Migrant workers repack their bags at the airport to fit within the baggage weight allowance
Rajib Mohammad, who prefers to be known as ‘Raju’, was injured at work on 21 December 2018, nearly two years ago as at the time of writing. Having had his Work Permit cancelled by his employer since he couldn’t work after that, he was put on a Special Pass so that he could remain in Singapore to continue receiving treatment and in order for him to pursue an injury compensation claim.
His Special Pass was cancelled in October 2019 and he was repatriated. But his claim is not yet over and he has not received any disability compensation offer.
In 2016, during the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review of Singapore at the United Nations (with a focus on human rights), Singapore “supported” (in plain English, “accepted”) the recommendation of its UN peers that it should “Enact a national migrant legislation to protect the rights of migrant workers and ensure that migrant workers who wish to pursue claim against employers are not forced to repatriate without access to justice.”
In a sense, Singapore lived up to this undertaking. In 2017, the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012 was amended, and now, paragraph 15 of Part III of the Fourth Schedule of these regulations says:
15. Unless requested by the Controller of Immigration or the Controller of Work Passes, the employer shall not repatriate the foreign employee when such repatriation would frustrate or deny any statutory claim that has been filed before 1 April 2017 by the foreign employee for salary arrears under the Employment Act (Cap. 91), any claim lodged or intended to be lodged by the foreign employee for salary arrears under the Employment Claims Act 2016 (Act 21 of 2016), or work injury compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act (Cap. 354) in force before 1 September 2020 or the Work Injury Compensation Act 2019.
How is it then that Raju got repatriated before in 2019 before his claim was concluded?
That’s because the above legislation is not as watertight as it first appears.
Paragraph 15 only applies to employers acting n their own. Raju’s repatriation was triggered by the government when they cancelled his Special Pass. It often causes some cognitive disssonance among Singaporeans to realise that human rights violations can be at the hands of the government, rather than private actors. So, a regulation like this that only binds the hands of private parties is insufficiently comprehensive.
Secondly, someone might quibble that the rule does not ban reptriation while a case is pending, but only if such repatriation might “frustrate or deny” the statutory claim.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) could argue that Raju’s injury claim is still live; it has not been frustrated by deportation. Yet, seeing how there has been no visible progress on his claim in the twelve months since he was thrown out of Singapore, it is hard to be convinced.
What caused MOM to cancel his Special Pass prematurely?
As quite often is the case, the Singapore government’s penchant for opacity behind its decisions does not allow us to be totally certain, but the only unusual event in Raju’s case was an incident at Changi airport in July 2019.
He was briefly detained by the airport police on suspicion that he was helping other migrant workers re-organise their luggage with the alleged intention of helping them evade airline baggage rules or taxes. He was bailed out soon after and about ten days later was issued a warning letter by the police.
A note on the website Singapore Legal Advice says:
A stern warning is not a criminal conviction.
Accordingly, individuals who have been given stern warnings in relation to certain offences will not have a criminal record for those offences.
However, records of stern warnings are maintained by the police. It is unclear how long these records will be kept for.
Stern warnings have no legal effect and are not binding on accused persons.
… the practice of issuing stern warnings in Singapore is presently not governed by any statutory provision. There is also no published public literature by the authorities on this area. If a stern warning is issued for alleged maid abuse, would this information be shared with the Manpower Ministry and would it affect one’s ability to employ another maid? Would a record of such warnings be considered when someone applies for employment in the public sector?
These were some questions raised by lawyer Tan Hee Joek, writing in the latest issue of the Law Gazette published by the Law Society, pointing out that the uncertain effects of stern warnings are mainly due to lack of published literature on how they are administered.
As a stern warning is not a criminal conviction, so, going by the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, on what proper basis was Raju’s Special Pass cancelled?
The issuance of a warning letter (which has no legal force) was discretionary and unilateral on the part of the police, as was the cancellation of the Special Pass on the part of MOM. There is no process for a right of reply and contest as judicial processes do.
At the very least, Raju’s case appears to violate the spirit of the undertaking given by Singapore at the UN about workers not being forced to be repatriated while they had outstanding claims.