- Sep 2012 arrived Singapore
- Aug 2013 injured at work, 3 months MC
- Feb 2014 caught working illegally
- Apr 2015 received injury compensation of $4,000+
- Feb 2016 issued $300 fine for dropping a cigarette butt
A sad chronology of events for Hasibul: He had worked for less than one year when he suffered a workplace injury. The injury compensation was paid one year and eight months later. That’s a long time to survive in Singapore without work and without financial support, especially when the employer wasn’t meeting the basic needs of food and housing. Out of those twenty months of waiting for closure of his compensation case, three were covered by medical leave. The three months of medical leave wages he got was more likely sent to the family in Bangladesh than to pay for personal needs here. For seventeen months, he could expect no income or financial support at all from his employer.
Hasibul took the understandable decision to find casual work, in spite of the injunction on the special pass prohibiting him from engaging in any sort of employment. After twenty days of preparing rice packets in a catering company he was apprehended by people he believes to be MOM officers, and as a result he is required to remain still longer in Singapore until the investigation is completed. As at the time of writing, he is still in Singapore, almost a year after his injury compensation case was concluded. He heard that the employer was fined a large amount and may have been sentenced to a prison term, but he isn’t sure. Nor does he know how much longer he’ll be required to remain in Singapore.
MOM takes stern action against employers who contravene the law by hiring people who don’t have a proper work pass. Still, this happens because many men are forced to wait lengthy periods for work injury compensation and employers use this illegal work force to avoid the levies and other costs and limitations of engaging a worker legally. All this would be familiar if you read TWC2’s articles regularly. Many of the men we write about are recipients of the The Cuff Road Project, men unable to return home but unable (either physically, or because not allowed) to work.
Because of the large number of men who congregate in the area around Little India and Farrer Park, even pre-dating the so-called riot of December 2013, security personnel patrol these precincts in large numbers. The transient workers in that area are aware of and appreciative of the laws and the strict enforcement. When asked how they like Singapore, without fail they mention the laws that maintain order and security.
But they easily forget that Singapore’s laws cover littering as well, and that leaving behind – or giving the appearance of leaving behind – a cigarette butt can have serious consequences. Hasibul put his cigarette butt on top of the dustbin, as is common habit in many areas of Singapore. The security officer however accused him of dropping the cigarette butt on the ground, where many before him had left theirs. A discussion took place ending in a citation indicating either payment of a fine or Hasibul’s attendance in court.
If one of the objectives of the security personnel is to reduce littering, then engaging with the men and promoting willing compliance would be more effective than fines. It’s possible that the security teams are not expected to offer information and reminders about littering, and so simply use punishment. Without proof that the discarded butt belongs to the man such accusation is bound to result in harsh words, disagreement, resentment and hostility, as was the case with Hasibul. The South Asian men who spend much of their time outdoors are easy targets for these fines, and are far less likely to be able to pay what may amount to half a month’s salary for a simple infraction.
Hasibul is still waiting for the investigation into his illegal work to conclude. Meanwhile, TWC2 has assisted him by writing a plea for leniency to the National Environment Agency (NEA), but with little expectation that it will be granted. If the NEA responds that their officers were correct, TWC2 will pay the fine rather than subject Hasibul to a prison term for this offence, a prison term that would remain on his record and effectively prevent him from ever returning to Singapore.
It is easy to see only the letter of the law. It is convenient to rely on patrolling officers’ sheer weight of authority to press an accusation when the accused has little means to disprove it. But it should be morally troubling when power in exercised harshly upon those who are defenceless.
Likewise, with respect to the prolonged enforced stay in Singapore demanded of workers whose compensation or case investigation stretch for months and years, all the while barred from working, it is facile to say rules must be obeyed and that those who work illegally must be punished. How can there be any defensible moral foundation for rules and laws that inflict such suffering?
Transient Workers Count Too has long advocated that if workers are required to stay on in Singapore, then those that require them to do so, (e.g. Ministry of Manpower, the Police, or the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority) must also give them the right to seek work. We cannot on the one hand deny them sustenance and livelihood, and on the other hand, arrest and punish them for seeking to stay alive.