~by: Jolovan Wham~
First call for help
In 2005, barely one year after I started my job as a social worker, I received a call from an Indian shipyard worker who complained that he and his colleagues were trapped inside a room and were unable to leave, despite requests to the men who locked them up to release them. Earlier in the day, they were seized and manhandled by several burly men and forced to enter a vehicle. After that, they were driven to a shop house and told they would remain there until their departure to India. I learned from the workers that their employer had decided to cancel their work permits and engaged the services of these men to repatriate them. As we received more of such cases over the years, the migrant worker NGO community started calling companies that engaged in such activities ‘repatriation companies.’ When I received the call for help from that Indian worker, I had no idea what ‘repatriation companies’ were. But I managed to get the address of the place they were locked up in and decided to find out for myself. When I arrived, I spoke with Mr Peter Ng, the owner of A Team Repatriation Services, and he told me that the workers were being terminated because they had ‘attitude’ problems. The workers were all huddled together in a room with mats on the floor for them to lie on. They could move about freely in the premises but were not allowed to leave it. When he refused to let them out even after I had negotiated with him, I decided to call the police for assistance.
The Police and the Ministry of Manpower Respond
When our boys in blue arrived, they laughed at me and said that this company was operating a legitimate business. Immediately, I questioned how confining someone against their will was a legitimate business activity. When I pointed out that the penal code criminalises wrongful confinement, they asked me if I was willing to indemnify the employer’s $5000 security bond if the workers went missing. I argued that the security bond and the wrongful confinement of the workers were 2 separate matters and it was not the responsibility of the police to protect the employer from the forfeiture of the bond. They ignored me, and after exchanging a few cursory remarks with Mr Peter Ng, they left the scene and refused to take any further action.
Since then, the migrant worker NGOs have received calls from many foreign workers, both men and women, who complained of being seized and locked up inside repatriation companies. In 2008, a Chinese construction worker told me that despite repeated phone calls to the police to be released, they refused to take action. When I brought the worker to lodge a complaint against UTR Services Pt Ltd, after he had been confined by them for almost a month, it took a lot of persuasion before the police finally decided to allow the worker to lodge a report. Even after the report was lodged, no further action was taken against the repatriation company.
According to Manpower and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam ‘the number of complaints made against the handful of repatriation companies has also remained small over the years. Since 2010, MOM and MHA received seven complaints against three such companies, a fraction of the approximately 16,000 non-domestic work permit holders repatriated to their home countries in that time.’ In an interview with AFP, Ravi, the owner of UTR services Pte Ltd said that his company repatriates an average of 2000 workers a year. Therefore, just because MOM and MHA only received 7 complaints since 2010 does not mean that workers are not aggrieved about being locked up and sent back. In many of these cases, the workers would have been intimidated into submission through threats. They would have been told there is nothing they can do because their work permits have been cancelled. In some other cases, their hand phones were confiscated that they were unable to seek help. Those who pluck up sufficient courage to call the police would have had their pleas fall on deaf ears.
Another incident happened in September last year. A Chinese migrant worker was locked up for 2 days at A Team Repatriation Services. He had a work injury and his employer was unhappy that he was giving her ‘problems’. The worker was told to meet his agent near where he lived to settle any outstanding issues he had with the employer. However, when he arrived, he was caught by men from the repatriation company. When we called the police, they refused to order the repatriation company to release the worker. I pursued this matter all the way to the Attorney General Chambers Office only to be informed by them that they are not taking any further action.
In most of the cases I have handled, I usually sign a letter stating that I would indemnify the employer $5000 should the worker go missing before the repatriation company grants the worker’s request to be released. This year alone, I dealt with at least 3 workers whose cries for help were ignored by the Police. When we brought these workers to lodge complaints for wrongful confinement, they were reluctant to accept them. Had the workers not been accompanied by a Singaporean who insisted the police accept their claim, they would have left without making a report. In parliament last week, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that ‘the government takes seriously all cases where members of the public, workers or NGOs claim that repatriation agents may have breached the law. If the worker is confined, MOM and the Police will ensure that the worker is not confined against his will and that his issues are addressed in a timely fashion.’
It is impossible for us to take this statement seriously when this is not the response of the authorities to migrant workers on the ground. While MOM will assist the workers with salary and work injury compensation claims, their response towards workers complaining about being locked up is woefully inadequate.
MOM, Police and SCDF to the Rescue?
Last week, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) together with the Police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) conducted a ‘Joint Proactive Enforcement Inspections on Repatriation Companies’
Photos of Joint Inspection on repatriation companies conducted by MOM, SCDF and Police
In a statement issued by MOM, they said they did not find anyone who was wrongfully confined, or had any outstanding employment issues during the inspection. They also said that ‘MOM and SPF will ensure that anyone who breaks the law will be taken to task. To ensure perpetrators are held accountable for their actions and workers are rendered assistance as soon as possible, foreign workers who are locked up in repatriation premises should contact the Police by calling 999 to seek assistance.’
Platitudes such as this, which urge workers to call the police, sound hollow and empty when they have been trying in vain all these years for the police to take their complaints seriously. Moreover, what was the purpose of this joint inspection? What were the authorities expecting to achieve? Were they hoping to find workers who were wrongfully confined so that the repatriation companies could be prosecuted? If this is so, why have the Police been ignoring workers who call 999 for assistance? Why are they so reluctant to allow workers to lodge complaints of being wrongfully confined after they have been released from the repatriation companies? Just one inspection does not negate the fact that there were many more workers in the past who were confined against their will and forcefully repatriated.
This joint inspection also reveals a poor understanding of the power imbalance between workers, their employers and the repatriation companies. Repatriation companies often use threats of blacklisting, jail and cane for overstaying offences to confine workers against their will. Did the enforcement officers interview the workers in the premises of the repatriation company, or worse still in the presence of the repatriation company staff? Were the workers brought to a neutral place to be interviewed with translators who spoke their language to find out why they were living there, and how they ended up there? How was the inspection conducted, how were the questions asked, and what kinds of questions were asked? To conclude that ‘no infringements were detected’ based on just one inspection conveniently ignores and belittles the efforts of migrant workers and all those in the NGO community who have tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade the authorities to take the issue of wrongful confinement more seriously.
Why Repatriation Companies Continue to Exist
On November 19th, Channel News Asia reported that an average of 3 workers a week went missing and some employers were even offering rewards for missing workers who were found. Employers go to great lengths to locate missing workers because they fear losing their $5000 security bond. I have no doubt that repatriation companies will soon go out of business if MOM and ICA did not impose security bond requirements on employers. Workers do not decide to run away and risk being jailed and caned for overstaying offences because they enjoy annoying their employers and getting caught by the authorities. Many of them have strong ties with their own communities with loved ones back home to support. Poor employer-employee relations, ineffective dispute resolution methods and exploitation are the key reasons many workers decide to abscond. They often complain of employers who assault, verbally abuse them, and terminate their services when they bargain for better working and living conditions, or when they make enquiries regarding their salary or other employment related issues. Some employers insist on repatriating their workers even though the worker in question had paid thousands of dollars in agent fees and has not earned enough to recover his or her losses.
Singapore’s employment laws, which do not provide effective redress for wrongful dismissals, and allow the unilateral cancellation of work permits by employers, are among the reasons workers leave their employers after a dispute. The $5000 security bond condition imposed on employers is a punitive method of controlling workers, places an unfair burden on employers, and does not deal with the root causes of workers who decide to abscond. If employers are worried about this, they should recruit workers through ethical channels, pay them properly, and handle work place conflicts professionally. Progressive labour laws and proactive regulatory oversight over exploitative practices will also provide better protection to migrant workers and reduce risks of workers ‘running away.’
Repatriation companies and security bonds exist because we want cheap labour but refuse to deal with the problems which are a result of treating human beings as exchangeable commodities, other than taking short cuts and punitive measures to resolve them. The political will to close them down is weak because the authorities are convinced that repatriation companies play a useful social control function. It is easy for politicians and bureaucrats to turn a blind eye to this because for every foreign worker who has to suffer the indignity of being captured, confined and forcefully repatriated, for every foreign worker whose dream of a better life is shattered, there are a thousand more waiting in line for an opportunity to work here.
Jolovan Wham is the Executive Director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) which responds to the special needs of migrant communities.