By Andrew Loh
On Wednesday, just after lunch time, they came for him at the dormitory. “Pack up your things,” he was ordered. Being a migrant worker in Singapore, he did not want to risk any trouble and did as he was told. His colleagues were too afraid to do anything to help him and could only look on.
He was put in a mini-bus, and was guarded by three men from apparently a repatriation services company engaged by his employer. Destination: unknown. The trip, he says, lasted about half an hour. Being unfamiliar with Singapore, he did not know where he was being taken, and was naturally afraid. “The men looked fierce,” he said later..
When they arrived at the destination, he was led to the second floor of the building. There, he was put in a room which he said was dark with just a small light, and he was told by one of the men, “Your boss will come and sort out matters with you.”
Feng Jing Long, 40, hails from Jiangsu, China. He had arrived in Singapore in October this year and started work with WS Builder Construction.
Things started to turn awry when his employer failed to pay his salary for November. “He said he will pay me the salary only after 20 January next year,” Feng said. Unable to get his employer to pay him, he resigned on the 18th of December. The next day, the three men arrived at his dormitory and took him to what appeared to be a holding room at the unknown address.
After five hours, his employer arrived and told him that he was going to be repatriated. “He also said he is going to deduct S$500 from my salary for going on an ‘illegal strike’, and S$230 for the air ticket,” Feng said. The salary owed to him was more than S$1,000 then. The deductions would have left him with a few hundred dollars to bring home.
Feeling intimidated as he was alone with his boss and the other three men there in the room, he did not object to what his employer said. His boss told him he would pay him the rest of the money at the airport.
At around 7.30pm, they drove him to the airport at Changi for his flight to Guangzhou at 9.30pm.
There at the airport, the men from the repatriation services tried to force him on the plane. Feng refused to do so. “Back in that room, I can’t do anything as there was no one else around,” he explained. “At the airport, it’s different. There are more people around, and there are also security guards.”
Another reason why he refused to get on the plane was because the air ticket was to Guangzhou, in the Southeastern part of China, whereas his home is in Jiangsu in the eastern part of China, which was quite some ways away.
“They threatened me,” Feng says, “that if I don’t get on the plane, I will never be able to come back to work in Singapore again.”
Soon a stand-off between him and the three men and his boss ensued.
In the meantime, his friends who had felt helpless when Feng was taken away had by this time contacted the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a non-governmental organisation which provides aid to migrant workers in trouble.
After being informed of Feng’s situation, Luke Tan, a social worker with HOME, then rushed down to Changi airport. It was about 9pm then. He recognised the men from the repatriation services company – “A Team Services” – as he has dealt with them before on another occasion.
Tan then tried to negotiate with them to allow him to bring Feng back and settle the matter without having to have Feng repatriated. They refused. One of the men had by then called the police, claiming that Feng had instigated “a riot” in the company and needed to be sent home.
Tan, who said the repatriation services men behaved aggressively and in an intimidating manner towards him, then sought the help, through the phone, of an officer from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
Eventually, the police – which had initially agreed with the employer that the employer had the right to repatriate Feng – relented after speaking with the MOM officer on the phone.
Tan was thus able to bring Feng back to the shelter run by HOME. It was close to midnight by then.
The next morning, Feng went to MOM to lodge a formal claim, and to apply for a special pass to remain in Singapore while his case is sorted out. A mediation session has been scheduled for 3 January next year.
This is not Feng’s first trip to Singapore. He has worked here, for different periods, since 2007, and he has never had any problems with his employers.
All five of his friends whom we spoke to said they too were owed salaries and overtime pay, ranging from more than S$1,000 to more than S$3,000. They also said they were not the only ones whose salaries have not been paid. There are about 20 more workers in the same predicament, but only the group of them has stopped work.
Salary dispute aside, this incident raises other more disturbing issues such as the easy manner by which employers can deport their employees, and the lack of protection for these vulnerable foreign workers.
Stories of how repatriation companies are engaged to round up “troublesome” workers and forcefully deport them have been highlighted previously.
Indeed, MOM has pledged that “it will not hesitate to take enforcement or administrative action, such as debarment, against any employer who attempts to repatriate or repatriates his foreign worker before settling employment issues such as salary and work injury.”
In parliament on 21 November 2011, the then-Minister for Manpower Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that to wrongfully restrain or confine foreign workers is criminalised in the Penal Code.
The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) also says unless requested by the Controller of Immigration or the Controller of Work Passes, the employer shall not repatriate the foreign employee when that would frustrate or deny any existing or potential statutory claim by the foreign employee for salary arrears.
It would thus seem that Feng’s employer has contravened the law and committed an offence on several fronts. Nonetheless, one wonders how, as Mr Tharman said earlier this year, the “MOM and the Police will ensure that the worker is not confined against his will” when such repatriation is allowed and could be carried out without the knowledge of the authorities.
When this writer met with Feng and his friends, they all said their work permits were with their employer – and so were their passports too. Withholding these personal documents of the workers is an offence under our law as well. When this writer asked if they knew that their employer is not supposed to do that, the men seemed uncertain and unsure of what our laws say.
Under the EFMA, employers can unilaterally cancel their employees’ work permits, which would then be used to intimidate the workers, since without a valid work permit they would effectively be considered illegal overstayers in Singapore.
Repatriation companies are a threat to the safety and the rights of foreign workers, and can be easily abused to the employers’ advantage. They must be abolished, if, as the Acting Minister of Manpower said on International Migrants Day on 18 December, we are serious about protecting foreign workers.
"We are not pro-employer or pro-worker – instead, MOM strives to balance the employer-worker relationship while ensuring vulnerable workers are not disadvantaged,” Minister Tan Chuan Jin wrote on the Manpower blog. “These workers, who may not be as familiar with the laws and avenues for help here, are vulnerable. Their rights should and must be protected.”
It is heartening to note that the minister recognises the rights of these workers and is committed to protecting them. And that really is the nub of it – protecting the workers. It is not really about punishing the employers after the fact, which does not really benefit the workers, although certainly the law must be adhered to.
But how do you protect foreign workers if we allow gangster-like outfits to operate within the bounds of the law, where they can – legally – round-up workers, bundle them into vehicles, driven to unknown destinations – at any time of the day or night – intimidated, silenced, isolated, confined, and then deported without the knowledge of anyone else?
“Do you all feel afraid as well?” I asked Feng’s friends. “Are you afraid that your employer will next repatriate each of you?”
“Of course!” came the swift reply from all of them.
Where then is the protection for these workers which we talk about?
PS: In 2009, Jolovan Wham, then-Executive Director of HOME, wrote an expose on what these repatriation companies do, and some of their questionable tactics and behaviour. Read it here.