Broken Promises

By Amelia Chew & Isaac Tay

During our internship at HealthServe, we came across a worrying new “trend” after interviewing 10 workers* for a legal research paper. We found that an increasing number of workers are being brought to Singapore with the promise of work, only to find themselves out of work after a few months, or with no work at all.

Employers typically fabricate stories to explain the lack of work, such as a shortage of projects or no financial means to continue hiring the workers. Theses workers are left with no choice but to look for alternative work in order to pay off the huge debts incurred to come to work in Singapore and so that they can continue supporting their families.

Oftentimes, the workers are not aware that it is illegal to work for another employer other than the one stated on their work permit. Their lack of understanding of local employment regulations is exacerbated by the fact that most of them understand little or no English. And with most employers encouraging or granting the workers “permission” to look for work independently, it is not difficult to understand why most foreign workers labour under the delusion that they are allowed to work for another employer, as long as they have a “valid” work permit.

Errant employers generally hire these workers at a higher pay rate than their legal foreign workers, as it allows them to circumvent the work pass restriction, which limits the number of foreign workers employers can hire based on the number of local workers they have. Even at these higher rates, foreign workers are still “cheaper” to hire than the local workers.

 Problems arise when errant employers take advantage of the situation by refusing to pay their workers. Often, such workers are left without remedy as they face potential prosecution if they attempt to claim back their wages through the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Going through the legal route is also fraught with problems of illegality. More often than not, workers will choose to forgo their hard-earned salary.

 Hailing from countries with legal systems and practices different from Singapore’s, migrant workers often face significant challenges navigating the complexities of an unfamiliar environment. The information asymmetry between foreign workers and their employers leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Enforcement is also weak in many instances. The confluence of these factors has resulted in a systemic black hole where foreign workers frequently fall through the cracks.

*To date, there have been 20 more similar cases.

Amelia and Isaac are second-year law students at NUS, and had interned with HealthServe for a month.

The Window

I was brought up in a rural area in Southern Taiwan. When I was in senior high school, Philippine migrant workers were the first foreigners to find work in Taiwan. My classmates and I were always keen to "spot" a migrant worker so that we could practise our English with him. For us, migrant workers opened a window to the outside world in our small island of Taiwan. At HealthServe, a group of Chinese migrant workers come every Sunday to learn English from volunteer teachers, of whom I was one. In class, besides learning and practising basic conversational English, they also shared their stories - stories about why they decided to work in a foreign land and how they coped with less-than favourable labour conditions. If learning English means for them a way to better fit in with Singapore society, their stories, on the other hand, offer me a peek into their world. Mainland China and Taiwan have been isolated from each other for decades; we did not have connections with people on the other side of the Taiwan Straits until recently. These migrant workers opened a window for me to the reality of overseas Chinese labour migration. Interestingly enough, and somewhat ironically, English serves as a medium again. I leave for Taiwan with new perspectives on Singapore, China and migration.

~Tseng Han Sheng

Humility Through Art

I have facilitated creative art classes for youth and young women, but never for a group of middle-aged men, specifically Chinese migrant workers, most of whom are now jobless because of a work injury or a salary dispute. The men were reluctant to draw initially, citing reasons like they've not held a colour pencil since they were kids. I decided to take a different approach during the first lesson instead of drawing, I got them to talk about life back home and how different it is from life here. There was a torrent of comments, and arguments even. Then I got them to draw things that make them happy. Gradually, they unleashed their creativity, which is at its best whenever they draw their homes in China. The lessons have been going on for some two months now. My classes aren't so much about learning skills and techniques as they are about using art to express one's thoughts, feelings and ideas. As an art facilitator/educator, I realised the importance of learning the thought portals to which my participants "the migrant workers" were able to articulate themselves. I learned to connect with them through conversations about their work, families and homes. It is always a nice surprise to view some of their unconventional and interesting drawings, and how their thought processes influence their art pieces. Their artworks were eye-openers to their lives in Singapore and in China, with many images depicting individual hopes and dreams. I am grateful that these men gave me the opportunity to work with them. While I was the "teacher", I was also a student who learned from their experiences. It humbles me whenever I look at their pictures and think about their struggles and anxieties. Yet, despite their hardship, they never fail to break into a grin whenever I ask them to share about their drawings.

~Tai Shuxia