This is Part 4 of a six-part series on the long confinement of migrant workers after Covid-19 hit Singapore. The overall timeline is detailed in Part 1. Work Permit holders were finally allowed a tiny opportunity – just 500 workers per week – to go downtown for leisure in October 2021, sixteen months after all the dorms were locked down in April 2020. They had to apply for an Exit Pass through a mobile app and hope that they’d get one of the 500 slots that were available.

A point we made in Part 1 was that Special Pass holders (this subgroup explained in Part 1 too) had no access to the app. They remained stuck in their dorms. Most were resigned to their fate, however unjust, and gave up even trying to leave the dorms for leisure. However, there were occasions when they needed to do something important outside, and yet were refused permission to leave. One example is described in Part 3: The forbidden photocopy shop.

That guy was hardly alone. In the months that followed, many Special Pass holders contacted TWC2 for help. In each case, we had to write to MOM explaining the man’s plight in order to get him special permission for time out.

In May 2022, it occurred to us that in all these months of helping workers get time out, we’ve not collected any audio recording of what they tell us. We then decided: The next two guys we help, we’ll ask them to describe the absurdities that they faced.

Both recordings were made in the third week of May 2022. In the transcript, the workers’ names have been changed to protect them from retaliation.

About language

Readers will also notice that the TWC2 persons in the recorded conversations use “migrant worker English”. We avoid language forms that they find too complicated to understand. An example would be when we use the simple present tense even when referring to something in the past, as some workers trip over inflections such as may/might, go/went, eat/ate, find/found. Readers should infer the time period from the context.


Vachan was staying in a dormitory in the Tuas area. After TWC2 successfully helped him overturn the ban on going out, our caseworker rang him to confirm that he could now leave, and also to ask him to describe what he faced before.

In this section of the recording, our caseworker establishes with Vachan how long he has been confined in the dormitory. Vachan confirms that he has been stuck there since his accident in February 2022, which, by this point in time was more than three months ago.


TWC2: So that means, from the time you injury 14 February until yesterday, cannot go anywhere right? Only yesterday, they allow you to go, right?

Vachan: Yes.

TWC2: OK, OK, So 14 February onwards cannot right, that time. Two three months you cannot go anywhere.

Vachan: Ya, cannot go any[where].

In the next part of the conversation, Vachan describes how he tried to get permission to leave the dorm the previous Friday by speaking with the Ministry of Manpower’s ACE team officer (ACE team is explained in Part 1) . Our caseworker also makes sure that he heard correctly – that it was the ACE team officer whom Vachan spoke with and not someone else.


TWC2: Last Friday, you talk to MOM, correct?

Vachan: Ya,

TWC2: Then What the MOM exactly talking what ah?

Vachan: That time say cannot go out, sir, to anywhere.

TWC2: MOM talking or what?

Vachan: Ya, cannot go out.

TWC2: What MOM say?

Vachan: Now cannot go out.

TWC2: But you ask the why, correct? What did they say? What reason they tell you?

Vachan: This one just say like that lah. Cannot go, I say cannot go. This man say no allowed to go outside. The special pass.

The only reason for the ban that Vachan got from the ACE officer was that Special Pass holders were, by some sort of blanket rule, disallowed from leaving their accommodation.

The security officers at his dorm were another barrier. Vachan had also tried asking for permission to run some errands at the nearby recreation centre (“RC” in the recording). Bear in mind that this conversation took place after TWC2 had successfully intervened – so “everything settled” – and in the recording below, Vachan was describing what had occurred earlier. He couldn’t get past the dorm’s security officers, so, on our advice, he spoke with the MOM ACE officer. That too didn’t work (as mentioned above) and we had to intervene.


TWC2: OK I want to ask you ah, so now, everything settled already, ah?

Vachan: Yes, this one can go out sir. The RC also, ah, before [i.e. previously], he hold my phone and special pass, to just go out five minutes also. Now, no problem.

TWC2: Who hold your special pass?

Vachan: The security.

TWC2: Why he do that?

Vachan: Because before, he no allowed to go outside.

TWC2: But who give the instruction to security?

Vachan: This one, aiyah, don’t know, brother. Because security say cannot go out, so yesterday, I meet to the MOM officer after that I tell them all everything.

It should be noted that Work Permits and Special Passes are personal identity documents, and under the law, no one should be retaining such documents from another person. Yet, as Vachan reported, the dorm’s security officer(s) made retention of his Special Pass a condition for letting him out for five minutes. We do not think that any such instruction would have come from MOM. As mentioned in Part 1, all sorts of people in authority were making up “rules” as they went along.

The fourth snippet of our conversation with Vachan (below) has him describing his latest situation after TWC2’s intervention. He says he can go downtown (including Little India “Tekka”) once a week.


Vachan: Weekly now one time can go outside, no problem.

TWC2: Go out where? RC or what?

Vachan: Weekly one time any[where] can go lah, just want to go Tekka, whatever ah. Take the exit pass here. MOM give this pass. Weekly one time also can go.

David: Then the RC anytime can go?

Vachan: RC anytime can go, no problem.

TWC2: OK, so that means last time, when Friday, RC, last time, the two months like that, [for] two, three months you cannot go anywhere also, right?

Vachan: No cannot.

TWC2: RC also cannot, community, Tekka, also cannot, right?

Vachan: Cannot.


Elandur was another worker on a Special Pass. He too was injured at work, six months before the interview recorded here. The interesting thing is that unlike Vachan who was confined almost since his accident three months earlier, Elandur was not. For most of the six months, he was housed in a “company house” rather than a dormitory, and he was free to come and go. Then, in April 2022, the company decided to move its workers into a dormitory in Tampines, and with that, Elandur’s problems began.

Elandur felt discriminated against because his co-workers, who held Work Permits, were able to leave the dorm for leisure. He, on the other hand, couldn’t even come to TWC2 to consult us over his case. In this first part of the conversation, which was recorded when he could finally make a visit to TWC2, we ask him how Work Permit holders could leave the dorm. Elandur says some of them apply for an Exit Pass through the mobile app, while others don’t even bother. They simply scan their dorm passes at the turnstiles and sail out.


TWC2: Tell me about these Work Permit workers. They can go to community visit?

Elandur: Ya, can.

TWC2: How they go? Very easy, is it?

Elandur: Very easy.

TWC2: Like how they do?

Elandur: He no need to like this, exit paper. [Elandur points to his paper-based Exit Pass]

TWC2: But they must apply for pass, on the phone?

Elandur: Apply sometime, some people say no need to apply pass also.

TWC2: Then they just walk out, just scan the … just scan…

Elandur: Can go

TWC2: Just scan and go already. Just scan and go.

Elandur: Ya

TWC2: I see.

Unlike Vachan, it doesn’t seem as if Elandur ever asked the MOM ACE officer at his dorm – assuming there was one stationed there – whether he could go out. In his case, it was the security supervisor at the dorm who stopped him, saying that Elandur’s employer did not allow him to leave the premises. Elandur was told to contact his boss or manager to sort things out, but as he tells us here, this was not possible since his phone number had been blocked by the company. They did not want to take his calls.


TWC2: But for you, after you go into this Tampines dormitory, for how many days you cannot go out?

Elandur: I think fifteen days.

TWC2: About fifteen days. Did you want to go out?

Elandur: Ya, I many time request.

TWC2: Request…. You ask who when you request

Elandur: Security

[interruption spliced out]

Elandur: He say you cannot go out.

TWC2: Did he give you a reason why you cannot go out?

Elandur: He don’t give any reason. He say only your company say you not allowed to go out

TWC2: He said your company not allow [you to] go out.

Elandur: That’s why you cannot go out.

TWC2: I see. So did you try to contact your company, your boss or your manager?

Elandur: I try, but I cannot contact because my number is block already.

It is quite often the case that, after a worker has filed a claim against the employer, the relationship turns sour. Yet, in Elandur’s case, it wasn’t until the workers were moved to a dormitory before he was singled out for retaliation (confinement).

Prior to that, he and his co-workers were in private accommodation in the Kaki Bukit area. In the next segment of the conversation, Elandur describes those months when they were housed there.


TWC2: What kind of place was it? Was it a dormitory, or was it a house or what?

Elandur: This is not dormitory, this is our company house, lah.

TWC2: Company house, like how many stories does it have?

Elandur: Three stories.

TWC2: Three stories. Is it the company office, or?

Elandur: No, not the office. Downside is the company store…

TWC2: And the workers stay where?

Elandur: [Levels] Two and three – workers stay.

TWC2: So, you stay there, were there other workers also staying there?

Elandur: Ya, ya.

TWC2: I see. And then you were injured in… er… which month was the accident?

Elandur: November 19, last year.

TWC2: Last year. November 19th of 2021.

Elandur: Ya.

TWC2: And even after the injury, you continued to stay in the Kaki Bukit house, correct?

Elandur: Yes.

TWC2: When you were staying there with the other workers, could you go out to visit the community? When you were staying in Kaki Bukit?

Elandur: Yes.

TWC2: How you go out?

Elandur: Go out… there not security [officers].

TWC2: No security. Because it’s a company house?

Elandur: Ya, company house.

TWC2: So you just open the door.

Elandur: Just open the door and can go.


We have a third example in this article. It’s not a voice recording but it’s a screenshot of a WhatsApp exchange between a TWC2 client whom we will call Luthor and his former supervisor in the company where he had worked (before the accident). Luthor had an upcoming hospital appointment – something that is considered as an essential errand. Under the complex rules then operating, or what passed as rules, Luthor could not make the exit application himself; the company had to apply for him.

Prior to this WhatsApp exchange, Luthor had asked his former supervisor to ask the boss to make the application. On the day  of the appointment, Luthor discovered that there was no pass ready and waiting for him. As is obvious from the WhatsApp exchange, Luthor then enquired with the ACE officer at his dorm who told him that the company had not made an application.

Instead of doing what was necessary given that it was an essential errand, the ACE officer left it at that. Luthor found himself barred from leaving.

The conversation ended with a twist. It turned out that the boss was out of the country and there was no one else in the company to make an exit application. This only shows how, even when no malice was at play, men were still trapped in dorms.