Most interns who spend 6 – 9 weeks with TWC2 are asked to wrap up their internship with an essay on a specific topic. Moe spent April and May 2016 with us assisting with casework and the Cuff Road Project. In the process, he came across many foreign workers who had lost their jobs either due to salary non-payment or injury. With the cancellation of their work permits, they are placed on Special Passes to legalise their continued stay in Singapore while their cases are looked into by the Ministry of Manpower. The questions that arise are: What do they have for accommodation? Without income, how do they survive?

An intern’s reflection on theory and practice: Housing and sustenance for Special Pass men

By Moe Thet Tin Win

In the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (Chapter 91A) and Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, under Part III of Fourth Schedule, it very clearly states that, after the cancellation of work permit, “the employer shall continue to be responsible for and bear the costs of the upkeep (including the provision of food and medical treatment) and maintenance of the foreign employee in Singapore who is awaiting resolution and payment of any statutory claims for salary arrears under the Employment Act, or work injury compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act. The employer shall ensure that the foreign employee has acceptable accommodation in Singapore.”

The lack of enforcement of law can regrettably be seen during my time volunteering at The Cuff Road Project (TCRP). TWC2’s signature project, TCRP provides free meals to workers who are on Special Pass. One memorable case was the case of a Bangladeshi worker with a head injury. On cancellation of his work permit, he left his company’s dormitory as he felt threatened with deportation by his employer before the resolution of his case. Since then, he has been renting a bunk in a shop-house at Desker Road and paying from his savings. His money soon ran out. At TWC2’s office, it is very common to hear the workers complain that their “house man” or landlord is after them as their rent is late.

The issue regarding housing and the upkeep of workers is a complicated one from the start, even for workers who are still on the job. Many companies, in an attempt to cut costs, do not even want to give decent but a little more expensive housing to the workers employed by them. Some workers have to live on construction sites, instead of purpose-built or proper dormitories. Such employers are even more unwilling to provide housing to men on Special Pass who have lodged claims against them.

In a recent study, “Migrant Worker Housing: A Survey of Men in TWC2’s Cuff Road Project”, done at TCRP in September 2013, we found out that “only 28% of [the 163 respondents to the survey] said that they had been offered accommodation after their injuries.” The majority of them were not offered accommodation by their employers, or that they found it impossible to stay on in company housing. There is a fear of repatriation (where the company may send in “gangsters” to grab and send them off to the airport against their will) and other threats from employers. Therefore, for the majority of the workers that are not housed by their company, they would usually rent a bunk in a shophouse and pay the rent using whatever money they have left or by borrowing from their friends and family.

TWC2 and other NGOs in Singapore, like MWC and HOME sometimes, after they have determined that the worker really needs their help, provide housing for them, or pay for or subsidize their rents. Dayspace, a drop-in centre and emergency shelter at Rowell Road and Project Roof are some of the things that TWC2 have to help the workers with housing issues. Project Roof helps subsidize their rent. These are made possible by TWC2’s Compassion and Relief for Emergencies (CARE) Fund, with the help of the donors and volunteers.

When a worker is seriously injured, unable to work and receiving the treatments, he is supposed to be given medical leave wages. I have seen the Work Safety & Health (WSH) bulletin from MOM that clearly states this: “As an employer, you are responsible for medical leave wages and medical expenses of your worker injured at work, even if they have been dismissed” (emphasis mine). In practice, MOM takes a very long time — months — to determine whether an injury occurred at work, and so long as that determination is pending, medical leave and medical expense obligations by employers are suspended. During my internship, I saw many unfortunate workers that just did not have any means of survival for those months. They had no source of income because “the boss will not pay” nor did they understand why MOM would not make the employer pay up.

Even when MOM has determined that the injury was work-related, some employers still refuse to pay or try to delay the payments of the medical leave wages. This happens despite MOM contacting employers over the matter.

When men are on Special Pass, unable to work and do not have a source of income, food is another problem. They do not have a family here to fall back on. Sometimes they do get free food from their friends or the religious places (e.g. mosques). However, this help is apparently inadequate for them. TCRP, which feeds the workers who are on Special Pass, can receive up to around 200-300 workers per meal. More help is needed by the workers who are turned away by their former employers and our government.

When these difficulties they face paying for their rent, food or other essentials such as bus fare and phone cards drag on for a long time, frustration takes an emotional toll. Depression and other mental health issues can set in. A typical case seen by TWC2 takes months to resolve, with some cases taking years.

Many volunteers like us believe that a better solution would be to allow workers in Special Pass to hold a new job (and have a source of income) while the claims are being processed. Workers with salary claims are certainly fit to work. Even injured workers who have recovered sufficiently can take on work while their insurance claim drags on. It will be a lot better for them, financially and mentally. MOM can help do so by granting them permission to look for new jobs or by giving temporary jobs to them.