He fights for foreign workers

Jeanette Tan

Under our "Inspiring People" monthly column, we highlight the incredible journey of one Singaporean who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams too. This month, we bring to you a man who pursues a not-so-lucrative career in helping a very large, but neglected, community.

Once some of you learn what 32-year-old Jolovan Wham does for a living, you might not take an immediate liking to him.

In a nutshell, he works full-time on one mission: to provide support to the expanding community of foreign workers living in Singapore.

As the executive director and one of the founding members of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), Wham has for the past seven years reached out to migrant workers here to help fight for their rights.

Despite the groundswell of xenophobic sentiment among so many Singaporeans toward foreign workers, Wham took particular interest in them, even while in university.

“As a social work student I learned a lot about stuff involving Singaporean families and Singaporean issues, and it struck me that we had so many migrant workers among us and we weren’t talking about them,” he told Yahoo! Singapore. “So it started out as a kind of curiosity for me — what kind of problems and issues did they face? Why aren’t we talking about them?”

With this in mind, he volunteered once a month during his final year with the Commission for the pastoral care of Migrants and Itinerant people (CMI), the only group in Singapore dealing with migrant worker issues at that time. There, he spent two hours on one Sunday of each month at Lucky Plaza getting acquainted with Filipino domestic workers.

A new view on foreign workers

Wham’s interest in foreign workers’ issues was sparked at a young age. Having grown up in a family that hired domestic help, he remembers how his mother was once scolded for “spoiling the market” after deciding to give her Indonesian helper one day off each month.

“Even as a child, I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t want to go to school every day, so why should I expect my Indonesian maid to work for us every day of the week?’ So even back then, that logic made sense to me,” he said.

Why reach out to help foreigners and not locals? Wham dismisses the categorisation of “local” and “foreign” workers, arguing that people should be fighting for the rights of all workers here.

“I see it as a false dichotomy,” he says. “If we didn’t see them as different, we wouldn’t have this situation. They’re easier to bully, so employers continue to hire them because they accept much lower wages. It’s very frustrating,” he adds. “These people literally built this country. Literally… yet the kind of recognition we give them is disproportionate to their contributions.”

Abuse, exploitation, underpayment — Wham says he’s pretty much seen them all. He cites how some Bangladeshi cleaners live, sleep and cook in bin centres, earning about $15 for between 12 and 16 hours of work each day, and how many workers from China are forced to sign outrageous contracts that withhold pay or subject them to punishment, for example, should they file complaints with the authorities.

He says he has lost count of the number of construction workers’ dormitories he has visited, most of which are unlikely to ever sniff acceptable standards of sanitation or hygiene. He shares that one of the worst container blocks he visited required workers living there to squeeze into three beds stacked on top of one another — with 10 of these stacks crammed into a room that fits all 30 beds just nicely, leaving hope of having any available walking space zero to none — sleeping on wooden boards to reduce the number of bedbugs they would have to deal with, should they have mattresses.

He often has to pay late-night visits to the dormitories, where security is not as tight, taking pictures of the appalling state of living conditions so many of them are used to, and frequently submitting them to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), whose representatives he is now familiar with.

“I don’t see myself as a pest. They do!” he says, laughing. “I always think I am giving constructive feedback.

More seriously, he points out, “It’s important to raise awareness, to hold those in power accountable for their actions. I speak out to effect change, to shape attitudes and opinions.”

Working every day, round the clock

His is pretty much a 24/7 occupation, saying he receives calls at 1am from workers on the brink of being forcefully repatriated after being dismissed, and has at times travelled to Changi Airport to help them negotiate with burly, gangster-looking men from repatriation companies.

“They usually refuse to let me talk to him (the worker), so I have to call the police, inform immigration officers of the matter; I have to insist that the workers are allowed to remain behind,” said Wham, who shared that he once sat down with a worker and the repatriation staff for more than an hour, refusing to leave until the latter gave up.

He admits, however, that it is often quite difficult to dispute their being sent back when salary issues or injuries are not involved.

“You get very disheartened, and I’ve had a lot of these kinds of setbacks,” he says. “It’s inevitable, it’s part of the work, and it’s going to be difficult for workers to realise their rights because of the way policies are,” he added.

Since beginning his outreach efforts with HOME in 2004, he has frequently found himself at the receiving end of strange looks, angry phone calls, news of complaints filed with the MOM and more.

“You’re dealing with a lot of people’s anxieties, you’re dealing with people who dislike you, employers who think you’re poking your nose into their business and agencies who say you’re siding with the workers and no one else,” he says.

In HOME’s first three years, Wham says they were frequently visited by angry employers of domestic workers who, with policemen in tow, demanded that they handed over their helpers to them.

Despite the intimidation, which he says he experiences “less often these days”, Wham says he simply explains “very rationally” to the employer that his or her helper does not belong to them, and that there is no law that says a maid is required to stay with her employer at all times.

“There’s nothing they can do. We haven’t violated any laws,” he says confidently.

Impact and recognition

Despite the challenges he and HOME face, the organisation helps between 1,000 and 1,500 foreign workers each year on various human rights issues.

“What we see is probably the worst of the lot,” he said. “We can’t say it’s indicative of the scale (of conditions faced by low-wage foreign workers here), but the fact that these do happen shows that there are gaps in our policies that need to be corrected.”

Yet, he estimates that the number of people HOME helps amounts to less than one per cent of the total number of foreign workers in Singapore now, which he believes should have hit — or even exceeded — one million by now.

“We only see these because they happen to find us,” he adds. “There are so many others out there who probably have no idea we exist.”

Wham’s passion for the cause has been recognised. Two awards were conferred upon him recently — independent political research initiative Think Centre gave him the Human Rights Defender Award, while The Online Citizen at its inaugural awards named him Social Worker of the Year 2011.

His joy at receiving these awards, however, comes partly from the knowledge that they help raise awareness for foreign workers’ plight.

“It adds recognition to the importance of the migrant worker cause. That for me is significant; it’s a cause that’s not very popular… so anything that helps to raise the profile of the issue is good,” he says.

Wham says he is driven by the stories of injustice and mistreatment he hears each day, whether or not he’s heard them before.

“I’m amazed at how I still get shocked and outraged (hearing these stories), even though it’s the same thing every day. I go to work with a sense of déjà vu,” he says with a laugh. “You need that anger, that sense of justice, otherwise it becomes another case… and you don’t do the work any justice.”