Deported, not protected

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Selvan and Kalai were deceived by an agent, threatened by their employer and worked for weeks for no pay. Now, they are accused of working illegally. Kalai must leave Singapore this week, empty-handed. HOME has been assisting these workers with their cases.

Living in Sri Lanka, where the economy has been ravaged by years of civil war, Selvan and Kalai were desperate for jobs that would allow them to earn a living. When their best friend Ravi introduced them to an agent who promised them a high paying job at a Singapore hotel in return for $3,000 each, they borrowed money and pawned all of their families’ jewellery in the hope of a better life.

Selvan and Kalai arrived in Singapore to find that instead of the high-paying hotel job promised to them, they found themselves washing dishes at different restaurants for 12 hours a day. They were not allowed any rest, and given only one meal a day. None of Selvan’s and Kalai’s salary ever reached them; the restaurants paid their supervisor, Bala.

After weeks of unpaid labour in such harsh conditions, Selvan and Kalai were overcome with frustration. They asked Bala to send them back home, but their requests were brushed aside and they were instead promised that their salaries would be paid soon.

Unknown to Kalai and Selvan, they were working illegally as they had no work permits. One month later, Kalai was caught by MOM. Upon hearing of Kalai’s arrest, Selvan decided to surrender himself.

Deeply indignant about their plight, both Kalai and Selvan tracked down Bala’s whereabouts and confronted him, only to be met with threats to kill them and their families. Given that Bala knows precisely where they live in Sri Lanka from the information they supplied to get their jobs, even now, Kalai and Selvan live in constant fear that these threats will be realized.

Kalai and Selvan were victims of deception, with the agent in Sri Lanka abusing their financial vulnerability. They were forced to work for no pay, and threatened with violence when they questioned their employer. They did not receive a single cent for their work in Singapore. They say that they did not know that they were not supposed to be working in Singapore and were cheated by their employer. However, Kalai and Selvan have not been treated as victims of exploitation in Singapore. Rather, they have been investigated. Kalai will be deported from Singapore this week for overstaying his visa.

Kalai’s story highlights the difficulties faced by migrant workers who want to report exploitation by their employers. Faced with huge debts, threats, and the prospect of being deported rather than protected, exploited foreign workers like Kalai and Selvan have little incentive to report the abuses they face.

Kalai must leave Singapore this week and will not be allowed to return to Singapore to work for one year. He will leave empty handed. As Kalai says, he has not even paid for the t-shirt that he is wearing. Kalai is left with dreams of a better life shattered, huge debts, and without any justice. He wanted to share his story in the hope that it would stop other workers falling into the trap that they did.

MOM is still investigating Selvan’s case. He may be eligible to continue working in Singapore.

Update: since this story was published, in response to HOME’s referral, MOM recognised that elements of human trafficking were present in Kalai’s case. MOM stated that Kalai would not be treated as an offender and would be allowed to work in Singapore again. Kalai has now left Singapore.

The names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the victims. To donate to HOME, visit www.home.org.sg.

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