By Maya P

Maya interned with TWC2 in March and April 2022 during which she assisted our caseworkers in handling issues brought to us by workers. Among the issues was that of confinement. As is TWC2’s practice, interns conclude their internship with a report on a subject that they had wrestled with. This paper was written in late April 2022. Workers’ names have been changed.

As Singaporeans enjoy their newfound freedom from Covid-19 restrictions, another reality exists for migrant workers on Special Passes. Nazmul, a foreign worker awaiting a verdict on his salary claim, is one example of the failures of these new measures.

Most low-wage foreign workers hold Work Permits. But in circumstances where an employer has cancelled a worker’s Permit, yet the worker has a valid reason to continue staying on in Singapore, the authorities would issue these unemployed workers Special Passes. Valid reasons include situations such as when a worker had not been paid his salary and has filed a salary claim, or he was injured and is still undergoing treatment or awaiting resolution of an injury compensation claim.

Since the latter part of 2021, Work Permit holders have been permitted to leave their dormitories provided they obtain permission from the Ministry of Manpower via a mobile app (what we call the “Exit Pass system”). In the first place, TWC2 thinks it is completely unjustified for a government to be controlling who gets to leave his residence and when. No Singaporean would stand for it, and yet our government has imposed such controls on migrant workers.

Special Pass holders, however, are denied access to even this system. And for months, there has been no clarity at all what procedure is available to them to leave their dorms other than for “essential errands” such as keeping a hospital appointment.

Nazmul’s example was one of many absurdities.

He had filed a salary claim against his employer for an illegal deduction of his medical expenses from his salary. His employer had terminated him without notice and attempted to repatriate him, cancelling his Work Permit in the process. With TWC2’s help, he obtained a Special Pass so that he could remain in Singapore to pursue his claim.

Claims are overseen by the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) and in the lead-up to a TADM meeting, he was advised — by the mediator at TADM — to bring along print-outs of his supporting documents. This is standard procedure.

Nazmul had documents in digital form, and he needed to get to a shop to have copies made. But he could not get permission to leave the dormitory to do so.

Was this not within the meaning of the term “essential errand”?

The problem was that the Ministry of Manpower never made clear who had authority to interpret the term, and if one was dissatisfied with whoever’s decision, where one could appeal to. Dormitory operators, perhaps fearful of running afoul of the ministry, understandably played as safe as possible, denying permission to Special Pass holders except in instances with precedents, such as when a worker could show he had an appointment at a hospital or at the ministry itself.

Nazmul’s meeting at TADM would be one such “essential” appointment. But was preparation for that meeting “essential”? Nazmul went to his dormitory manager to ask for permission to go to a printing shop, but was told to ask his employer instead. Given that he was printing documents for a claim against his employer, he knew that he would not get it.

He was fortunate to have TWC2 watching his back. We helped him get them printed remotely. To ensure fairness, each party in the proceedings should provide copies of their evidence documents to all other parties and the mediator, so we printed them out in triplicate for him. If not for our intervention, he would have gone into his TADM meeting woefully unprepared, which might have jeopardised his salary claim.

Nazmul was hardly the only one suffering from these restrictions.

Special Pass holders have languished in dormitories for months on end, without any work or any way to pass the time (or bask in sunlight). Until 30 March 2022,  they were not even allowed to visit their local recreation centres — clusters of shops close to their dorms.

Biswas has been on a Special Pass for the last eight months, having filed an injury claim after a heavy load of metal fell on his toe. In this period, he left his dormitory only on the rare occasion when he had to see a doctor or go to MOM. He says that sometimes, on the way back to the dorm, he would stop to buy some food at a shop nearby: his brief point of contact with the outside world. Not unlike a prisoner sticking his head out of his cell window.

Akash, another Special Pass holder in a similar situation, added that he found himself actually looking forward to his MOM meetings; they were the only times he could interact with people – anyone! – outside his dorm. Akash has been on a Special Pass for five months.

Many doctors have said that there is no public health justification for any migrant worker, Work Permit or Special Pass, to be confined and immured into small, densely packed rooms. Migrant workers in general are some of the most Covid-immune in Singapore — daily cases in dormitories have been fewer than 100 since December 2021. By contrast, daily local cases are currently around 4,800 per day, soon to touch 5,000.

Another possible justification, though never said openly, could be that the authorities saw the restrictions as useful in preventing Special Pass holders from finding work (they are barred from working without a Work Permit). This is perhaps more insidious and abominable, as this would, in effect, collectively punish workers for crimes they had not even committed.

In any case, why are we against Special Pass holders finding work? We need their labour and they need the income.

(There is no ban on Singaporeans, in the midst of a salary or injury compensation claim, from finding a new job.)

It is mind-boggling how much cruelty Singapore is capable of.

Singapore suffered massive international and local backlash for its treatment of migrant workers during the peak of Covid-19. Because of public health oversights in early March 2020, this island nation went from a model of sensible, scientific governance to a global example of the failures of inequality.

Now, even as we “learn to live with Covid”, we see an institutionalised inequality again. This time, not only between Singaporeans (with all their freedoms to move about and party) and migrant workers who must obtain permission from the Government of Singapore, no less, to step out of their front doors, but also between different classes of migrant workers. One gets an Exit Pass app and another has to appeal to whoever to beg for permission to step out.

If this unequal reopening is not rectified, Singapore risks the same disgrace again. We would not be risking public health by allowing Special Pass holders their freedom, but we would be risking our moral fabric if we do not.