Dear Teachers,

Transient Workers Count Too is not an educational institution. Though we understand and appreciate that the topic of labour migration is considered an important one and many classes ask students to write essays on the topic, please also tell your students that they should not see the volunteers of TWC2 as surrogate teachers.

Volunteers who sign up with TWC2 sign up to help migrant workers, not to teach students. Our volunteers are usually busy, with limited bandwidth to deal with student requests.

We often come across emails from students telling us they’ve been asked to do a paper on migrant workers, followed by a series of very basic questions. The questions indicate that they have not taken the trouble to do desk research and read our website or other resources thoroughly. It’s a shortcut to simply send an email to us asking for answers to their questions, hopefully good for a copy-and-paste job.

We are sure you will agree this is not learning.

TWC2’s policy is that if the questions are such that the information could be found from just reading our website, then we will not reply.

In the same vein, we will be discerning when handling student requests for interviews, and we will ask in advance what questions they want to explore. Time that our volunteers spend with students answering basic questions is time taken away from their real passion of assisting workers in need.

For now, one of our volunteers, Seema Punwani, has replied at length to one set of student questions. We will put it here so that if students still wish to copy and paste they can do so from here.

July 2020:

General attitude of the Singaporean public towards migrant workers and government’s role in times of COVID

The pandemic has increased awareness of the migrant workers situation. There has been outpouring of donations and more people want to volunteer their time to the cause. We have donors sending lots of stuff our way, including regular consignments of fruit which the workers appreciate. Money donations have gone beyond our wildest dreams. Of course, these are not normal times, and we have to spend to help workers in need. TWC2 has undertaken a phone top-up campaign. We helped about 40,000 or 45,000 men already. The campaign has raised over more than $500,000 Never before has TWC2 dealt with such numbers. But there are 280,000 work permit holders, so despite the strong effort, we have reached less than 20% of them. The initiative is still useful even with the free data cards given out by govt because those cards don’t allow workers to make regular phone calls home. Their family members may not have smartphones, or be able to afford data, or be staying in a remote village with poor connectivity. We have of course seen an increase in donations, but we expect much of it to be used very quickly.

TWC2 got permission from the government to run Cuff Road Project during COVID lockdown. And we feed workers here. Special pass workers need particular help at this time because the wait for their problems to be resolved is being extended due to hospital and mediation appointments being postponed, and many are not receiving food and lodging by their employers.

We also dispensed rent subsidies to help the men at TCRP (and living in Little India) keep a roof over their heads. Many of them are on Special Passes and despite the admonitions of MOM, their former employers aren’t interested in taking care of them.

Other than that, people have also given us masks, sanitisers etc, which we have given out to the group of workers we help – those on Special Pass who’re staying around the little India area. This is a largely neglected group of workers who deserve our attention, and who have been the focus of TWC2’s work. People and organizations are willing to donate snacks, dates, etc. On an ad hoc basis, we’re also helping pass on donations of entertainment items such as carrom boards to the FCDs, to help ease the workers’ boredom.

On the other hand, there are situations that leave a bad taste in the month e.g. the letter published in the national newspaper where migrant workers were blamed for their dormitory conditions . People spoke up against this letter which showed that the community still cares.

We cannot shy away from the fact that migrant workers are not being seen as /counted as part of the community. Even the terminology used by the officials of ‘community cases’ and ‘dormitory cases’ implied that distinction.

Keeping them in isolation under almost draconian measures forever frames them as the other. The suggestion that it may make sense to house them offshore betrays a way of thinking about workers. The treatment of workers, the kind of wages they get that are seen as acceptable normalises their status as workers who are “lesser” than others in society here.

Singapore has much more stringent laws when it comes to migrant workers compared to many other countries. However, as a first world country, there is a lot more that can be done. The ‘conservative’ approach is ultimately about economy and money. Better living conditions for workers, means that someone has to bear the cost. There are also several parties involved- employers, dormitory owners, government. Without clear guidelines, on responsibilities, the buck just keeps getting passed on.

1) While clean and liveable dorms are important, if workers have to pay more such dorms, it means they earn less money. We need to first resolve the salary issues. Make sure workers are paid fairly and promptly. And any salary disputes as handled in a timely manner

2) We hope that the measures taken to improve accommodation standards and provide decent food during the circuit breaker period will become part of a sustained effort, but we think vigilance will be needed to prevent any employers from seeking to compensate themselves for costs incurred or loss of income during this period by deductions from workers’ salaries.

3) There needs to be an efficient process for change of employer.  The policy on this is not very open. Change of Employer has too many constraints. As recession hits, SMEs especially may cancel work permits and send workers home, and then when things get better, new batch of workers will be bought in. This is inefficient for the economy, and also not humanitarian approach towards the workers. This should not come at a fee for worker.

4) A lot more people now know about the living conditions of male migrant workers. There is greater sympathy around and we hope this can be translated into a determined effort at all-round improvement of their living and working conditions

Our WhatsApp helpline is flooded every day with easily a hundred messages or more. Currently, many calls and messages are about salary issues. Indeed, there is widespread confusion out there and our sense is that many workers aren’t getting anywhere what they ought to get.

Unless the workers are paid fairly, their situation will not improve. You can watch this 26-minute video in which former MOM minister Tan Chuan-jin is one of two speakers.  They’re talking about recruitment fees, about the hugely inefficient way we do things — sending thousands of workers home, only to bring thousands of other workers here later. They talking about letting workers change jobs, even change sectors more freely. This is exactly the things TWC2 has been saying for a decade or more. As Michael Lien says in the interview “let’s not let a crisis go to waste”

About policy and law

TWC2 has been around since 2003 (registered as charity in 2004) and are very familiar with the migrant workers situation- beyond just housing and food. The two biggest issues are salary and injury disputes. With companies having cash flow problems, we expect there to be more cases of non-payment of salary; we were already working with injured workers and workers awaiting settlement of salary claims, and this process has been disrupted by the coronavirus, but still needs to be pursued. Even if workers are paid basic salaries while confined to dormitories, this won’t make up for overtime pay that they lost, which was a substantial part of their earnings. It is good that that schedules for the completion of work on construction projects in hand at the start of the outbreak have been waived, but we should still be wary of attempts to catch up later on by speeding up work and possibly thereby threatening workers’ safety.

While the trajectory of legal reforms for migrant workers over recent years has been positive, our interviews show substantial room for improvement remains. Despite existing legal protections, and a claims process designed to be low-cost and expedient, significant obstacles and uneven enforcement can prevent migrant workers from obtaining remedial justice. Some of these obstacles are structural and relate to the work pass system and specific regulations tied to the Work Permit and Special Pass. Others are procedural, for example, the ways in which decision-making criteria and adjudication processes are unnecessarily complex or unclear, leading to confusion and disempowerment for the worker. The mediation process for the settlement of claims, through its focus on compromise, can fail to take into consideration the unequal bargaining power of workers vis-à-vis employers.

International opinion – We continue to have a presence in outside Singapore – MFA, submissions to UPR, ILO conventions – Singapore has a clear presence in the international stage, therefore international opinion has some effect though a limited one.

The fact how quickly the COVID situation escalated in the dorms, is sufficient proof that the conditions are far from satisfactory. You can find lots of content in international and domestic publications about the dormitory and living conditions.

At the end of the day whether it is a salary issue, provision of medical care or work conditions or dorm conditions existing regulations need to be enforced. That is the weak link.

Further reading

1) TWC2’s shadow report on human rights

2) TWC’s report on policy

3) Data on salary and injury complaints

4) Interview by the TWC2 Public Engagement Team