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 I was therefore thrilled to receive an email from NEA a week later, informing me that they had withdrawn the notice to attend court (NTAC) issued for Mr Hossen’s spitting offence and waived the fine.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

Mr. Wang's Story

28 September 2015. It was raining heavily that day, recalled Mr. Wang, as he reported to his workplace, a construction site in Punggol. It happened very quickly: an unsupported ladder perched on the wet, slippery floor fell onto Mr. Wang, leaving him unconscious.

Waking up each day has been a nightmare for Mr. Wang (not his real name) ever since he sustained a left wrist fracture and head injury at work. A 35-year-old migrant worker from Hebei, China, Mr. Wang is finally able to recuperate his injuries after an arduous struggle with his employers. Matters such as workplace injury compensation and hospitalization leave plague injured migrant workers in Singapore and Mr. Wang is no exception. According to Mr. Wang, workplace safety was rarely emphasized at his construction site. And among those who were injured, some were not even adequately remunerated, but instead sent back to their home country.

According to statistics from the Workplace Safety and Health Report, 597 migrant and local workers suffered major workplace injury while 66 workers were fatally injured in 2015 alone.

Mr. Wang  initially went to a private hospital for an open reduction and internal fixation paid for by his company. After surgery, Mr Wang did not receive an MC, but was instructed to perform ‘light duties’ instead (workers given light duty are not eligible for pay). Furthermore, his head injury was wholly dismissed by his attending physician as it was not formally reported by his employer to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Mr Wang soon realized that even ‘light duties’ at his construction site were impossible for his current state, and had to return to his physician to request for an official hospitalization leave, which he deserved in the first place.

To his horror, the nurse told him that he could not get an official medical certification as his company did not believe he was too injured to work.

“I was angry that the hospital was following the company’s order instead of relying on the doctor’s medical judgement.” Mr. Wang said as he thought about the troubles he had to endure since his injury began.

Many migrant workers leave their hometown and loved ones to travel thousand of miles to a foreign land hoping for a better tomorrow but are only rewarded with betrayal when they arrived. They live in dormitories with horrid conditions and have to work up to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Mr Wang himself is the sole breadwinner of his extended family. Promised a higher salary and better living conditions, Mr Wang travelled to Singapore 3 years ago to provide for his wife, 2 children and his parents. Before his injury, his pay was decent and on-time; After his injury, Mr Wang’s employer frequently delayed his pay and denied his injuries. Mr. Wang aptly said that, “The moment I got injured, we (he and his company) became enemies”.

Mr Wang was introduced to HealthServe by his friends after his ordeal, and has been a prominent member of HealthServe’s community since then, where the organization helps injured migrant workers financially, socially, medically and legally. HeathServe has helped Mr Wang with liaising with MOM to investigate his workplace injury compensations and the legal documentations required. Mr Wang now visits Healthserve more than 20 times a month and is passionate in helping out as a volunteer in Healthserve

“I want to be able to volunteer in HealthServe, and help out others like me just like how they have helped me.”

Since its inception in 2007, HealthServe has helped over 5000 migrant workers in cases concerning basic healthcare and legal matters. From its humble beginning in Geylang, it has now expanded to 3 clinics in Singapore. However, its work is never done as there are thousands more out there similar to Mr. Wang.

Unless society as a whole can change their mindset towards migrant workers, we will never be able to achieve justice for them. As the great Ghandi once said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. Healthserve has taken the first step in initiating a change in the Singaporean stigma against migrant workers, and hopefully their concerted efforts will pay off to close the gap between the treatment of the marginalised workers and that of locals.

By Zou Xiangyu, Tan Chek Han, Seah Raynian, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine Students