TL;DR – All workers are equal, but some workers are treated less equally than others.
This was posted on the NTUC’s Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) Facebook page yesterday:
If you can’t read the text above,
Acting quickly upon a call to our helpline from a migrant worker, our ops team, accompanied by officers from MOM’s Housing Inspectorate paid a night-time surprise visit to a housing unit within a private apartment block on 6 July.
We found a 4-bedroom apartment, that was reconfigured into 7 smaller rooms using thin wooden partitions. The resultant tight and cramp rooms and artificially created narrow corridors between pose serious fire-safety and crowding issues for occupants, and is exactly the kind of practice that can result in serious accidents or loss of life.
The unit housed 44 workers when stretched to full capacity, with only 2 small lavatories and 1 kitchen for common use. Our team were appalled to hear that residents would cook within their partitioned rooms as it took too much time to queue for the kitchen stove. In the same way those wanting to use the washrooms before work would have to wake up very early to get to the head of the queue to use one of the site’s filthy lavatories.
With no proper laundry facilities, the workers on-site told us that they used the frames of their bunk-beds and any other available space nearby to hang-dry their wet clothes.
The overcrowding, partitioning and obvious over-use of on-site amenities like electrical, water and gas points created serious health and safety issues to the occupants of the unit, and it was abundantly clear that immediate action was necessary. We were abhorred to see the tell-tale signs of roach and bed-bug infestation everywhere, which showed a lack of attention to hygiene and cleaning of the sleeping and storage areas, including inside the unit’s single refrigerator.
Despite such dire living conditions, the migrant worker occupants dared not report the conditions to authorities for fear of reprisals from their employers and being left without a place to live.
MOM is investigating the matter and has compelled the employers of the occupants to relocate them to properly appointed and approved housing immediately. We have urged the authorities to take stern action against the wrongdoers to send a strong message of deterrence to those who exploit dignity and welfare of migrant workers in this manner.
Migrant workers who face similar housing issues should not fear alerting the MWC for assistance. We will respond swiftly and ensure that your identity is protected at all times.
It’s such a shame that such cases are still happening in Singapore where we are supposedly a first world country and we decided to speak to Mr Joshua Sham Lechemanam, the Assistant Director of Operations and Networks at MWC, to find out more.
Did the tip-off come from one of the 44 workers living in the apartment?
Yes, it came from one of the residents in the apartment.
What is the usual process when MWC receives a tip-off like this?
There are several factors that determine our course of action. One of the key considerations is whether there is imminent threat to workers’ safety and/or security. If there’s no such urgency, MWC will conduct inquiries to corroborate the complaints and this can be in the form of visits to the premise if access is not restricted from public or soliciting feedback from workers residing in the vicinity.
Can you share the timeline of events from the point where MWC received the tip-off?
The tip off was received on 4 July. We conducted some preliminary enquiries to gather adequate evidence between the time of the call till 5 July when the worker (who tipped us off) gave me access to extremely compelling evidence. I notified MOM that very night. On 6 July, we coordinated with MOM and we went in with them for the inspection.
Does the police or MOM personnel need to be around for MWC to carry out such inspections?
So long as the premise is out of bounds to public, only authorised personnel or gazetted officers can gain access to the location. Otherwise, MWC, like any member of public, has no right to enter a premise.
Was the employer there when this inspection took place?
No. Employers of the workers (who are from three different companies) were not there.
What can be the maximum charges for the employer if found guilty?
Employers who contravene any of the conditions of the Workpass (which includes the need to provide acceptable accommodation for their Foreign Workers) will be guilty of an offence under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA). If convicted, offenders can be fined up to $10,000 and/or imprisoned up to 12 months, for each offence.
How rampant are such cases in Singapore?
More of such cases are coming to light with workers having better access to help.
What should a member of the public do if he or she spots such cases?
They can contact the Ministry of Manpower at 6438 5122 or email [email protected]. All information will be kept strictly confidential.
What will happen to these workers while the case is under investigation?
The employer would be required to immediately relocate the workers to approved accommodation.
Workers who are living in such bad conditions usually won’t dare to report to the authorities because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Do you have any advice for workers who feel lost in such situations?
MWC is here to help workers in distress and will continue to work with relevant authorities to ensure that their stay in Singapore is not jeopardised as a result of them coming forward with information on employment related malpractices.
Such a case definitely got us thinking.
Why are employers doing this to their workers when they are human too.
Nobody (I assume) will do this to other human beings if given a choice.
Is it a case that they cannot find proper living space for them? Are they doing this to cut cost or increase profit?
Is there anything relevant government bodies can do to prevent this from happening? There is definitely still much to be done here considering the important roles foreign workers play in building our nation.
If you ever spot anything like this, please report it. YOU can make a difference.