TWC2 is getting an increasing number of appeals from workers to help them get out of current Covid-19 restrictions; they just want to go home.

Migrant workers in dormitories have suffered confinement since April 2020. It’s been more than four months, and the latest easing of restrictions means little, as under the latest “liberalisation”, they’re still being confined to their dorms and only allowed to go out to work. At the end of each shift, they have to be ferried back to their dorms and locked in for the night again.

Present plans are to allow them only two hours a week to be brought (under employers’ control) to nearby recreation centres to make essential purchases from shops there. No socialisation allowed.

The effect of such prolonged and heartless imprisonment on workers’ mental wellbeing cannot be underestimated. We are hardly surprised that stories of suicides and attempted suicides are emerging. See story in The Online Citizen, 5 August 2020, Migrant worker slit his throat in an alleged suicide attempt at dormitory.

Many workers are perhaps reaching the point where staying on in Singapore in the hope of working is not worth it anymore. But getting out of the Singapore Prison is very difficult, and workers find that they need to reach out to TWC2 for assistance.

On 23 July 2020, TWC2 heard from a Chinese worker surnamed Ji who wanted to quit his job and go home. He was concerned because he was housed with other workers who had previously tested positive for Covid-19, though they had by then recovered. He told his employer of his wish to go home, and MOM as well.

According to Ji (pictured at left), he was told by MOM officers that because he was in a dormitory with a high infection rate, he would not be allowed to leave for home until he had been infected himself and developed antibodies.

Of course, Ji found this alleged reply insensitive and alarming. Fearing for his life, Ji then contacted TWC2 for help.

When we brought the matter up, MOM initially responded by asking if Ji had any issues at home that required him to go home quickly. It was quite astounding to see such a response. We felt it betrayed a certain attitude that Ji was a sort of economic property of Singapore which we would not give up unless there was a justifiable reason.

Nonetheless, TWC2 grit our teeth and conveyed to MOM Ji’s response that he was the sole breadwinner of the family and had a father who was sick and could not work. His spouse was a housewife looking after two young children.

Soon after, we heard from Ji that he was feeling slightly suicidal but that his friend had talked him out of it. We quickly informed MOM about this.

On 3 August, MOM contacted him with the news that they were arranging for his employer to repatriate him. But first, he had to undergo a swab test (4 August) and was then moved to a quarantine facility for fourteen days before he could fly.

This case reminded us of a group of about ten workers from Kerala, India, who also had difficulty getting “permission” from MOM to return home. This was about two months earlier.

MOM wanted the men to prove that they had a good reason for wanting to go home. If a parent was sick, the man had to submit a doctor’s certificate; if a grandparent had died, MOM wanted a death certificate, and so on.

At the time, we allowed MOM the benefit of doubt and thought that seats on repatriation flights might perhaps have been in short supply; thus a need for prioritisation. But then we found out that a good Samaritan had bought flight tickets for the men – which meant that seats were available – but still MOM would not give immediate permission to those whose dorms had not yet been cleared, even though the men said they had already tested negative for Covid-19.

Those whose dorms had been cleared could go. Those who were quarantined missed their flight.

Five percent of workers want to go home

That these are not isolated cases can be seen from a recent Straits Times story.

Hooi Yu Koh, the chief executive of Kori Holdings, a construction company with about 200 workers, was quoted by the newspaper on 13 August 2020 (“Hard-hit construction firms cheer easing of rule on workers’ housing”. Paywall link) as saying that about five percent of their workers no longer want to work here. The reason given was that they were “homesick”, but this should not be taken at face value.

Migrant workers are normally happy to stay several years without going home so long as there is a steady job. And they are politically-savvy enough to not jeopardise their chances of getting out of Singapore by being frank about what they really think of the restrictions.

Chinese worker Wang received news during the lockdown that his grandmother was in poor health. His parents are no longer here and he had been brought up by his grandmother since young, therefore she was his sole remaining kin.

The employer was sympathetic and told Wang that he could go home. Sympathy had limits though. The employer told Wang that he had to pay for his own ticket.

When we heard about it, we told Wang this was wrong, and MOM intervened to make the employer refund the cost of the flight.

However, Wang was told to observe a 14-day quarantine before he could leave. It is not clear to us why we could not simply have tested him and sent him on his way. By then in early August, Singapore clearly had the capacity to test tens of thousands of workers. Giving Wang an early test shouldn’t have been any problem.

The same week, another worker, also named Wang, got the same answer from MOM. But this guy had already tested negative, and yet he was told he had to undergo a 14-day quarantine before he could fly – something about how his dorm had not yet been “cleared” despite him testing negative.

Wang No. 2 had expressed a wish to his employer to go home way back in April 2020. He needed treatment for a medical condition; it was not work-related. The employer agreed and an air-ticket was bought. But then came the lockdown and Wang No. 2 remained stuck in Singapore. As for whether he received any treatment during the lockdown, this remains is unclear.

By late July, another effort was made to get him home. Once again, a ticket was bought. Once again, it was wasted because MOM insisted that he had to undergo a quarantine.

Our fourth example is surnamed Gu. His father was ill and Gu wanted to go home quickly. When he contacted MOM, he received a form which he was told to pass to his employer to complete and submit. The employer refused to do so. Gu then complained.

MOM visited Gu at this dormitory and called the employer in his presence. The employer shouted at MOM officers, saying he could not afford to send the worker home.

What “could not afford” meant is unclear. Possibly, the employer was cash-strapped, but equally possibly, the employer considered Gu critical for resuming work after the lockdown and did not want to lose him.

However, neither Singapore’s Employment Act nor the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act gives any employer the right to refuse a worker’s resignation.

Nonetheless, Gu’s family in China bought an air ticket for him, and finally the employer consented to releasing him. But under the law, employers of Work Permit holders are responsible for the cost of repatriation, and when we informed MOM about this, MOM made the employer refund the worker.

Gu was then moved to a quarantine facility.

His departure date was 10 August 2020. There was a bit of drama at the airport. Gu later contacted us to say that the employer had made him lie about being reimbursed for the air ticket. The employer had threatened him and said if he didn’t tell MOM and TWC2 that he was reimbursed, the employer would not allow him to go home. At the airport, the employer withheld Gu’s passport until he gave the employer $200.

Gu has screenshots of the threatening messages sent by his employer, and an audio recording of the conversation they had at the airport.

TWC2 has since helped him to lodge a follow-up complaint with MOM over the latest twist.

Gu called us from China saying his family is very grateful for our help in getting him home. He said his employer was 无法无天 (lawless).

Going by the above stories, however illogical it may seem for workers who have tested negative to have to serve yet another 14-day quarantine before they can go home, at least one might say there appears to be policy consistency here.

Ah, but then there’s the case of Ahmed Faiz.

Faiz filed a claim against his employer in July 2020 when he was abruptly terminated after only four months on the job, most of which was spent languishing in lockdown. He told TWC2 that he had to pay the employer $4,000 to get the job, and then each month, $1,000 was withheld from his salary by the employer. The payslip would show the correct amount and Faiz was made to sign it, but the actual amount then given to him would be $1,000 less.

When he was abruptly terminated, he raised the matter of the money taken from him with the boss. This only got him a good beating up by two men at the behest of the employer, Faiz said. The police and an ambulance were called, and Faiz was taken to a hospital.

Faiz attempted to lodge a claim at MOM for the $4,000 “fee” he made to the boss to obtain the job, but because he had no written evidence — which boss would be so careless as to leave a paper trail? — the matter was dismissed. As for the shortfall in monthly salary, the boss produced evidence showing that the full amount had been paid; those salary slips with signature demanded on them were meant for precisely such an occasion.

His case didn’t look hopeful at all.

On 11 August 2020, MOM told Ahmed Faiz that he would have to go home the next day. 24 hours’ notice was all he got. No 14-day pre-departure quarantine for him.

Is there any policy consistency left?