The following is  a letter sent to the Straits Times forum by Ms Stephanie Chok in response to the report, “Jailed for 10 weeks“.

Dear ST Forum,

I refer to the report ‘Jailed for 10 weeks’ (ST, 25 May 2009), in which a Chinese national was jailed for attempting suicide at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). 

While not condoning rash and dangerous acts, it remains critical to interrogate the circumstances that drive individuals to such drastic measures. 

As a citizen concerned about the wellbeing of workers, I have spoken to many China workers embroiled in work-related disputes. A common thread in many accounts is the apathy they encounter from MOM staff and the multiple barriers to procedural justice. 

On one occasion, a construction worker from Jiangxi recounted how, after countless attempts to seek assistance for unclaimed wages, he commented (in frustration) that he may as well just jump because it seems pointless. The MOM officer said: “You can go and take a jump for all I care.” The worker asked, “Just to be clear, you are saying you do not care at all about our affairs?” The MOM officer replied: “Yes, you can say that.”

Another worker, a farmer from China who speaks no English, went to the MOM with a severe injury, which his employer did not report. He was given a scrap of paper with a URL scribbled on it, with no other explanation. The worker was thoroughly confused and asked me if it was the address of a hospital. 

I have also heard stories where MOM officers have mocked, ignored and talked down to workers. I have personally witnessed an MOM officer yell at workers for daring to seek assistance from ‘outsiders’, and the same officer refusing to allow workers to speak during settlement meetings. 

A worker driven to attempt suicide is most likely an individual who is desperate rather than criminal-minded. While risky acts that endanger public safety must be deterred, it seems misguided to punish Mr. Zhao without giving due recognition to the underlying factors that drive one to such acts. 

From my experience of speaking to China workers in distress, bureaucratic indifference compounds the frustration for debt-laden workers under immense pressure to resolve disputes swiftly, often living in poor conditions and with dwindling financial resources. My guess is that much more than a jail sentence, empathy, professionalism and sincere efforts to ensure procedural justice will go much further in ensuring worker justice and public order. 

Ms Stephanie Chok Juin Mei

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