Have you ever seen anyone spit in public? Have you ever done it yourself? That’s what I thought: most of you have seen people spit and some of you have done it yourself. It’s more common among older people, and more common among men than women. I’ve seen many people spit, but I’ve never known any Singaporean citizen or resident who’s been fined for this. On the other hand I often meet migrant workers who are fined the whopping $300 for spitting in a public place. That’s because the places that they frequent are heavily monitored by police and auxiliary police, who have the authority to issue these fines.

I recently met Wahed. I can’t use his real name because he’s concerned about his job security if his employer finds out. Wahed had been in Singapore less than two weeks when at the end of May he was caught for “spitting onto a public place (ground)” contrary to section 17(1)(g) of the Environmental Public Health Act.

Given that spitting is still a common and accepted habit in Bangladesh, and that the ‘ground’ in Bangladesh (as opposed to paved surfaces in Singapore’s urban environment) is everywhere, Wahed’s was doing what anyone would do in his country. With only two weeks in Singapore, he hardly had time to discover that we have such laws here.

Yet this fine is a nightmare for him. He paid $6,000 for this job in the marine sector, and was promised a basic salary of $416/month. More than likely, there will be deductions he doesn’t yet know of. To support his family, Wahed will work as much overtime as he can, though he can’t be certain that the company will provide him with overtime work. But if all goes as well as can be expected, he should be able to earn enough to pay off the debt sometime in his second year in the job.

If he pays the spitting fine.

He’s been instructed to pay the $300 by early July 2015. He will have that money if his employer pays his salary on time, if the company makes no deductions, if he spends nothing for personal needs, and if he chooses not to send the money home to support his family and to service the debt. If he doesn’t pay the fine, he’ll be summoned to court and jailed. That will mean certain loss of the job, and a ban from ever entering Singapore again.

To find out if the National Environment Agency will be lenient, TWC2 assisted him in drafting a letter to NEA asking for a waiver of the fees given his situation. We don’t know what their response will be, but if the NEA adheres to the principle that transient workers must abide by the laws and that his punishment should be the same as that for citizens and residents, TWC2 will find a way to assist him with that fine. How can we, as individuals and as an organisation dedicated to the welfare of migrant workers, in good conscience, allow a young man’s life and the lives of his family to be ruined just like this?

The broken window theory of policing argues that petty disorderly behaviour can lead to an increase in more serious crime and so should be aggressively targeted. Does spitting lead to more serious crime the way petty theft leads to organised gangs? Our foreign workers are targeted more often than citizens for spitting and littering in areas such as Little India and Geylang because of the heavy police presence in those areas and because, without spacious rooms of their own, foreign workers tend to spend their free time outside socialising with each other. While the police presence may deter fighting and disorderly behaviour when crowds are large, verbal warnings and engagement when dealing with littering and spitting would be more effective in changing behaviours and instilling cooperation. The result of these fines on men with such low salaries and precarious jobs should concern us all.

We’ll update this article when/if we receive a reply from the National Environment Agency.