TWC2’s Alex Au speaks with three Project Roof clients

A tiny fraction of migrant workers who come to TWC2 for help are what we call “police cases”. Some are facing charges and awaiting trial. Others are merely asked to remain in Singapore because the public prosecutor wants them to be witnesses for a case (in which they are not the accused).

Even those who have been charged are sometimes innocent. We have come across cases where the accused workers were ultimately acquitted. See for example, these articles:

Not guilty, but kept behind bars for want of bail
Acquitted, yet punished – Rahman’s story
MOM’s groundless case takes two years out of Shahidulla’s life, part 2

It would be wrong to assume that just because someone has been charged, that person is necessarily guilty.

In any case, guilt or innocence isn’t the focus of this article. Instead, it is the question of lodgings for the long period they have to remain in Singapore awaiting the conclusion of their cases, whether they are the accused or merely a witness. This can be months or even years.

Some workers are lucky, at least at the start. Even though they’re caught up in police investigations, their bosses keep them on the job. This means that they continue to stay in the dormitories arranged by their employers.

Other workers find their Work Permits cancelled, either because their employers take a prejudiced view of the situation and do not want to keep employees on their payroll once they have come under investigation, or because the worker has been arrested and sent to remand. Because of their low salaries and puny savings, workers struggle to raise bail to get themselves out of remand. Bosses may not be patient and may quickly cancel the remanded worker’s Work Permit in order to free up the quota to hire a replacement. So, when the worker finally manages to raise bail and is released from remand, he finds that he has no job to go back to.

Accused workers will have charges read to them, but court dates are either not yet fixed, or can be postponed. Others are required to be witnesses, but they too have no idea when they will be needed to testify. The police arranges with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) to issue them with Special Passes, so that they may legally remain in Singapore, but there remains a host of issues an ICA Special Pass does not solve.

Among them is the matter of accommodation.

Paragraph 11B of Part III of the Fourth Schedule to the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, says that after cancellation of a Work Permit and until repatriation of foreign employee,

The employer shall ensure that the foreign employee has acceptable accommodation in Singapore. Such accommodation must be in accordance with the requirements in any written law, directive, guideline, circular or other similar instrument issued by any competent authority.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) enforces this for workers whose Special Passes are issued by MOM (MOM issues Special Passes when a worker has a valid claim, e.g. salary or injury compensation, arising out of employment.), but it seems not to be the case for those holding ICA Special Passes. On one hand, a plain reading of the above regulation does not indicate any distinction between the two types of pass, but on the other hand, the argument can be made that it would not be fair on employers to have to house workers when the reason for the workers’ continued stay in Singapore has nothing to do with the employment.

Project Roof

TWC2 has a small programme (“Project Roof”) to extend rent subsidies to workers caught in such situations. However, this programme is limited by how much we get in donations. With workers staying for months and years – they are not allowed to return to their home countries until the police or the AGC says so – Project Roof is stretched to breaking point. In any case, as discussed below, charity is no solution to the problem.

It has even come to our attention that investigation officers (IOs) who have had workers pleading with them for accommodation, find out about TWC2 from other IOs who have dealt with us before, and refer cases to us for help. If this becomes a trend, we won’t be able to cope.

The solution is work

The workers caught in such situations are able to work and want to work. Beyond the matter of accommodation, they need money for food, for transport, for their phone bills, and for their families. The IOs understand this, and most workers tell us that their IOs are supportive of them getting work, but Singapore has many layers of bureaucracy controlling foreigners’ access to employment.

Can I work if I am required to remain in Singapore to assist in MOM investigations?

We understand the need for you to continue working to sustain yourself and provide for your family back home during the period of investigation. You can approach your MOM case officer to apply for a job under MOM’s Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). This will be subjected to approval.

Readers may notice that the above says “assist in MOM investigations”. What if the person is required to stay in Singapore to assist with police investigations? This seems to be a gray area. However, a letter from MOM to the Straits Times, dated 17 January 2017, suggests that this group of workers are also eligible.

Foreign workers who are required to remain in Singapore to assist the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in investigation and/or as a prosecution witness are allowed to work during the duration of the investigations. They could be offered temporary employment under the Temporary Job Scheme.

However, it is one thing for the authorities to say they will permit a person to work, there is still the question of finding a willing employer. Some workers report difficulty in finding a job for that reason. Other workers, despite support by their IOs, report that the barrier is MOM, which does not allow them to work. We don’t have enough cases to discern a pattern clearly, but it seems that those who have been charged with a crime tend to face rejection by MOM.

The point can be made that just because someone has been charged, it does not necessarily follow that he is guilty. As pointed out at the top of this article, TWC2 has seen cases where the accused have been acquitted by the courts. It’s terribly unfair that even before a court’s judgement is rendered, an administrative body like MOM has taken upon itself to mete out punishment, by depriving the person the opportunity to earn a living while waiting for the chance to prove his innocence in court. If the person is ultimately found to be guilty, that person will anyway pay the penalty in due course, including perhaps a period of incarceration during which he cannot earn a living. But to say he cannot earn a living while he waits (many months or years) for his trial is prejudicial, presumptuous and cruel.

TJS for all

The Temporary Job Scheme should be available to anyone and everyone who is required by the State to remain in Singapore for whatever reason. Aside from the morally troubling issue of an an administrative body making presumptions about guilt or innocence and denying admission into TJS, it is also troubling if the State goes no further than offering permission for TJS, but not actually finding the individual a job. Unless the State is willing to say, ‘OK, if you can’t find a job, we will let you go home’, which is hardly likely to be the case, then the State’s responsibility is the full distance, and get him paid work. Otherwise how is the man to live?

If the State does not want to go the full distance, but needs an excuse why not, it may say, ‘The worker didn’t try hard enough, that’s why he can’t find a job after being given permission for TJS; it’s his own fault’.  That would be a cop-out. We need to see things from the employer’s point of view too, especially small businesses (which are the only ones that migrant workers have contacts with). They have only a small number of employees, and it can be disruptive to workflow if one worker has to take the day off to be interviewed for a statement or prepped for the witness stand. Nor has the employer control over the trial date, and he may lose the worker after just a few months – either because the worker is found guilty and sent to jail or his usefulness as a witness is done and ICA sends him home. Even without any element of prejudice, there is the practical question of whether it’s worth the trouble for a small employer to take on an ICA Special Pass guy under TJS.

It is the bigger companies that can take on temporary employees. Losing one such worker among its larger headcount some day down the line is less disruptive.

Since, as we have argued, the State should have a responsibility to find a job for him when he cannot find one for himself, one way would be to leverage the fact that Singapore has plenty of government-linked companies and they tend to be big companies. It should be possible to find jobs for TJS workers in them, e.g. as airport baggage handlers or assistants in hospital kitchens.

There is also the self-interest argument. Workers denied TJS are not going to sit idly by and twiddle their thumbs. They are going to find work one way or another, or they will literally starve. Illicit work in the shadow economy is where they will go. If feeding the shadow economy is seen as a social problem – though an argument can be made why this is not necessarily a social problem, but that’s a separate debate – then it is in the State’s interest to help everyone who is made to stay on in Singapore get a TJS job regardless of the reason for the prolonged stay.