on the employer that the men would find their work permits cancelled (because the ministry wanted to punish the employer)? If so, the men would consequently lose their jobs. Would we be ‘helping’ them out of the frying pan only to plunge into the fire?

Best to ascertain some facts and find out what the men preferred to do themselves.

The third time, we got lucky. This time we chose to come in the early morning instead. Arriving at about 6am, we found the men just arriving too, each with a backpack, shuffling sleepily towards the pavilion where they spread their straw mats to lie down.

TWC2 spoke to four of them as we distributed apples and dates. “Why are you arriving at this hour to sleep?”

“Bus just now coming,” their unofficial spokesman replied.

“Huh? Coming from where?”

“From dormitory.”

“Ah, so you guys have a dormitory,”

“Yes,”  the four reply simultaneously.

We take down the name of their employer and that of their dormitory, which turns out to be just about 2 km away. Bit by bit, we piece the story together.

They are construction workers from Bangladesh working at a project in the vicinity. They work the day shift, from 8am to ( typically) 8pm. In the evening, after work, they are taken to their dormitories, but in the morning, the employer can’t arrange for a bus to take them to work at the appropriate time. The ‘company bus’ comes at the unearthly hour of 5am, which means the workers have to wake up around 3 or 4am.

So naturally, they try to catch some shut-eye at the pavilion from 6 to 8am.

This is not an uncommon story. Debbie Fordyce, who is TWC2’s meal programme coordinator and who has heard several such complaints by other groups of workers, says, “Workers have told me that they are taken to the worksite two hours before work officially starts, but they are not paid for these two hours.”  They naturally feel aggrieved.

Such awkward timings make it impossible for the men to get enough rest. “And as we know, fatigue is a major contributor to workplace accidents,” she adds. See also this news story about the rising number of workplace fatalities and injuries.

Indeed, the men we met at the pavilion weren’t happy about the arrangements they were subjected to, but told us they they did not wish to make any official complaint, at least not just yet. They were all too aware that complaining would put their jobs at risk altogether. Their employer has total freedom to terminate them any time.

And so they put up with it, risking their lives and limbs from fatigue, perhaps annoying the neighbours by their unwanted presence, because the “system” leaves them with no realistic alternative.

But now at least, they have TWC2’s Bengali language flyers in hand, with our phone numbers.