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Justice Without Borders – helping migrant workers amongst us

By Ghui

Migrant workers have made an indelible contribution to the development of Singapore. From building the bulk of our infrastructure to facilitating the family unit through helping us look after our old and young, migrant workers continue to play a vital role in our day-to-day lives. Recently however, the issue of the rising numbers of foreigners in our midst have hit the press for all the wrong reasons. They have been linked to transportation congestions, job competition and rising housing prices. High profile occurrences such as the Little India riots have also brought public attention to the plight and livelihood of the foreign workers who live amongst us.

Individuals such as Jolovan Wham have tirelessly fought for underdogs in our society but much remains to be done. As we speak, there are many incidences of foreign workers falling through the cracks of our system. For instance, many of our low wage migrant workers face an uphill battle while attempting to claim the most basic of benefits such as injury compensation, medical leave wages and medical treatment.

Many of such workers are also exploited through a lack of knowledge of their rights with no system in place to educate them of what they are entitled to in the first place. This is exacerbated by limited access to legal representation. This in turn leads to unequal and inconsistent treatment, which breeds resentment, an unhealthy working environment and abuse. It is also important to remember that while facing these frustrating issues, migrant workers are often far from home, in unfamiliar circumstances and earning very low salaries in comparison to most Singaporeans.

More streamlined and stringent laws will need to be put in place to eradicate such incidences of abuse but while these are being lobbied, there are still many avenues to help.

 

Website of Justice Without Borders
Website of Justice Without Borders

Justice Without Borders (JWB) is a regional non-governmental organisation that works to build “transnational lifelines to legal aid” for migrant workers throughout East and Southeast Asia. JWB works with NGOs, pro bono lawyers and law faculties across host and home countries of migrant workers to provide victims of labour exploitation and human trafficking with a viable means of seeking redress.

JWB recognises that Singapore is a key host country in the region. Within the region, Singapore enjoys the reputation of having a strong legal system. With this in mind JWB, which began its work in Singapore, is currently working with the partners it has established locally. These include The Law Society of Singapore via its Pro Bono Department, the National University of Singapore’s Law Faculty, Duane Morris and Selvam LLP and a group of more than 10 lawyers in private practice, and also in migrant workers’ home countries.

JWB has outlined a number of goals for Singapore, including the removal of barriers to legal remedy, growing a network of pro-bono resources that migrant workers can tap on, and provide hands-on casework for Singaporean law students.

Much of this laudable work will take time and require long-term commitment. To kick-start their work, JWB has drawn up a programmatic focus for 2014, which includes a manual for practitioners to bring civil claims on behalf of victims who are outside of Singapore, identifying test cases for cross-border representation, and marshalling legal resources for such cross-border cases.

Such work will require funding and JWB is seeking to raise an initial sum of $12,000 to fund its work.

Donations can be made via Paypal, or via bank transfer to:
Justice Without Borders (Citibank)
Account number: 9250560079
ABA Number: 021000089
Branch routing number: 254070116

To be added to JWB’s mailing list for occasional updates, you can sign up using their online webform.


Justice Without Borders’ aims for Singapore

Remove barriers to legal remedy. Working with their partners in Singapore and in home countries, JWB identifies and addresses obstacles preventing workers from pursuing a valid legal claim in Singapore.

Develop strategic legal research to support Singapore’s pro-bono lawyers, paralegals and non-legal caseworkers in identifying viable legal claims that can be brought remotely once the client has returned home. JWB is publishing a Singapore-focused practitioner’s manual on this topic that is the first of its kind not only in Singapore, but in host countries across the region.

Grow a network of pro-bono resources and connect them with NGOs who directly serve victims. Pro bono lawyers are in short supply in every country. JWB is reaching out to Singapore lawyers new to migrant worker representation to involve them in these transnational cases and to connect them with the organisations that directly serve victims.

Connect lawyers in Singapore and in clients’ home countries while developing home country networks. Singapore lawyers need partners in the relevant workers’ home countries to effectively continue representation. JWB identifies reliable local partners and supports the process of cross-border collaboration, from providing introductions to case filing and ultimately through case resolution. Singapore lawyers are free to continue pursuing the case while clients back home have a reliable local contact who can help liaise.

Build pro bono capacity in Singapore through hands-on casework for Singaporean law students. Singapore law students serve as legal research fellows at JWB, providing valuable research and paralegal skills. In return, students learn valuable lawyering skills while working under supervising law faculty and licensed attorneys. These skills will make them more valuable lawyers upon graduation, while fostering a commitment to community service in the next generation of lawyers.

Justice Without Borders’ programmatic focus for Singapore

Claiming Compensation from Home – developing a practitioner’s manual for remote representation

This manual aims to guide practitioners in bringing civil claims on behalf of victims who are outside of Singapore. It will introduce available legal remedies for those out of country, and how to overcome the legal and logistical barriers involved in bringing civil action remotely.

Following approximately six months of use, feedback from manual users will be collected and the first updates to the manual will be prepared in late 2015.

Identifying test cases in partnership with direct service providers in Singapore

Working with caseworkers at partner organisations, JWB’s Legal Research Fellows will apply the knowhow collected in the manual to identify viable test cases that require cross-border representation. These can include civil claims for unpaid wages, workers injury, tort, and enforcement of judgements or settlements.

JWB is partnering with NUS to screen cases that NGO partners share. JWB staff, along with student researchers and supervising faculty, work in separate teams with each NGO partner. The practitioner’s manual described above will help students and faculty identify potentially viable cases and will guide them in addressing the legal and logistical issues at the earliest stages. Novel legal issues that arise will be documented, addressed, and then added to the practitioner’s manual during the document’s periodic update.

Marshalling legal resources for cross-border cases

Remote representation for migrant workers involves legal claims that are untested at this point. JWB is marshalling a pool of available and willing legal practitioners in Singapore in preparation for upcoming test cases.

The Law Society’s Pro Bono office is JWB’s first contact in gathering pro bono legal aid. We are also actively growing our network of legal practitioners, scholars, and pro bono student researchers in Singapore. Critically, JWB is partnering with the NUS Law Faculty to engage students in strategic research, and intends to expand to SMU Law School shortly. With joint supervision by faculty experts, the law students are providing initial legal research and writing for our legal partners. This lightens the workload for already busy pro bono lawyers, while giving students an opportunity to use their newfound skills in a practical environment. Long-term, these students will become legal resources of their own, whom JWB and its partners can call upon.

JWB is concurrently approaching organisations in clients’ home countries to facilitate representation of the client once he or she has returned home.

Funding needed

Project Expense
Developing the Singapore legal practitioner’s manual$6,000
Outreach to partner NGOs and pro bono lawyers in Singapore$1,500
Initiating legal work on viable test cases with Singapore NGO partners$1,500
Outreach to partner organisations in Indonesia, the Philippines and other home countries$2,000
Administrative costs, including incorporation and setup costs for JWB Singapore$1,000