A Second Home

Our migrant brother, K (name changed), is a regular face at HealthServe. One can often catch him bustling around purposefully at our Desker centre – from manning the coupon collection at our Desker Food Project, to joining our migrant brothers in cooking lunch on Wednesdays for everyone else, and even tidying up and cleaning the centre. Although he appears rather gruff and stern, K’s hearty laughter always brightens up his entire demeanor, naturally eliciting smiles from others.

Behind this sturdy dependability and warm laughter, however, hide a quiet pain. For many years, K has worked in the Singaporean construction industry for twelve years without incident, supporting his family back in Tamil Nadu, India. Unfortunately, the year in which he was ready to retire home for good was the very same year a piece of metal from above slipped while he was working, and injured his right arm.

“My arm was bleeding very much,” K recounts gravely. His emotions show through his usually stoic exterior, and his eyes mist over briefly when he remembers what happened. “But my boss no helping me.” His employer was not interested in helping him through his claims process nor paying for his hospital appointments as was expected of him.

Without a steady income, even paying for simple meals became a huge problem for K – let alone larger, more long-term concerns like paying for his two sons’ education. When he called back to tell his family the news, his wife wept bitterly. “Me too,” he confesses, pointing to his eyes. “My eyes, very wet, although I didn’t cry.”

Struggling with these fears, K chanced upon on HealthServe upon a recommendation by a fellow migrant brother. Since then, he has been leaning on the practical help that HealthServe offers, from lunches at our Desker Food Project, to MRT transportation money, and even free haircuts by our volunteer hairdressers. HealthServe also helped him to arrange his hospital appointments, and advised him on what he should do in his claims process. “HealthServe not just help me, but help my family also,” K shares with us. When his income completely dried up and his family was desperately in need of financial support, HealthServe was able to tap into our emergency fund and give him $300 to send home for his family.

More than that, however, HealthServe has become like a second home for him. He enjoys the conversations he has with the HealthServe staff and volunteers, and the different outings and activities. His face brightens up when recalling a recent outing to Gardens by the Bay. He remembers ambling along the beds of delicate flowers in the Flower Dome, snapping pictures and appreciating the view of the bay outside. “I look at the flowers, and I feel changed, I become happier,” he says. “Without HealthServe, I wouldn’t have been able to go to these places.”

Without K, HealthServe would be all the poorer, too. Despite the flexible and malleable structure of HealthServe, one familiar sight that approaches regularity is K appearing at the Desker centre office, cheerfully waving and greeting everyone in the morning before he heads off to the Food Project. After lunch, he would look around to see if there are any needs that the HealthServe office has, and quietly goes over to fill the gap. It is not uncommon to see him voluntarily washing off the bits of leftover rice stuck at the bottom of the gigantic Food Project rice pot, or sweeping the floor and clearing the bin out of his own initiative.

“I’m very happy to meet HealthServe brothers and sisters,” K says, gesturing to the HealthServe staff and interns, as well as the other migrant brothers. “And I want to bring other injured brothers to HealthServe, so that they can get help.” Truly, K embodies the spirit of HealthServe – the spirit of receiving and giving in turn.

Reflections of a Casework Intern

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Singapore Management University (SMU), over 60% of low-skilled migrant workers in Singapore are “likely to be suffering from serious psychological distress” as they wait for their salary or injury claims to be resolved. Facing great financial stress, some of them may lapse back into behaviours like spitting or smoking, which results in a fine when caught.

One recent case is that of Mr Hossen’s* (not his real name); he was fined $300 for spitting the betel leaf (that he had finished chewing) into a drain. This compounded his current financial troubles brought about by a workplace incident. In January 2016, he was using a power tool at work when a part of it dislodged and hit him above the eye through a gap in his safety goggles. His left eye vision has since deteriorated and become very blurry. He persisted working until November last year when his employer decided that he was unfit for work and wanted to send him home. Hence, he has not been working and receiving any income for about 5 months. Presently, he is still undergoing treatment, and the treatment costs impose a greater financial burden on him. Back at home, his parents, wife and young child are relying on him for financial support and he worries about how he is to provide for them. Like Mr Hossen, many other injured workers face similar financial predicaments. Due to the norms that they are accustomed to back in their homeland, and the enormous pressure they face, some of them may unthinkingly commit an offence like littering or spitting.

As a casework intern with HealthServe, I never thought I’d have to fill up an NEA appeal form for a fine waiver, much less do it for a migrant worker. Prior to this, I wasn’t even aware that one could appeal against a fine! Initially, I was rather sceptical of my ability to assist him, as I was new to writing appeals. I was therefore thrilled to receive an email from NEA a week later, informing me that they had withdrawn the notice to attend court (NTAC) issued for Mr Hossen’s spitting offence and waived the fine. It was really heartening to see the look of elation and relief that crossed Mr Hossen’s face when I told him that his appeal was successful. Witnessing how I could, in my own small way, make a tangible difference to Mr Hossen’s financial circumstances reaffirmed my decision to intern with HealthServe. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had thus far to interact with the migrant workers and be engaged in such important and meaningful work.

Stuck in Limbo

Injured at the worksite, given no MC, employer refuses to pay for medical treatment, beat up by hired gangsters and forcefully repatriated. Unfortunately this is a common story we hear time and time again from migrant workers.

Uddin (name changed) is a 27 year-old Bangladeshi construction worker who has worked in Singapore for 6 years. Last year, Uddin was working at a construction site when he fell backwards and injured his spine, back, and shoulder. Although he had severe back pain, his employer only brought him to a private clinic the next day and, like many injured workers, he wasn’t issued any MC despite his injuries. The doctor suggested that Uddin get an MRI if his pain did not subside but despite his pain persisting his employer refused to pay for an MRI.

Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Uddin went to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, paid for an x-ray out of his own pocket and was given 2 months of MC. Uddin’s employer was unhappy when he found out that Uddin had been given MCs without his knowledge, and as a result cancelled his work permit.

Uddin’s employer hired gangsters to bring him to an office where the supervisor locked him in a room and beat him up. The same day they brought him to the airport and watched him until he went through immigration. For many foreign workers, this is the end of the story. Thankfully for Uddin, he knew his rights and approached an ICA officer, showing him the injuries that he had sustained and explaining that he was being forcefully repatriated. The officer issued Uddin a Special Pass and sent him to MOM to report his injury and file a police report.

Uddin approached HealthServe for assistance with his case and social assistance, as he was paying for his accommodation himself and wasn’t being paid any wages. HealthServe was able to mediate with MOM and Uddin’s employer to set up an emergency meeting between the three parties. Uddin’s employer eventually issued him a Letter of Guarantee (guaranteeing that the employer would pay for an MRI). Yet this story still has no ending. It has been over a year since Uddin’s injury yet there has been no resolution for him. He is owed MC wages, has an outstanding police report, and is waiting for an MRI to assess his medical condition.

Like many injured workers, Uddin is in limbo. He is unable to return to Bangladesh until these items are resolved. In the meantime, he reads books, converses with friends, and walks around.

By Jane Zhang

HealthServe was recently featured in a new book written by Joachim Sim, entitled "Giving Time and Treasure: Celebrating Singapore Volunteerism and Philanthropy."

Synopsis: Amid many paradoxes of today, there are many individuals and organisations that are making it a priority to give their time and treasure through volunteering work and philanthropic contributions to help the less fortunate in our community. This book features some of the recipients of the President's Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards in 2014 and 2015, and aims to celebrate and inspire giving that is impactful and sustainable. These outstanding givers share a common sense of humanity and a spirit of care for those in need.

By documenting their achievements and propagating the idea of giving, it is hoped that this publication will encourage more Singaporeans to choose to start their giving journeys for a good cause.

Access the e-book here. HealthServe is featured on pages 89-106.

Giving is, Indeed, Receiving

Internship Reflection
Giving is, indeed, receiving

“Love is not patronizing and charity isn't about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same -- with charity you give love, so don't just give money but reach out your hand instead.”

 ― Mother Teresa

I remember when I first chanced upon this internship I was just looking through my school’s mail wanting to do something that would keep me occupied for the summer holiday. Having a keen interest in migrant workers’ issues saw me contacting HealthServe immediately when the internship opportunity became available, and in no time, I found myself at Healthserve’s office attending a briefing by the volunteer lawyer, Mr Ronald. What I did not yet realise was that this internship was going to change my outlook on life tremendously, especially my perspective on reaching out to the less privileged in society. In fact, my life was to be transformed 360 degrees in this short month of attachment.

Prior to interning at HealthServe, I collaborated with Watsons Farley and Williams to draft an employment booklet for the Thai construction workers in Singapore, and thus have a brief understanding of migrant workers’ issues in general. These include the migrant workers’ salaries not being paid in full or on time, forced repatriations, and payslips problems. Nonetheless, what I had was just textbook knowledge, and its contrast with reality became manifestly apparent in my interactions with the migrant workers at HealthServe. In one of my chats with a Chinese worker, he told me that he expected to get a job with the relevant pay immediately when he reached Singapore, but he did not even receive a job after 2 months. In another conversation I had, a poor worker had to deal with false promises by his employer: he had an IPA which contained the contractual terms of his employment, but they were subsequently not complied with. Hearing all these problems from the migrant workers first-hand made me realise how real the situation of workers being taken advantage was.

Another highlight of my internship was following the case of Mr. Li*, of which I had the privilege to attend 3 court sessions in total. Mr. Li was a bus-driver involved in a bus accident 3 years ago, which resulted in the death of one passenger and injuries to another. While Mr. Li has conspicuously expressed remorse over what appears to be a freak accident that was beyond his control, the Public Prosecution had chosen to charge him with rash/negligent driving, which could potentially lead to a jail term. Following this case intently, I got myself thinking about the current state of the justice system in Singapore and how it should be run: How should the Prosecution proceed if he/she knows that the accused was really innocent? To what extent should Prosecutorial discretion be exercised in terms of formulating charges against an accused? Is it really fair for the accused, a foreigner, to be kept from going back to China for a case that drags on for 3 years – the duration of which could have very well been his term in jail? Seeing real-life criminal litigation in practice really gave me much food for thought.

What really impresses me the most was seeing how dedicated the volunteers at HealthServe were in serving the migrant workers – they are patient, compassionate, and most importantly, genuine in their interactions with the migrant workers. The case workers display empathy when collecting empirical evidence from the workers, UWC students take on a cheerful disposition when the workers turn up at their school for the activities, and the medical social workers exhibited professionalism when attending to patients. In every single event, the volunteers gave their all in serving others, fully evincing Healthserve’s motto of healing, inspiring and bridging communities. From simply observing how they helped the less fortunate, I saw how selfless one’s love for another can be – it was really awe-inspiring.

This was a really good internship experience which fully exposed me to the migrant workers community in Singapore, which, more often than not, is overlooked and neglected. Besides helping out with case work, I had the opportunity to help out with the Geylang Food Project and the MRT Top-Up project, which exposed me to how the NGO functions internally. On other occasions, my translation skills were put to the test as I translated forms and letters for the beneficiaries. All in all, I am really thankful to HealthServe for this wide-ranging experience and I would not hesitate in a heartbeat to volunteer my services here again in the future. 

By Suah Boon Choong, a 2nd year NUS Law student

*name changed for privacy