By Alexandra Galvez
“I don’t want to go to jail. I cannot come back to Singapore to work if I go to jail. I like Singapore and I want to continue working here. I need to provide for my family,” Ali (not his real name) is worried, his countenance darkening with anxiety and desperation. The two of us were waiting in stoic silence outside State Court Number 23. Today, Ali will be sentenced.
Ali had been a rigger and signalman in the construction industry since March 2012. On 28 June 2013, a metal bar fell on Ali’s right wrist while he was at work and he was rushed to West Point Hospital. He was given fifteen days medical leave, and was advised to return to the hospital for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. Surgery for his right wrist was needed, and this was soon done.
However, pain persisted in Ali’s wrist even after his surgery. When Ali asked his employer for money to seek further medical treatment, his employer refused. Ali had no choice but but to pay for his own medical treatment at Changi General Hospital (CGH).
The doctor at CGH prescribed him five months of medical leave. During this period, Ali’s employer merely paid him a small portion of his medical leave wages. To compound matters, Ali was constantly harassed by his employer to sign blank papers, which he steadfastly refused. But the constant pressure on him made it increasingly intolerable to continue staying in the dormitory. When finally, on 13 November 2013, his request for the reimbursement of his medical expenses and leave wages infuriated his employer, Ali moved out of the dormitory. Like many migrant workers, Ali would not want to risk being seized by “repatriation gangsters” hired by employers, and be bundled out of Singapore without completing his course of medical treatment or receiving compensation for permanent disability.
The Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) clearly states that employers are to pay workers their medical leave wages promptly and cover medical expenses for work-related injuries. However, tardiness or failure to pay is a recurring complaint among injured workers who seek help at Transient Workers Count Too; Ali is one of the many cases I have encountered in just the first month of my internship.
Having moved out of his dorm for his own security, Ali now had to find a way to pay over $200 a month to rent a bunk bed somewhere. Without a viable financial means to support himself and his family back home, Ali had no choice but to take on alternative employment, even if illegally. In mid-January 2014, he found a job as a cleaner, working for an “Ah Koh” but the job did not come with a valid work pass.
“I am the only person who is earning money in my family. I need to support my sick mother and my siblings,” Ali explains. “How do we live if I don’t work?”
Unfortunately, Ali was arrested at work by the police on 27 March 2014. He was charged for working without a valid work pass under Section 5 subsection 2 of the Employment of Manpower Act. He also faced charges under Section 5 subsection 7 of the same Act: “Any person who contravenes subsection (2) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to both.”
Ali was held in remand on 31 March 2014, and sent to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) after his release. MOM gave him an opportunity to take on two six-month jobs under the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). As Alex Au noted the first time I interviewed Ali, “MOM recognised the financial difficulties that Ali was facing, and therefore gave him a temporary work permit. But wouldn’t it have been better if MOM had better monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure that the worker was not pressured to sign blank pieces of paper and that he received his medical leave wages in the period immediately after the injury?”
On 28 May 2015, Ali pleaded guilty to illegal employment. The judge sentenced Ali to pay a $3,000 fine or serve fifteen days in prison. Unable to pay the hefty fine, Ali was immediately whisked away to prison.
Ali’s story of injustice is a common narrative among migrant workers. The medical leave pay that he was entitled to was essential for his daily expenses while he recovered. His medical expenses should have been reimbursed. However, failure to enforce the law places migrant workers such as Ali in desperate circumstances, and prompts them to consider alternative means of survival. Some workers resort to flouting the law, thus risking legal jeopardy.
It is easy to arrest and punish the worker for breaking the law. But why is it so hard to see the lines of causation, fix the problem at source and show a little compassion? Now with a criminal record to his name, it seems that Ali’s hopes of returning to Singapore to work are dashed.
Ali asked that his real name not be used for this story. “My family does not know about this,” he said the day before he had to appear in court, referring to the likelihood that he’d be going to jail. “I haven’t even told them that I was injured and could not work for many months.”
He didn’t want his family to worry. The weight of family responsibility was heavy on his shoulders. If anyone had to choke and tear, it must be him.
Ali was taken to Changi prison for one night, then transferred to Admiralty West Prison for the remaining 14 days. When his prison term ended, he was not released, but transferred to the basement lock-up of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. In other words, his confinement continued.
The ICA contacted TWC2 to say we can take Ali’s luggage over. Social worker Jason and intern Alexandra did so, but could only pass the bags to an ICA officer; they did not get to see Ali. However, they passed our number to the officer with the request to allow Ali to call us.
Ali called about an hour later, though we could sense that someone was close by behind him as he spoke on the phone. He said he was not mistreated in prison; he could sleep and food was “OK”. He thanked TWC2 for the support we gave him through this ordeal; we were his only lifeline during this dark period.
Ali’s previous employer bought an air ticket and he was sent home soon after.