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HOME sets up legal helpdesk for foreign workers. Jonathan Koh.

Legal recourse for foreign workers

Jonathan Koh / Reporter

Wallace Woon/Photographer

Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME’s) opening of its new resource center and legal helpdesk promises to give the pursuit of justice for migrant workers a more forceful legal bite.

13 JUNE 2009 -- HER palms were scabbed and peeled – the result of spending over three hours daily, hand-washing all the clothes in the household with strong corrosive detergent.

(Photo: Foreign workers at the open house of HOME’s new legal helpdesk and resource centre.)

Ms Jink Lauron, a 31-year-old is not allowed to use the washing machine. The Filipino maid said: “My employer doesn’t care about my physical condition."

The physical agony did not just stop there. She found it difficult to manage the workload presented by the sprawling four-storey house. There were times when she had to forego sleep whenever her employers invited their friends for overnight mahjong.The employers expected her to remain awake to refill drinks and serve food for the guests. To top it off she found herself under constant monitoring from the CCTV cameras installed in the house.

Unwilling to put up with the distress any longer, she fled from her Singaporean employers two weeks ago to a Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME) shelter.

Mr Lauron’s tale of being overworked and treated inhumanely is not uncommon, certainly not the first nor the last, and neither the worst.

(Photo: HOME’s legal helpdesk/resource center local on Everitt Road is decorated with banners like these.)

HOME houses other domestic workers in the shelter who have not been paid their wages, while some have suffered under the abusiveness of their employers. And that is where welfare organizations like HOME step in to help.

One country, two different sets of laws

Mr Amarinda Singh, a legally-trained professional who works pro-bono on both Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and HOME’s legal helpdesk, recounts an incident in which a foreign worker from Tamil Nadu had met with a serious accident.

The worker had been run over by a lorry and suffered a crushed leg. Put on months of medical leave, the company kindly paid for his medical expenses.

However, when his work permit expired, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) refused to extend his special pass. This meant that the worker had to cease receiving medical treatment and could not receive the money from the civil action suit leveled against the errant lorry driver.

“We went to ICA and MOM and they were just bouncing us off to each other,” Mr Singh said, “honestly, I think there is a different set of laws being applied to locals and foreign workers.”

Legal helpdesk for foreign workers

With an IT Learning Centre and a Language Learning and Lifeskills already established by HOME to empower the domestic workers with IT skills and basic language proficiency, a legal helpdesk and resource center will be the right way forward.

Ms Bridget Lew, founder of HOME, said that “many cases we see here have legal implications. We are aiming to help foreign workers uphold their legal rights.”

There have been cases where many employers received fines for allowing workers to work in unsafe conditions and at premises where they are not supposed to work in, but as compensation to the workers was not legally enforced, Ms Lew informs The Online Citizen that many of the workers return home penniless.

She likens it to “pure injustice”, adding that most foreign workers are too poor to afford legal recourse. The hiring of a full-time lawyer and the efforts to coordinate a pro bono panel of lawyers by HOME signals a major step forward in its advocacy attempts to pursue justice for foreign workers.

The newly opened resource center has a library that stocks over 300 items related to migrant issues on abuse, discrimination, public policy.

Said Mr Singh: “there is a need for something like this for migrant workers, who are vulnerable, defenseless and don’t know anyone in Singapore,”

He also added: “Legal aid is not open to the migrant workers; only Singaporeans would qualify. So if [migrant workers] have problems with employers, most of them would not know how to go about helping themselves.”

Mediation center for employers

The centre will also double up as a mediation center where employers can engage their foreign workers freely alongside HOME staff when there is a need for arbitration in a neutral setting.

Reverend Yap Kim Hao, a Pastoral Advisor to the Free Community Church, graced the opening ceremony. He is gratified that the government is supporting the cause to help migrant workers.

(Photo: There is joy amidst the gloom for these foreign workers.)

He said: “although Singapore is a migrant society, Singaporeans tend to treat migrant workers different.”

The open house also featured a showcase of dances put up by Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers who are now staying at the HOME’s Katong shelter.