TWC2 volunteers Debbie (left) and Elizabeth (right) updating workers’ records at The Cuff Road Project.

TWC2’s The Cuff Road Project (TCRP) began 15 years ago when we came across hundreds of migrant workers who had lost their jobs, been thrown out of their company accommodation and were sleeping rough on the streets of Little India. We didn’t have the budget to provide housing, but we could help with another of their critical needs – meals. Having been laid off, they didn’t have money for that either.

Whilst providing free meals to unemployed migrant workers remains the centrepiece of TCRP, the programme has evolved into something much bigger. Our staff and volunteers on station now help with all sorts of questions and other needs if we can.

Moreover, not only laid-off workers come to us. Even those in jobs come, e.g. when they need to ask someone how to write a resignation letter, or what their rights are in the event that the boss terminates their employment prematurely (not a whole lot, unfortunately), or what to do if they’ve been short-paid their salaries.

This is the second in a series of three posts, in which we profile men who sought help from us recently at TCRP, and also discuss the significance of the particular issues they brought.

No money to make my way to the hospital

Rubel (not his real name) was injured in a work accident, and we had been following his case for some months now.  He had also been on our meal programme (TCRP) in that time.

This evening, his issue was related to money. He had been coming to TCRP at least monthly to top up his EZ-link card (metro fare-card), but he was down to almost no value on the card because he had six hospital appointments in the first three weeks of December, exhausting the stored value. He expected a similar problem in January and so asked TWC2 caseworker Alfiyan for a larger top-up.

Alfiyan explained that he was bound by policy limits. We allow a maximum of $30 for a top-up each month. Alfiyan then referred Rubel to a more senior volunteer who authorised a waiver, giving Rubel an additional small top-up to tide him over to the start of January.

It may be counter-intuitive, but for TWC2 these are good problems to have. In two ways.

Firstly, the policy limit. At TWC2 we are very careful not to be over-generous. EZ-link cards can be used to purchase all sorts of things from shops, and it is even possible to buy beer with these cards – we mention beer with hesitation because we don’t want to stereotype all workers unfairly. The vast majority of them are in fact very responsible with money. Most injured workers have only two doctor appointments a month; the $30 top-up we give out should be sufficient to cover those plus a few other trips to MOM or to see us at TCRP.

It is therefore necessary to encounter one or two cases each month where the worker (such as Rubel) says the amount is not enough because he has more frequent doctor appointments. If we do not see these “not enough money” cases, it will mean our top-up limit is too generous and we are not careful enough with donor funds. So, having that bit of a hiccup over the benefit limit in the case of Rubel is not an inefficiency, but a reassurance to us that the value limit we have set is appropriate.

Secondly, that workers are now mostly asking for transport money masks the fact that they are not routinely asking for rent money or food money. Recall that TCRP was created when we found hundreds of men sleeping rough. For years and years we’ve written about employers shirking their responsibilities; one early example is this paper we wrote in September 2013, Study on injured workers’ housing conditions reveals widespread neglect of employers’ responsibilities.

The same year we wrote about how MOM was quick to punish workers for working illegally to find the means to pay for housing and other essential needs, while the ministry did little about employers’ responsibility to provide the same. See MOM tough on worker, lets employer run rings around laws.

Then in 2017, we mentioned in the post “Sometimes $50 … na, take and go” is what passes for salary the case of Majumder who, as soon as he filed a salary claim, was thrown out of his dorm and his possessions “confiscated”.

We’ve also written about terrible housing conditions even when employers provided housing. See an example from 2011 in Three videos: Inside look at migrant worker housing.

Over the years, MOM has more and more required employers to continue housing injured workers, as well as those with other (e.g. salary) claims. Over the years, too, there has been progress in the quality of living conditions, though it took the Covid-19 pandemic to draw public attention to the problem. Progress has been slow and incomplete – TWC2 is disappointed with the watered-down regulations for dormitory standards, for example.

But if we take the long view, our persistent advocacy has meant real improvements for migrant workers. Almost every injured or salary-claimant worker now benefits from employer accommodation.

Even as MOM began arm-twisting employers to house their workers, there was a time when workers were literally starving while inside the dorms. TWC2 repeatedly heard cries from workers who were required to stay in dorms, but not provided any food. Without work and without salaries, the workers could not buy their own food, nor could they even afford the transport expense to travel down to MOM to lodge a complaint. See Injured worker abandoned without food for two days (2016), and Two injured workers — one unhappy, the other asked to fetch vegetables (2020).

That we rarely hear of this anymore also tells us that our years of advocacy have paid off.

Now we’re dealing with the question of transport expenses. And phone top-ups. These are gaps that still need to be addressed. But the fact that we’re dealing with these issues tells us how much progress we’ve made with housing and food.