In this article, we will focus on the last few emails we sent to the Ministry of Manpower regarding the confinement of migrant workers, and shine a light on how they were handled or resolved. These specific examples will reveal how policy is actually executed in real life situations. The picture they paint is not a flattering one.

Before going further, we need to recapitulate the prevailing rules as at June 2022.

Work Permit holders

Prior to 24 June, they were free to go to recreation centres without need to obtain permission. They could apply for an Exit Pass to visit the community. The Exit Pass would be granted (subject to quota) by the government and did not need permission from the employer or dormitory.

Since 24 June 2022, they are free to go out (to recreation centres or community) at any time without need to ask for permission from anyone. The only exception is if they wanted to go to four popular locations, for which they need to apply for a Popular Places Pass via a mobile app.

For background and explanation of terms like “Exit Pass”, “recreation centre”, “community” and “Popular Places Pass”, please see Part 1 of this series.

Special Pass holders

Prior to 21 June 2022, if they had an essential errand to run, the employer should apply for a pass for the worker so that the worker could go out. For other purposes, the worker could apply directly (presumably to MOM’s ACE team) for a paper-based Exit Pass. Nothing was said about obtaining employer or dormitory permission.

From 21 June, Special Pass holders do not need any permission to exit the dorm, whether to go to the nearby recreation centres or beyond. They do not even need to apply for a Popular Places Pass to visit the four popular locations.

For background and explanation of terms like “Special Pass”, “essential errand”, “ACE team” and “Popular Places Pass”, please see Part 1 of this series.

Hafez

Hafez (not his real name) was staying in North Coast Lodge dormitory. We emailed MOM about his plight on 19 June 2022. A few days prior, the dormitory’s security officer had taken away his dormitory pass and told Hafez that he was no longer allowed to leave the dormitory without his employer’s permission. Without the dormitory pass, Hafez was unable to pass through the turnstiles, and could not even access shops just outside the gate. Hafez was told he had to stay inside the dorm till he recovered from his injuries, which he had sustained from a workplace accident, and which recovery could be months away.

Feeling that the confinement within the dormitory was unreasonable and most likely unlawful, Hafez contacted the police by calling 999 to seek assistance. The police advised him over the phone to take the matter to MOM.

In TWC2’s opinion, with unlawful confinement being a crime, the police should have acted rather than merely advised Hafez to contact another government agency.

TWC2 wrote to MOM on 19 June 2022.

Two days later, MOM replied saying that the dormitory pass had been returned to Hafez and that he was “able to move freely”.

Naturally, we checked with Hafez and what he told us was rather more nuanced than what MOM said in their sunny reply. Hafez told us that he was visited by MOM officers on 20 June (the day after our first email to MOM) and despite having his dorm pass being returned to him, was told that he had to obtain his employer’s permission each time he wanted to leave the dormitory. The officers added that should Hafez go out for leisure for more than two or three hours, he would face consequences.

On 23 June, we wrote back to MOM to ask for an explanation why these rules were being imposed. We pointed out that the announced rules at that point in time  – they would be liberalised further a day later, on 24 June, based on a separate MOM announcement – were that Work Permit holders like Hafez should be free to visit recreation centres without any prior permission by anyone and to go out into the community with an app-based Exit Pass without his employer’s permission.

As of the time of writing three weeks later, TWC2 has not received any explanation from MOM.

Nonetheless, Hafez himself decided to ignore these conditions imposed by those two MOM officers, especially since MOM’s official announcement stated that from 24 June 2022, Work Permit holders could go out anytime into the community, except to four popular areas, for which they would need to first apply for a Popular Places Pass.

Hafez subsequently told us that since then, two MOM officers visited him at the dormitory (we believe not the same officers as the 20 June visit) and asked if he was still having problems leaving the dorm. He told them no.

Yeasin

The second case example concerns a worker we will call Yeasin. His dormitory was Kranji Lodge 1.

The dormitory management took Yeasin’s dormitory pass away from him on or around 4 April 2022 and told him he was not allowed to go out without the dormitory’s permission. He received the same instruction from his employer. This coincided with when he sent in a resignation letter, but the company refused to accept his resignation. It should be noted that Singapore’s Employment Act does not give employers any right to “refuse” resignations.

Since then, Yeasin was been confined to the dormitory for three months.

Although Yeasin found the confinement very stressful and demeaning, he complied with the instructions for fear of repercussions from the employer or the dormitory management. Nonetheless, he approached MOM’s ACE officers in the dormitory for assistance, and but no meaningful help was given. The ACE officers’ advice was to speak with his employer. By giving such a reply, MOM’s officers effectively endorsed the moves by employers and dorm operators to confine workers.

TWC2 wrote to MOM about Yeasin’s case on 1 July 2022. By this point in time, Work Permit holders were supposed to be free to go out into the community without need to get any permission, except for four popular areas.

The next day, TWC2 got to speak to the MOM ACE officer at Yeasin’s dorm. The officer initially spoke as if the dormitory had the right to restrict Yeasin’s movement. After we explained to the officer the illegality of the dormitory’s action, he said ‘higher’ people would call TWC2 back.

An hour later, it was Yeasin who called us instead, Yeasin told us that MOM had called him and said he was free to go out anytime he wanted as long as he came back to sleep at the dormitory. However, it sounded like the access card would not be returned to him and he would have to ask the dorm management to let him out every time he wanted to go through the turnstiles.

Three days later, however, Yeasin got his dorm card back. Then, on 7 July, he and Hafez visited our Cuff Road Project – TWC2’s free meals station in Little India – where they told us their dorms were no longer restricting their movements and they were ‘free’.

Zahirul

Unlike Hafez and Yeasin, Zahirul held a Special Pass. Ever since he was injured and put onto a Special Pass (his Work Permit had either expired or been cancelled), he had been told by his employer that he was not allowed to go out of the dormitory in Sungei Kadut Loop. He could only go to his hospital or MOM appointments and would be accompanied by company officials each time.

Unsurprisingly, by June or July, Zahirul was mentally stressed out after being confined for four months. On one recent occasion when he was at MOM for another matter, he took the opportunity to ask if he had a right to go out and he was told yes. This advice would be in alignment with the  “advisory” put out by MOM on 21 June 2022 stating that

Special Pass holders residing in dormitories are allowed to visit any location in the community without applying for a pass or filling in a form. [Employers and dormitory operators] are not allowed to restrict or disallow your Special Pass holders from visiting the community or the Recreation Centres.

However, on 4 July, when he tried to leave the dorm, he was stopped. He approached TWC2 for help and we wrote to MOM on the same day.

On 12 July, MOM officers came to his room to inform him that he was free to go out. However, he had to inform the dorm and employer first and had to comply with a process thus:

  • hand over his Special Pass to dorm security;
  • dorm security would take a picture of him;
  • send the photo to his manager.

All this seemed to serve no purpose than to harass the worker. How MOM can justify and endorse such bullying behaviour is mystifying.

Nonetheless. Zahirul reports that he had since gone out a few times with no major hassle.

Arif

Arif is a late addition to this story. Like Hafez, he was at North Coast Lodge. Also like Hafez’s case, he told us that sometime in June, the dormitory management took away his dormitory access card and said he was no longer allowed to leave the dormitory without the dormitory management’s permission. Arif reached out to us on 4 July and we wrote to MOM on 6 July about his case.

We do not yet know how this is resolved, but the point we make with this example is this: Despite MOM taking action over Hafez’s case and making it clear to the dorm that Hafez should have his dorm card returned to him and his movements should not be restricted – all this in the third or fourth week of June – the dorm obviously did not think to similarly free Arif.

Confusion and/or resistance

What these above cases show (besides how critical TWC2’s help was to these workers’ wellbeing) is how inconsistent implementation is on the ground. By June, the month in which Hafez’s case came to us, the official stance of MOM was already a fair degree of opening up. And what clarity there was in the rules indicated that MOM was in charge of giving permission, not employers or dorm operators.

By July when the other three examples came up, all restrictions had been removed, except for the limitation applied over four popular locations. Yet, as we can see in the examples, not only were employers and dorm operators still confining workers, MOM’s own ACE team officers quite often endorsed their actions.

Was all this due to miscommunication and confusion? Even if we take this more generous explanation, it still says a lot about MOM’s internal communication with its own ACE officers. Did they not get the memo? Did they crush and throw the memo away?

Or was there deliberate resistance at work?

Certainly, with Arif’s case, where he remained confined, with his dorm pass taken away, weeks after senior MOM officials had intervened over Hafez’s case and “freed” him, it looks more like surly resistance than confusion.

Either way, it’s a far cry from the smooth-running machinery that Singapore wants others to believe we are.

Two years of confinement of foreign workers in dorms may have reinforced the belief among employers that they have (or should have) the right to control the movements of workers. They took the cue from MOM who extended the lockdown well past the point when there was no longer any public health rationale for doing so. If MOM does not need any good reason to confine workers, why should we?

Going by how cases continue to surface even after broad announcements are made to give workers the right to move about, going by how each intervention by MOM is on a case-by-case basis – and in these examples, only because TWC2 highlighted them – no one should be so sanguine as to say the lockdown is truly over. There may still be workers hidden away suffering in silence.

It’s like trying to bring a fully-laden supertanker to a halt. There’s a long stopping distance ahead.