When worker dormitories were locked down at short notice in April 2020 due to rapidly spreading Covid-19 infections, many workers had only their phones with which to stay in contact with your loved ones and the outside world. The sudden suspension of jobs however, meant that they might not be getting any salary and if their credits on their phones ran out, they’d be unable to top up.
TWC2 launched a huge exercise to help as many workers as we could with phone top-ups. Most men got their top-ups electronically, but we also sent volunteers around to hand out top-up cards, making sure we reached as many as we could.
Our free meals programme, benefitting out-of-work migrant workers, is one of the largest of our projects in terms of expenditure. Not only is nourishment essential for human life, this programme creates an easy, welcoming contact point for injured and salary-unpaid workers to come and talk to our volunteers. We are right on the street, and it is not in the least intimidating to walk up and talk to us.
Simple queries can be handled by our volunteers. Workers with more complex problems are referred to our main office where help from social workers will be forthcoming.
Our social work assistance comes under the moniker ‘Social Worker Always There’ or SWAT for short.
Our expert staff provide advice and case assistance to workers in need. Common types of assistance provided by social workers include:
- Calculating what their correct salaries and overtime pay should be and how to file a claim;
- Advising workers about their rights when employers become abusive or unreasonable, including helping workers flee when trapped;
- Helping workers make police reports when assaulted, confined or cheated;
- Assisting them in filling forms and communicating with government departments — many workers aren’t confident in English;
- Overcoming obstacles in obtaining medical care;
- Helping them open bank accounts, or obtaining past statements;
- Ensuring they are paid their due compensation.
As can be seen from the list, our social workers fill a critical need. The salary costs, phone, wifi, training and incidental expenses of social workers, and a share of rent, make up the bulk of this spending.
Another Covid-19 project we urgently launched in 2020 was the Small Essential Needs (SEN) programme. It aimed to help workers confined in their dormitories obtain essential supplies when they could not go out to the shops. It was a logistical nightmare as the needs were diverse — soap, toothpaste, tea, coffee, kettles, clothes, instant noodles, biscuits, fruits… things we take for granted until we can’t get them anymore.
Our volunteers worked round the clock to assemble requests and organise delivery to far-flung places.
We have a small programme to assist workers with the cost of housing.
Housing is supposed to be the employer’s responsibility, but there are cases where the employer has made it extremely difficult (e.g. through threatening behaviour) for the employee to continue living in the company dorm. For his own safety, the worker needs to get his own room in order to keep a distance from the abusive employer. This means the worker needs to pay his own rent. Many of them borrow from friends and relatives to do so.
Those unable to borrow risk being left homeless. TWC2 assists them with rent subsidies. To keep costs within control, the programme operates with extremely strict eligibility criteria.
From experience, this approach of providing subsidies is more flexible than running a shelter in the normal sense, which tends to come with fixed costs and fixed capacity.
During the second quarter of 2020, all the dormitories in Singapore were locked down. Workers outside the dorms and needing to borrow money for rent could not even reach their friends. TWC2 temporarily widened our criteria to assist more workers during the worst of the crisis.
In order to carry out our many activities, TWC2 needs a multi-purpose space. We rent the upper floor of a shophouse in Little India as our ‘DaySpace’.
Among the many uses it is put too are:
- Safe space in the day for workers to rest in quiet;
- Registration of clients and consultation (especially when they come in big groups, too big for our office to accommodate);
- Emergency shelter when workers have had to flee company accommodation in fear;
- Volunteer induction and training;
- Public talks;
- As a location where other charity groups can conduct joint activities with TWC2 (e.g. free medical check-ups).
Effectively, DaySpace is TWC2’s frontline service delivery location that is easy for Bangladeshi and Indian workers to find. It is also a space for organising volunteers and service delivery.
Although employers are required by law to pay for medical care, some injured workers still find difficulty getting treatment. Employers may deny responsibility or fall back on payments. Hospitals may suspend treatment if getting payment from an employer proves difficult. Although the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) does intervene if necessary, this can take months, prolonging pain and suffering or jeopardising a full recovery.
Moreover, during the lengthy period recovering from a work injury, a few workers are hit with an unrelated illness and need to see a doctor or dentist. TWC2 steps in when treatment is urgently needed.
The FareGo project provides unemployed migrant workers with transport subsidies. This is an area where regulations (and MOM) provide no help to workers at all. Employers are not mandated to help foreign workers with their transport costs even though hospitals require them to show up for their doctor appointments or physiotherapy, and MOM itself requires workers to travel long distances to get their passes renewed.
Failure to show up could jeopardise their work injury claims or immigration status. Our transport subsidies provide welcome relief for an overlooked need.
Helping migrant workers claim their unpaid salaries is a major part of TWC2’s services. Our social workers and volunteers are well versed in employment law and in the relevant administrative processes. We assist workers in organising their evidence, filing online and we coach them so that they can present their arguments clearly and cogently. The administrative processes require that claimants must represent themselves.
Even when they win their cases, however, the tribunal orders need enforcement. Or a decision may need to be appealed to the high Court or even the Court of Appeal. TWC2 enjoys the support of many pro-bono lawyers who offer their professional services without cost. However, there are ancillary expenses, court fees, disbursements, etc, that need to be shouldered and these are classed as ‘Legal assistance’.
We choose our cases for their strategic value. For example, in 2017/18, we helped Hasan Shofiqul (above left) win his claim in the High Court for overtime wages. The landmark ruling made it clear that employers cannot shirk their responsibility for paying overtime wages just by giving a worker the title of supervisor without meaningful executive authority.
For the injured and salary-unpaid workers under our care, the Discover Singapore team of volunteers takes them out once or twice a month on excursions and other sports-type activities. This alleviates workers’ boredom (and risk of depression) as they often have to wait months or years for case resolution.
The programme keeps them active and builds social rapport. As much as injured workers need medical care, they also need this kind of support for their psychological wellbeing. TWC2 directs a bit of funding to Discover Singapore for their programmes while the team leading this project also sources for direct support from donors for specific activities.
On Sundays, the DaySpace is given over to two affiliated groups of domestic workers for them to conduct classes. They are the Indonesian Family Network and the Filipino Family Network. TWC2 also helps support their activities with a bit of funding, which comes under the category of ‘Enrichment activities’.
On Sunday evenings, the DaySpace is given over to the Migrant Workers Band so that they have a place to rehearse.
The economic disruption wreaked by Covid-19 means that some workers may lose their jobs with their employers unable to pay them their last salaries. Particularly heartbreaking are cases where the worker has only just started on the job, without yet earning enough to recover his recruitment cost.
There are also workers who have won their salary claims at the Employment Claims Tribunal, but are unable to collect on what they are owed. This can happen when the company has wound up or the boss has fled Singapore.
Starting in late 2020, TWC2 created a programme to assist these workers with some financial relief. It is limited to only $2,000 per deserving case, which may not cover the full extent of their financial losses, but we hope it helps.
Informing workers that assistance is available from TWC2 is a core activity, which, pre-Covid, we conducted one Sunday a month at different parts of Singapore where migrant workers congregate on their day off. The exercise was mostly powered by volunteers and social workers.
During and after Covid-19, workers were strictly confined in their dorms with limited opportunities to come out. In 2020, TWC2 shifted gears to focus on social media channels in order to reach them. Outreach costs include advertising on various social media platforms, prizes and give-aways needed from time to time to keep workers engaged, and the occasional physical event at locations near the dorms.
The above projects do not comprehensively cover injured and salary-unpaid workers needs. Miscellaneous direct benefits include:
- buying an air ticket for a worker stranded in Singapore, with no employer responsible for repatriation;
- giving a worker some money so that he does not go home penniless*
- helping a worker pay a fee to obtain copies of his hospital records, without which his injury compensation claim is stuck;
- helping a worker pay for forensic analysis to prove that salary vouchers tendered by an employer in court are forgeries;
- giving a bit of pocket money to workers who have been thrown out of their jobs because they filed an injury or salary claim, and are left without any income while waiting for their cases to be resolved.
*Unfortunately, not all workers with salary claims succeed in getting paid despite good evidence or their best efforts through the Ministry of Manpower’s claim system. The system is imperfect.
Delivery of the above direct services does not come without administrative cost. We need a General Manager, Communications Specialist and an Administration Officer to coordinate outreach, donations, volunteers and delivery of services. There are also office and printing costs, computers, wifi and communication costs, etc, without which social work or the delivery of assistance cannot be realised.
Providing direct help to workers in need is not the sum total of TWC2’s mission. An equally important goal is to cure the defects in regulations and social attitudes that cause the inequities we see afflicting foreign workers. To this end, TWC2 conducts a range of advocacy activities, chiefly:
- Communication with the public via website and social media;
- Engagement with media;
- Engagement with interested members of the public, including talks given to school or college groups, and with policy-makers
The above naturally come with incidental expenses even if the main part of the work is done by volunteers.