This is a continuation of the story from Parts 1 and 2, about twenty men locked in a room. The door had been locked from the outside. By the end of Tuesday 21 April 2020, they had been moved to another room and the police had come. The following day, a story in TodayOnline newspaper substantiated the core of our allegations.
Nonetheless we had a letter from the employer of the men to deal with. That letter concluded with the words, “All our right are expressly reserved” thus suggesting that they might resort to legal action.
Soon after, there was also action by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
The letter from V Spec Engineering & Supplies
The letter from V Spec Engineering and Supplies Pte Ltd, complete with words such as “false information” and “untruth claim” took issue with a few inaccuracies in our original Facebook post. V Spec’s letter said:
…. we strongly recommend the post be taken down until further investigations has been conducted.
It is at a time like this that false information should not be perpetuated and for the morale of other workers to be affected.
We seek your organization to apologies to all relevant parties involved for posting the above matters without investigating further before making untruth claim in the media.
It is a common tactic when a party is on the defensive to pick on small inaccuracies in the hope of demolishing and discreditting the primary claim. In this case, V Spec took issue with our original statement that the men had been locked up since the Chinese national was taken away on 17 April. The letter said,
Your organization have posted & stated that the workers were locked inside their rooms ever since a Chinese worker diagnosed with Covid-19 was taken away on 17 April 2020.
It was made to sound as if the men had never been locked up — and that therefore we engaged in egregious falsehood — when actually the only matter of uncertainty was the starting date.
We quickly re-checked with our informant in the room, and realised that a mistake could have been made about when the locking began. Along the way, we also realised that the Chinese national was not taken away in an ambulance on the 17th but on the 18th.
We had evidence in the form of a text message, timestamped 10:16am Monday 20 April that the men were locked up. In fact, there had been a phone call 45 minutes earlier which we characterised as a distress call. Therefore we could not be sure when exactly the locking began except that it had been implemented no later than 9:30am.
Our informant’s memory as to which day the sick roommate was taken away was also in error, though it is understandable when people are held in rooms for days on end and one day blurs into another.
Our subsequent post on Facebook corrected these inaccuracies, but we also made it clear that
While we are withdrawing the minor inaccuracies in our previous FB post on this saga and replacing them with this re-statement of the details, today’s statement here is the version of events to the best of our knowledge and information. We would add that we do not apologise for making the saga public as we believe to this day that it was absolutely necessary and urgent to raise the alarm for what is in reality an illegal confinement that is an offence at law.
We also pointed out that none other than the manager of Joylicious dorm, Mr Thng, admitted to the media (see this story in TodayOnline) that the men had indeed been locked up, though Thng claimed that it had been “less than 24 hours”. We have clear evidence that it was more than 24 hours.
As of the date of publication of this article, we have not heard further from V Spec.
Manpower Ministry takes action
Late Friday, 24 April 2020, a report on Channel NewsAsia delivered the good news that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had intervened. The report said that
A dormitory operator which locked 20 migrant workers in their room after a close contact of theirs tested positive for COVID-19 has been given a “stern warning”, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Friday (Apr 24).
MOM also said the employer of the confined workers will not be allowed to hire new foreign workers, pending a police investigation.
The matter came to light on Tuesday after migrant workers rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) said on its Facebook page that it received a “distress call” from workers at Joylicious dormitory, which is located in Tuas.
MOM had apparently found that the dormitory operator had confined the workers in their room with consent from the employer of the foreign workers, but that by the time MOM intervened, the workers had been moved to a warehouse.
Presumably that would be the new room pictured in Part 2 of this series. It is evident from that picture that the room is substandard, with men having to sleep on bare floors, yet there is no mention of MOM being concerned about that aspect.
Moving on, the report also said,
In response to CNA’s queries, MOM said it was not notified by TWC2 but acted after seeing the Facebook post.
Headline in TodayOnline on 25 April 2020
A longer report the next morning (Saturday 25 April 2020) in TodayOnline, headlined “MOM issues stern warning to Joylicious dorm operator for locking up workers, puts hiring freeze on employer” (headline pictured above) carried a bit more of this.
MOM said in its statement that it had picked up a Facebook post by TWC2 on the incident.
“Prior to that, we did not receive notification of the incident from TWC2,” it said.[snip]
In its statement, MOM said there is an established channel for TWC2 to alert the ministry to cases of workers who might require help of any form.
“In this instance, TWC2 published the post on Facebook without notifying MOM,” it said.
TWC2 responded immediately to the newspaper. We gave them the timeline thus:
Ever since the Circuit Breaker came into force, TWC2 has sent several messages to the “Caseref” channel of MOM regarding other workers’ problems. We have not always gotten prompt or substantive responses. Instead, in the weeks prior to the Joylicious incident, we have found working with MWC to be a lot more effective.
For example, on several occasions when we had workers informing us of food issues, MWC helped out as soon as we informed them and resolved those issues.
Furthermore, our understanding was that MWC had a better channel to MOM than the Caseref channel we had. Moreover, in this Covid-19 period, we understood through comments made in various inter-organisational meetings during the past month or so that MWC would be the key interface with NGOs like ourselves.
In this instance, we informed Mr Don Chen of Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) almost as soon as we learned of the workers’ plight. Our first message to him was on Monday (20 April) at 10:59am. At 11:12am, we received a reply saying that he would get case teams to contact the operator immediately on the living condition.
Later on Monday afternoon, Mr Chen said in a subsequent message that he had surfaced this to the enforcement team through the case team and that he would check on the outcome. Our understanding is that the enforcement team was part of MOM.
Around midday Tuesday, 21 April, with men telling us that they were still locked inside, we contacted MWC again. Around the time that we posted on Facebook, we heard again from Mr Chen — that was 14:06pm — that MWC had escalated the case to an MOM director.
MWC’s quick and straightforward replies gave us every assurance that the matter had reached the right people in MOM. As far as we were concerned, MOM was thus made aware of the matter from quite early on.
We are puzzled why MOM is now suggesting that they were not aware.
TodayOnline incorporated our response into their report.
The Straits Times also carried a report on the penalties imposed on the employer and dorm operator, and likewise ended that report by touching on MOM’s statement re TWC2. In its story dated 25 April 2020, the Straits Times wrote:
The ministry noted that there is an established channel for TWC2 to raise cases of workers who may need assistance. “In this instance, TWC2 published the post on Facebook without notifying MOM,” it said, urging members of the public to alert it to such incidents so it can respond quickly.
TWC2 vice-president Alex Au told The Straits Times last night it had informed the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC), which has been the key interface for non-governmental organisations such as TWC2 with MOM for the past month, about the case on Monday.
MWC chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said on Tuesday it was notified about the case by TWC2 on Monday.
“As per our normal practice in cases such as this one, we alerted the enforcement unit of MOM about the case,” he added.
The point to note about the Straits Times story is that the chairman of Migrant Workers Centre confirmed that MWC heard from us on Monday 20 April and relayed the matter to MOM.
To refresh readers’ memory, Part 1 of this story explained that the men were not relieved of their misery and anxiety till after we went public midday Tuesday.
The value of public advocacy
TWC2 does not flinch from engaging in public advocacy, although we recognise that sometimes feathers get ruffled as a result. But there is a greater good to be achieved.
In this case, we could have been patient and let the authorities quietly solve the problem of the 20 men in a locked room, leaving no one embarrassed. The men might have to wait longer for relief though, given the slow way that bureaucratic wheels turn.
By going public, we not only got faster action for the sake of the confined men, but also a clearer example is made in the public interest, so that (hopefully) no other dormitory would try to do the same thing again. We helped not just the 20 men in the Joylicious room, but all other workers at risk of similarly being locked up.