In mid-2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Cuff Road Project also served as a distribution point for essential items to workers staying in the Little India area. Here, TWC2 volunteer Krithi passes a bagful of items to a worker.

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.

In this series of three posts, we profile three men who sought help from us recently at TCRP.

For the past five months, I was paid in rupees, what can I do?

Kayan (not his real name) had a whole cluster of problems. At its root, the issue was that he had not been properly paid since he started work with a company five months ago. Recently, when he raised this issue with the boss, he was physically assaulted. So he left the company accommodation out of fear for his own safety and began sleeping rough.

To compound matters, the boss also said something about cancelling his Work Permit and had in fact taken away his Work Permit card. Kayan’s passport had all along been in the employer’s possession, so, he was effectively left with no personal identification on him.

The salary aspect was particularly interesting. The boss somehow managed to contact Kayan’s wife in India and got her bank account number. Ever since then, amounts, purportedly Kayan’s salary, had been deposited in that account. When we added up the deposits, which were in Indian Rupees, we arrived at a total roughly equivalent to Singapore Dollars $1,000.

However, based on what Kayan said was his agreed basic salary (documented in the In-principle Approval), he should have been paid about $3,500 for those five months – just on basic salary alone without factoring in overtime pay.

Kayan had made a visit to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before coming to TCRP, but he couldn’t tell us anything coherent about what transpired while he was at the ministry. He seemed to have left the place unsure what was going to happen next or what to do next. He couldn’t even tell us if a formal salary claim had been lodged.

So, at TCRP, we had to persuade him to make another visit to MOM, but this time to state his issues clearly. We advised him that he should ask to formally file a salary claim, and also get MOM’s help for safe accommodation. Above all, he should ask to speak through a Tamil translator (MOM has translators available) so that he is understood.

This is a developing story, and we don’t yet know how this case will turn out.

What this example shows is that sometimes workers, even after approaching MOM, leave the place as confused and as helpless as when they entered. As to why that is, it’s hard to say. Perhaps it has something to do with the bureaucratic setting or the worker’s own inability to express himself clearly. In Kayan’s case, it took us at TCRP the better part of an hour to get a grasp of his issues, even when he was handled by Lalitha, a Tamil-speaking volunteer who has been with TWC2 for many years and thus can anticipate what questions to ask.

It takes patient conversation with us to help such workers organise their thoughts and priorities, so that they can make another try at MOM.

Fifteen years on from when TCRP began, we may not be dealing with a mass crisis of men sleeping on the streets and going hungry, but there are still many cases of workers with difficulties, yet unsure where to get help. We hope they see TCRP as invaluable.