Here’s an account of an incident at Changi airport as a TWC2 volunteer accompanied Nagelli Mahendar Reddy to see him off.

By Silvester Goh

Last night, 29 June 2017, I accompanied injured worker Nagelli Mahender Reddy to Terminal 2 to catch his flight home to India. Flight TZ502 to Chennai was scheduled to depart at 10:45pm. Check-in was at Row 10 at the Terminal.

He had given notice on 15 June 2017 to his employer, Great Sun Industries Pte Ltd, that he would move his injury compensation claim from the Ministry of Manpower’s work injury claim process to the civil court (also known as “Common Law”). From  this point on, his lawyer would handle his case for him and he would be free to go home. Nagelli also has outstanding salary claims.

For whatever reason, his employer had kept his passport all the while even though this is against the law. But obviously, he would need it to fly home. It was promised that his passport would be delivered to him at the airport just before his flight.

The appointed time of 7:30pm came and went, still no sign of Bala the company driver who was to deliver the passport. Nagelli made numerous calls to Bala. Finally at about 8:35 or 8:40pm, Bala turned up. I was rather miffed and admonished Bala for being late.

Bala claimed it was due to the after-office traffic; I took the offensive as I asked him ”How long have you been working in Singapore?”

Sheepishly, he said six years.

“So long, and you still can’t judge the traffic and be on time?’

Seeing another person (myself) in the company of Nagelli and having taken the offensive to admonish him for being late, he quickly passed Nagelli the latter’s passport, when — as events a few moments later would indicate — that was probably not the plan.

Nagelli then went to join the queue at check-in row 10. Bala was still milling around when he no further role to play. I became suspicious, and my sixth sense would soon prove right. Nagelli was in the queue for just a few minutes when Bala leaned over and snatched away the passport. Bala then produced a piece of paper and demanded that Nagelli  sign it as a condition for returning the passport. I would later learn from Nagelli that the paper contained a prepared statement saying (falsely) that he (Nagelli) had received all the wages due to him while he was in Singapore. Naturally, Nagelli refused to sign it.

I said to Bala to return the passport or I would seek police assistance.

Bala making a phone call

Bala then walked off quickly with the passport in his hand. A few check-in rows away, I could see him make a phone call — probably to the boss to seek advice as to what to do.

I went to the nearest entrance into Departure Immigration and sought the assistance of a policewoman there, explaining the situation to her. She then accompanied me to search for Bala. Nagelli pointed the direction out. We found Bala furiously speaking on his phone. The police woman instructed Bala to return the passport, but she had to make the demand two or three times before he finally relented.

With the passport, Nagelli checked in and went into Immigration with no further harassment.

Who is accountable? MOM should be aware that such employer behaviour happens. They should stop employers from holding workers’ passports at any time. It is against the law anyway and the law should be enforced. At the very least, the ministry should insist that workers like Nagelli be given their flight tickets and passports at the ministry’s offices some days before the scheduled departure date, with MOM officials witnessing the handover. Otherwise, MOM leaves open the door to this kind of blackmail or extortion (Section 383, Penal Code) at the airport.

It was fortunate that I happened to accompany Nagelli there. What if a worker had no one to help him? What if a worker, in desperation, signs the false document, and the employer then presents the document to MOM. Is that how MOM accepts that unpaid salaries have been “fully settled”? If MOM leaves open such opportunities for blackmail, and then through accepting the false papers saying salaries have been settled, does that not mean the ministry is rewarding criminal behaviour?