Transient Workers Count Too sees a relatively small number of Sri Lankans in the course of our work. There are far fewer of them in Singapore compared to Indians and Bangladeshis.

Sri Lankans are an approved source for domestic work, construction and marine sectors, but except for women in the former, TWC2 can’t recall seeing any of the men on valid Work Permits in construction and shipyards. We don’t fully understand the reasons why; it may have to do with higher salary expectations compared to Indians and Bangladeshis, or with the absence of skills training centres pre-departure. In construction, a worker needs to have a skills certificate before he can get a Work Permit.

Nonetheless, TWC2 sees as small number of Sri Lankan men on our case registry. Because they are not on valid Work Permits, their stories tend to be very different from those of Indians, Bangladeshis and mainland Chinese. What’s a typical story like?

Back in Sri Lanka, they are often told by recruiters that it is very easy to find work in Singapore.  TWC2 has come across several Sri Lankan men who told us that their recruiters advised them that the “normal way” to get work in Singapore is to:

  • Fly into Singapore as tourists and get 30-day visas
  • Within these 30 days, start on a job (which the recruiter’s Singapore associates would find for them)
  • Then the employer will obtain Work Permits before the 30 days are up.

This is a gross misrepresentation. Work Permits cannot be issued once someone has arrived in Singapore as a tourist. But once they have arrived here and started working illegally, they’re in a bind. It makes them very vulnerable to trafficking-like exploitation. However, at the start of their journey, they have no way to know that the recruiters are misleading them. Not having travelled before and with little access to information from the internet, they have no way to check.

Chamod at the end of 30 days

kashok2Chamod (not his real name) was in just such a situation as his 30-day tourist visa was about to expire. He had been (illegally) working as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant in the posh Bukit Timah area, for a promised $40 a day. With the deadline approaching, he called Manoj, the fixer who had found him this job. A meeting between them was quickly arranged. Two other Sri Lankan workers, Rasika and Asiri, came to the meeting too. They had arrived in Singapore on the same flight as Chamod and were in a similar predicament.

After a quick dismissal of earlier promises that they’d be issued with Work Permits by now, Manoj focussed on what they had to do to get themselves out of trouble. “Tomorrow, your visa will expire,” he said (based on Chamod’s account of the conversation). “What you have to do is to go to the Ministry of Manpower and tell them that you were brought into Singapore by someone named Nipuna, promising a job.”

Neither Chamod, Rasika nor Asiri had ever heard of a Nipuna. But Manoj was well prepared. Showing them a photo of ‘Nipuna’ from his mobile phone, Manoj continued: “MOM knows about Nipuna. When they show you a series of photos, you point out this man. But whatever you do, do not mention me.” They knew it wouldn’t be safe to do so. Manoj had previously alluded to his connection with toughies, and would surely have connections back in Sri Lanka who could hurt their families there.

The three of them squinted at the photo on the cellphone trying hard to commit Nipuna’s face to memory. They wanted to be convincing when they point him out at MOM’s photo line-up.  “Manoj train us for one hour in a room, ” Chamod told us of that day. “Say like this, say like that.”

Easy promises, easy entry

A few months earlier, still in his Sri Lankan village wondering how to provide for his young family, Chamod had asked around about working abroad. A friend said he might know somebody who had approached him before, though he hadn’t used his services then. This friend had found a better offer. Perhaps Chamod might find a way out of poverty through this same recruiter?

It wasn’t long before contact was made with this recruiter, Janitha, who swiftly promised Chamod a two-year job in Singapore as a cleaner with a salary of S$1,000 a month, a fabulous amount by rural Sri Lankan standards. Chamod readily agreed and handed over 50,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (about $500) so that Janitha could purchase an air ticket for him.

A few days later, Chamod said goodbye to his wife and children and rode over eight hours to Colombo. Before boarding the plane, he — now grouped with Rasika and Asiri — were carefully instructed on what to tell immigration officers on arrival at Singapore’s Changi airport, including the name of a hotel to cite. They had to avoid raising suspicions that they weren’t genuine tourists.

Janitha travelled with them, which eased Chamod’s mind: experienced Janitha would know his way around the big city that is Singapore.

Getting through immigration proved easy, but of course, they were not lodged in a hotel, but in a dirty, poorly-ventilated room above a shop. “Near Mustafa,” recalled Chamod. Very soon after, they were led to a cafe nearby and introduced to Manoj on the understanding that Manoj was the fixer, the “big man”.

Looking like he was in his late thirties, he was also Sri Lankan, but had long been in Singapore. Chamod recalled that Manoj claimed to have a six-month pass, renewed several times. Manoj also made it a point to tell the three men that he connections with people in the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). This likely came across as assurance to the three men that he’d be able to find a way for them to stay and work in Singapore. Later though, a more sinister meaning (I can use my connections to get you into trouble if you cross me) would become apparent.

Introductions over, Manoj asked each man to pay up the agreed fee of $2,000. This they did.

The tuktuk driver in Kandy, Sri Lanka, told your writer he worked a few months in Singapore some years ago.

This tuktuk driver in Kandy, Sri Lanka, told your writer he worked a few months in Singapore some years ago. He is not part of this story.

Even so, jobs were not immediately available. It was more than a week before word came to them about their assignments, through yet another guy linked with Manoj. The big fixer certainly had a network. Chamod was assigned to an Italian restaurant; Rasika and Asiri were assigned elsewhere.

Reporting “Nipuna” to MOM

At the end of their 30 days, Chamod, Rasika and Asiri trooped to the ministry as instructed by Manoj. There, they gave an account of how they were misled into thinking that there would be two-year job contracts waiting for them in Singapore by a syndicate headed by Nipuna, and signed statements to this effect. MOM arranged temporary jobs for them as dormitory cleaners while investigations proceeded.

About three months later, Chamod met a fellow Sri Lankan at a Buddhist temple who told him about getting help from Transient Workers Count Too. He knew by then that all the promises by Janitha and Manoj were lies, but he was in a twilight zone, staying on in Singapore only at the discretion of MOM. There was no job security at all. Moreover, it worried him that he had lied to officials. He could be jailed if found out. Who would feed his family?

When Chamod told us what had happened — “and the restaurant never even paid us,” he added —  we strongly urged him to go back to MOM to retract the earlier statement and to get Asiri and Rasika to do likewise to corroborate the facts. We hoped MOM would understand that their statements had not been freely given.

They thought long and hard about owning up. There was the understandable fear that Manoj would soon enough come to hear of their retraction, especially if MOM finally got to him, and he might send thugs to “sort things out” with their families back home.

Stamping out trafficking

Human trafficking rarely takes the dramatic form of people bundled against their will into boats or shipping containers or abandoned in foreign countries (see this example from Indonesia). These may make news headlines, but far more mundane forms of trafficking occur everyday. It would be neglectful to fail to be aware of it and the people victimised by such “low-grade” trafficking.

The United Nations’ Palermo Protocol — to which Singapore recently acceded — recognises many other elements that add up to trafficking, such as deception, putting a person in fear for the safety of his family, or exploiting the fact that he has become an illegal overstayer or have worked illegally. The reason why it’s important to recognise these elements is because they enable the trafficker to exercise control over another human being in the interest of profit, and exercising such control is the crime.

As Chamod’s story reveals, many of these elements can be seen in a typical Sri Lankan’s attempt to work in Singapore. His journey might have started off as a willing one, but along the way, fixers first deceived him, then took advantage of his ignorance to put him in a vulnerable situation after arrival in Singapore. After they’ve pocketed the fees, and the 30-day period came to an end, they then used implicit threat to protect themselves from exposure even when they sent Chamod and his fellow travellers to the authorities.

It has taken a while for the Singapore government to see such “soft” trafficking as trafficking. Indeed it is a blurry line between labour exploitation and outright trafficking, especially when sex work is not in the picture. But as MOM’s response in Chamod’s case showed, they have begun to take an interest, opening an investigation.

However, we have no idea whether the investigation was conclusive; we certainly haven’t heard of any prosecution in the months since. What might have been important but missing was giving an assurance to the victims that they would not be prosecuted if they retracted their original statements about the fictitious Nipuna. The Palermo Protocol places strong emphasis on victim protection, for good reason. TWC2 noticed great reluctance by the men to retract their statements and identify Manoj as the chief fixer. Without them doing so, it would be hard for any investigation to succeed.

All names have been changed.