On the evening of Thursday, 2 July 2015, Subbaiah Ramasivam flew home to Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, a very happy man. He was still slapping himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming it all.

In his pocket were slightly over two thousand dollars, money that less than a week earlier, he thought he’d never see again.

Six days before, on Friday evening, 26 June, Sivam was led by a friend to TWC2’s free meals programme in Little India. The restaurant was a confusing hive of activity and neither he nor his friend knew whom to approach. However, they had the street smarts to stand quietly by the side for a little while to observe how the people dynamics played out. They spotted TWC2 Treasurer Alex Au giving advice to a worker and figured that he would be the right person to approach.

As soon as Alex was done with the worker, Sivam and his friend approached. “Can you help us?” they asked.

“Sure. Sit down and tell me,” replied Alex.

Sivam’s problem was threefold: (a) he had not been paid for two months of work; (b) prior to that, he had suffered deductions from his salary for five months; and (c) more recently, he had been ill, and had to visit a doctor twice, paying the clinic bills himself. He was afraid that his employer might not reimburse him.

Altogether he felt he was owed around $1,800 – 1,900.

He had been unhappy in the job, and didn’t want to continue in it. However, at this point, his fear was that if he quit, his employer might just send him home without paying him this amount. What avenues were available to ensure that he got his money first?

Alex assured him it’s not a complicated problem. He’d have to tender a letter of resignation and in that letter detail the exact amounts that he was owed. For Sivam, this was easier said than done. He had never written a resignation letter in his life; certainly not one in English. Nor was he confident he could even calculate the exact amount involved.

“TWC2 will help you,” said Alex. “But to do that, you need to go to our office on Monday. We can only draw up the calculations and the letter there because we need computers and printers to do so.”

Monday, 29 June, Sivam travelled all the way from the Tuas dormitory where he lived to TWC2’s office and met with social workers Karno and Jason, assisted by interns Alexandra and Johann. Although the social workers already knew what the issues were – they had read Alex’s initial report in TWC2’s electronic case management system – they carefully went through all the details with Sivam again.

Referring to the documents Sivam brought with him, the social workers and interns extracted some relevant numbers and, using them, helped him compute the amount he was owed, in accordance with the Employment Act.

To Sivam’s surprise, they told him that he had four bases for claims, not three. Besides two months’ salary, several months of deductions, and clinic bills, he also had the right to claim salary for the four days of sick leave the doctor had given him.

How’s that again? He should be paid for being sick and unable to work? It took a while for that to sink in; it was a very alien concept. But he trusted TWC2. “Okay, if you say so.”

The total amount was $2,062.98, the calculation for which was attached to a letter TWC2 prepared for him and helped email to the employer.

The social workers also briefed him about what action he could take should the employer not respond in a satisfactory way. Sivam would have to lodge a formal complaint at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Once again, such a move seemed very daunting to the worker. Tangling with bureaucracy was not something a poorly-educated manual worker like him had any confidence about.

“Don’t worry, we will help and advise you every step of the way,” the social workers and interns told him.

However, within two days the employer replied, saying he would come to TWC2 to “settle everything.” Plan B (the MOM route) might not need to be activated.

The boss kept his word. He came to our office on Thursday afternoon – Sivam had been asked to come in as well – with cash in hand and all the necessary payment vouchers for signing. He also brought with him Sivam’s passport and an airticket for the same evening. Everything was in order.

subbaiah_ramasivam_4705_360wThe meeting over, we took this photo of Sivam (at right).

He then went around the whole office thanking everyone there, even those he had never met before and played no part in his particular case. He was so, so happy.

“Go,” we told him. “Go and have a nice dinner with your friends and get to the airport early.”

Not yet. He had one more thing to do. He whipped out his cellphone to take a photo of Alex and Johann. Observing the scene, TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce remarked half-jokingly, “When he gets home, the picture is going to be up on a wall among the saints.”

To the public and donors, some of TWC2’s services, such as free meals for destitute workers, or medical care for the injured, are more obvious and easier to visualise than others. Social work, by contrast, may be less tangible, yet it is a necessary resource in providing help to migrant workers. Our social workers are carefully trained, highly experienced and dedicated young men and women who know the laws, who are familiar with MOM’s processes and skilled at negotiations.

For workers like Sivam, it’s the social workers who make the difference between going home empty-handed and going home reassured about kindness in the world.