By TWC2 volunteer Lloyd C, based on interviews in December 2019

Both Sheikh Keramot Ali (pictured above) and Kathikayan (not his real name) lodged injury claims against their employers. Ali comes to TWC2’s meal station looking happy and relaxed, but Kathikayan looks stressed, scanning the room for someone knowledgeable with whom he can consult about his problem.

Alex, a senior volunteer, notices him and calls him over. As Kathikayan comes across the room, I notice he walks stiffly with a limp. He must have had a serious leg injury. Listening in as the Indian national explains his situation, I can’t help but get a little outraged. Yet, the seniors at TWC2 are always very calm when they hear such tales — as if they have heard such stories a thousand times before.

Kathikayan is staying in the company dormitory, but since he’s unable to work, he’s not been getting any salary. Nor is he getting his medical leave wages (MC wages) even though, as he tells our senior volunteer, he has submitted all his medical leave certificates (MCs) to his lawyer. Without money, he is unable to buy food.

On days such as today, when he has a hospital appointment and he has to come downtown anyway to see the doctor, Kathikayan can stop by TWC2’s meal station to get a free meal, but this is impractical on other days. The company dormitory is in the west of Singapore and, with no money for transport and difficulty walking, he cannot possibly be making his way to TWC2 for daily meals.

I hear from long-time volunteers that several years ago, most of such injured workers would have fled company housing to bunkhouses in the Little India area where they can more easily access TWC2’s food programme. But the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has recently been making sure that employers live up to their responsibilities to provide housing for injury and salary claimants through the entire duration of their claims.

“It’s a good thing,” says Alex, “because it was utterly absurd that injured workers should have to pay for their own accommodation with their MC wages.”

Housing is one thing. What about food?

“The same law that requires employers to provide housing also requires employers to provide food,” Alex explains, “and if the lack of food provision is brought to MOM’s attention, pressure will be brought to bear on the employer.”

So, how? Kathikayan wants to know. What does he do now to get his MC wages and regular meals? Alex explains that since Kathikayan has engaged a lawyer to watch over his injury claim, it is TWC2’s policy not to intervene. TWC2 does not want to risk “crossed-wires” in case handling. We generally go no further than to suggest to the worker to make his complaint more forcefully to either his lawyer or to MOM directly.

Kathikayan is advised that since he has already sent his medical leave certificates to his lawyer, that’s whom he should be asking about follow up and payment. And “if your lawyer is not helping you to solve the food problem, you can go directly to MOM,” says the senior volunteer. “Explain the situation exactly the same way you’ve explained to us.”

Borrowed money from friends

Yet, many workers, facing food difficulties, don’t seem keen to raise this with MOM, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Sheikh Keramot Ali is one. He lodged a salary claim on his employer in August 2019, and has continued to stay in the company dormitory in Punggol.

He was provided food “for first twenty days” after he filed his claim, he tells me.

After that, the company insisted on a supply arrangement that was so grudging, it seemed intended to defeat the purpose. According to Ali, the employer told him to make his way about once a week to the company’s office in Kaki Bukit — some 10 – 15 km from the dormitory — to collect a bagful of “vegetables”. Ali was then expected to do his own cooking in his dorm with that weekly supply.

He would have to pay for his own transport to get to the company office. Considering too the time wasted, Ali decided instead to live off his savings and borrow money from his friends.

“This provision of the law is a work in progress,” says Alex euphemistically. “Unlike insisting on providing acceptable housing which is a more straightforward Yes/No situation, providing food is subject to many more vagaries and harder to police.”

The more ambiguous wording of the law does not help either. It says, when a worker has an unresolved claim on the employer,

… the employer continues to be responsible for and must 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 claim…

Alex points out: “It says ‘food’, it doesn’t say ‘meals’. It doesn’t say where this must be provided. Some additional words such as ‘adequate and culturally appropriate meals provided in close proximity to the employee’s lodgings’ would help.”

Yet, all this is water under the bridge for Ali. He has reached resolution with his employer regarding his salary claim and he expects to be going home in a few weeks’ time. He doesn’t care about the vegetables matter anymore, except as a tale to regale his friends with.