“He crushed and crumpled the leaflet in his fist and threw it away,” said the young volunteer, visibly distressed by the rejection she had just encountered. “He said, ‘All this no use. My friend [will] never walk again.'”

Most of the time, when our volunteers fan out on our monthly outreach event, they are received warmly by foreign workers they meet, glad to receive a little literature in their own language, explaining what they can do to protect their rights and how they can get help from TWC2. That Sunday was no different.  Although it was unusual in that most of the volunteers were only in their late teens — the event being co-organised with a school — the youngsters soon hit their stride despite some early trepidation.

In fact, precisely because the other workers were so friendly, when the volunteer encountered this outlier of an unhappy man, she was taken aback.

“He said that his friend had suffered a bad accident, something about a broken leg. But the company sent him home without much treatment and no compensation at all,” she related to her team leader a few minutes after the incident. “He was angry, saying that his friend now cannot work and provide for his family.”

“That’s when he crushed the information leaflet and threw it aside. I didn’t know what to say to him.”

It was a hugely important learning moment for the young volunteer. It shows the importance of outreach, and the difference her participation can make. Our outreach flyers do inform workers what to do if they are strong-armed into repatriation. In the case of the poor injured man, perhaps he had never received our flyer before and probably didn’t know how to assert his right to treatment. But the more flyers we manage to distribute, the more workers will know what to do and where to seek help.

It is encounters like this during our outreach which informs TWC2 that problems persist. Despite a readiness to claim that the Ministry of Manpower is watchful and no longer “allows” employers to repatriate workers to avoid medical and compensation costs, we know from walking the ground and hearing these accounts that this disgraceful behaviour still occurs.

At the root, it springs from the policy that workers’ stay in Singapore is at their employers’ discretion. Moreover, by allowing employers to control passports, by making employers responsible for airfares, by generally denying workers the freedom to change jobs — they all create the sense that staying and going are matters exclusively for employers to decide. It should hardly be surprising that employers will use this state-granted power to their own advantage to avoid both disclosure that an accident had happened at the worksite (which can mean penalties for work safety infringements), and the cost of treatment and disability compensation.

If one takes this a logical distance, then it might be time to consider delinking a worker’s stay from his employer. Ensuring that workers keep their passports, giving them an assured length of stay on their Work Permits, with the right to change employers, would greatly change the tenor of the relationship. As for holding employers responsible for return airfares, letters of guarantee provided to a nominated travel agent, or payment into an escrow account are all possible alternative solutions.

Yet more can be done to stop this practice. Whistle-blowing by workers should be seen for its value. This friend still in Singapore should have avenues to report the employer to the Ministry, and officials should come down hard — with prosecution where called for — on such employers.

Such whistle-blowing avenues don’t exist. Quite the contrary: Workers are constantly afraid they would be penalised for speaking up — such is the State-mandated climate of worker relations here. Secondly, TWC2 has never seen any interest on MOM’s part in pursuing cases once a “fait accompli” argument can be made.

It’s easy to pin the blame on “bad employers”. But bad employers don’t exist in a vacuum.