HOME’s response to COI’s report on Little India Riot

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Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) welcomes the recommendations made by the COI in relation to the rights and welfare of migrant workers. We are glad that the Committee acknowledges the important role that low wage migrant workers play in contributing to Singapore’s economy and community. However, for their contributions to be properly appreciated and acknowledged, they should be given adequate protection so that they are not abused and exploited.  Singapore needs to go beyond the recommendations laid out by the Committee by introducing systemic changes in order to fully realise the rights of low wage migrant workers. In this regard, our comments on specific aspects of the report are detailed below:

Foreign workers are happy

The COI’s finding that every foreign worker they spoke to ‘testified emphatically that they were happy’ with their jobs and living quarters does not take into consideration the fact that the workers may have given socially desirable answers to the Committee for fear of negative repercussions. This is especially so for interviews with workers who were arrested and deported for their alleged involvement in the riot. It would have been more effective if worker’s rights groups and NGOs conducted these interviews.

High employment agency fees

We agree with the COI that greater bilateral cooperation is necessary between Singapore and sending countries to protect the rights of workers and regulate recruitment fees. Singapore should only approve the work permits of workers who have gone through legal recruitment channels in countries of origin. Even though hefty recruitment fees are paid in countries of origin, large amounts are often remitted to employers and recruiters based in Singapore as kickbacks. More oversight and enforcement in this area is needed in Singapore as the problem does not only reside in the country of origin.

Annual increment of salary for workers

We welcome this recommendation but it will not be effective without legislation or a change in mindset among employers. We agree that being paid adequately and fairly is important but legal protections should be enacted to prevent wage discrimination by nationality. Moreover, current policies such as high foreign worker levies are a disincentive for employers to increase their wages. Levies can go up to SGD$1000 for each foreign worker hired. Many employers are already recovering the cost of levies by collecting kickbacks from workers.

The National Wages Council should also state explicitly in their annual report on wage increases that their recommendations also include foreign workers in order to send a strong signal to all employers to take the wage increments of their low wage migrant employees seriously.

Education on employment processes

While education about rights is important, what is vital is that policies and laws which make it difficult to claim those rights should be changed. For example, the unilateral right of an employer to cancel work permits needs to be curbed and the worker’s right to switch employers freely has to be guaranteed. Without these changes, workers will remain reluctant to file cases of abuse.

Sensitivity in dealing with foreign workers

We agree that more training on sensitivity of law enforcement officers need to be done. Over the years, we have heard many complaints from workers that some government officers are rude and brusque to them. We also urge for these recommendations to be extended to employers, as many of cases of ill treatment and verbal abuse are often caused by errant employers.

Improvements to accommodation

The COI reports that housing available to foreign workers in Singapore ranks well in the world; however, we believe this assessment is only true in relation to dormitories which have been built specifically to accommodate foreign workers. According to media reports[1], there are approximately 150,000 bed spaces in such dormitories out of over 700,000 low wage migrant workers in Singapore, excluding domestic workers. Large numbers of workers continue to live in cargo containers, factory converted dormitories, shop houses, private apartments, HDB flats and temporary work sites facilities, including incomplete buildings under construction. These places are often cramped, unhygienic and full of pests. Their living conditions still fall short of international housing standards.

Role of employers and community support groups

We agree that more resources need to be poured into establishing welfare groups and agree that employer groups should consider setting up and funding support communities for migrant workers. Working abroad in new surroundings can be very stressful for many migrant workers and adequate social support is necessary. In addition, there is an important need for independent representation of workers by unions in order for their interests to be effectively promoted, as only 11% of all foreign workers are unionised.

 

Jolovan Wham

Executive Director

 

[1] See for example: http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20121218-390175.html

HOME through the eyes of an intern

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By Arjuna s/o Segathesan

Arjuna was an intern at HOME in May and June 2014.

Today is my last day at HOME. The past month has been an unparalleled eye-opening experience. Under the constant guidance of the HOME staff, I have learnt much about the plight of migrant workers in Singapore. Interacting with migrant workers, I have discovered how different their lives are from the general public’s perception about them. In my time here, I have noticed that one issue keeps cropping up in all the cases that HOME encounters – the vulnerability of migrant workers.

The workers that seek help at HOME generally come from less developed Asian countries. They are often born into poor families and are drawn to Singapore’s wealth and job opportunities. These workers are seldom prepared for the harsh working conditions that they are subjected to in Singapore. Also, many workers become victims to trafficking.

I had the opportunity to interview Selvan and Kalai (the workers featured in the story ‘Deported, not Protected’).  Their story affected me in a deep personal level. These were workers who were just about my age and yet their lives had turned out to be so different from mine.

Selvan and Kalai, like many other workers who come to Singapore, were greatly disadvantaged by their poverty and lack of familiarity with English. Eager to secure jobs in Singapore to provide a better life for their families, these workers are easily deceived into paying exorbitant recruiment fees to agents, which then render them more susceptible to coercion, forced labour and debt bondage. For example, many workers are forced to sign substitute contracts with less favourable terms, sometimes without seeing the contract in their own language. The workers rely on the information provided by employers and recruiters, and often have limited knowledge of their legal rights. In many cases, these vulnerabilities lead to exploitation by recruitment agents and employers, both in the workers’ home countries and in Singapore.

I am heartened that organisations such as HOME assist workers in Singapore. It is also promising that the proposed anti-trafficking bill seeks to protect migrant workers from becoming victims of trafficking. However, more should be done. It is crucial that the proposed anti-trafficking bill adequately protects vulnerable migrant workers from debt bondage, forced labour and exploitation. Only then will unscrupulous agents and employers be forced examine their recruitment practices and stop exploiting vulnerable migrant workers for profit.

Singapore’s got talent!

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The X factor. American Idol. Idols. Britain’s got talent. America’s got talent. Who does not know them? But Singapore’s got talent, who’s heard of that? The city-state is not known for it’s creative excellence. Does Singapore have talent?

This weekend, I had the honour of being a judge at the HOME Talent Pageant 2014. The pageant is open to a very special group of Singapore residents: Foreign domestic workers. These brave women leave their home’s behind to take care of other peoples homes overseas. They live in their employers houses, have long working hours, and often not even a weekly day off. No wonder HOME felt these amazing women deserved to be in the spotlights for once.

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UWC’s Dover campus hosted the semi finals, the talent part of the pageant hosted by the amazing Pamela Wildheart. With the other judges I sat, slightly nervous, in anticipation of the day’s events. We would have to judge the contestants women from mostly Indonesia, the Philippines and India on attributes including stage presence, uniqueness, skills and emotional impact.

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HOME’s talent pageant not about body shape, age, race, weight. It is about inner beauty. Grace and charisma. Focusing on skills rather than beauty, the pageant hopes to encourage domestic workers develop their talents, and pick up life skills whilst working in Singapore. HOME Talent Pageant 2014 was organised by HOME domestic worker volunteers, giving them the opportunity to showcase their talents off-stage as well as on.

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Embracing my inner Simon Cowell, I sat in eager anticipation of the contestant’s performances in the first category, singing. Just like on TV, not all the contestants managed to hit the right notes all the time, but dedication, beautiful costumes and poise more than made up for that. In the special acts category, we heard declamations about the strife of foreign domestic workers, percussion, even dressmaking and make-up skills were demonstrated on stage. Doling out points became harder with each new contestant. How do you compare a lady dramatically acting despair to one performing a traditional Indonesian chant, or one swirling a hula-hoop on her neck?

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The most popular category was dancing, and wow, these ladies can shake their hips! We saw Shakira, belly dancing, hip-hop, traditional Philippines sarong dances, classical Javanese dance, pop, zumba, tribal dances, and much, much more.

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During the counting of the votes, the audience was treated to performances from fellow judges Gerson Lapid Jr, and Robert ‘Obet’ Sunga. Young music student Neil Chan made the hearts of many contestants’ race, with young ladies swarming around him to get their pictures taken. In the meanwhile I, the writer with the singing capacities of a peanut, hid in a corner.

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Fifteen finalists were selected, each of them demonstrating that domestic workers are capable of more than cleaning washing, or taking care of the elderly. They are women of many talents.

I hope that the HOME Talent Pageant 2014 will teach Singaporeans how unique and special their foreign domestic workers are, and that these women deserve the right, opportunity and time off to further develop their skills and talents.

The HOME Talent Pageant 2014 final will take place on Sunday, the 29th of June 2014 from 1 to 5pm at the Catholic Junior College Performing Arts Theatre, 129 Whitley Road Singapore. Tickets are available at 20 dollars each.

Text by Karien van Ditzhuijzen

Photographs by Tessie Cera and Karien van Ditzhuijzen

Singapore must do more to combat human trafficking: US TIP Report

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Every year, the U.S. Department of State releases a report on trafficking in persons across the globe. The 2014 report ranks Singapore as a Tier 2 country for the fourth consecutive year, as “[t]he Government of Singapore does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking however, it is making significant efforts to do so”. 

The 2014 report highlights the need for Singapore to do more to protect the rights of victims of trafficking. It recommends the introduction of a legally mandated victim-centered approach to investigating and prosecuting trafficking offences, providing protections to victims regardless of whether the case results in a prosecution, and increasing support to organisations assisting victims of trafficking. 

This is HOME’s response to the 2014 report:

Response to US Department of State’s trafficking in persons report

HOME agrees with the issues raised in the TIP report and the State Department’s Tier 2 ranking is correct. The Singapore government has started to take trafficking more seriously and this is a positive sign.

However, measures which ensure the rights of trafficked victims fall short of internationally recognised standards and those of other developed nations. For example, the right to decent work, compensation, legal aid, psychological and social support services is not guaranteed.

We are also deeply concerned that trafficked victims are being penalised for immigration and work related offences. Without an effective victim protection system, it is highly unlikely that trafficked migrants will file complaints and cooperate with the authorities.

Policies which encourage trafficking and forced labour, such as restrictions to job mobility, and the $5k security bond need to be abolished. We are also deeply concerned that trafficked victims are being penalised for immigration and work related offences.

The report mentioned  disagreement between the government and civil society on whether specific cases amounted to trafficking. Indeed, HOME has referred such cases which were rejected by the government, even though our interviews revealed strong trafficking indicators. However, the reasons for not classifying such cases as trafficking are rarely disclosed. Greater collaboration and exchange of information between the government and civil society organisations is needed so that trafficked victims can be more effectively assisted and perpetrators brought to justice.

The 2014 report was released last week. You can read it here:
http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/226848.pdf

Sent away for being hit

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Eva (not her real name), a domestic worker from Indonesia, is staying at the HOME shelter in Batam, Indonesia. She would like to be working as a domestic worker in Singapore, but her previous employers forced her to leave the country. Despite abusing Eva physically and verbally, Eva’s employers were able to cancel her work permit, which meant that she could not stay in Singapore. With HOME’s help, Eva travelled to Batam, where she is trying to arrange to return to Singapore.

Eva had worked as a domestic worker in Singapore for many years. She took up her latest assignment in August 2013, taking care of a family with two young children. Her new employer was very particular about things such as the way vegetables were chopped, or the arrangement of jars in the cupboard. Small misunderstandings soon led to scolding and verbal abuse. Eva was also punished for mistakes by her employer reducing the hours that Eva could spend outside the house on her day off, and holding back her wages. The employer threatened Eva that they would send her back to Indonesia, or that they would hit her.

One day this threat became a reality. After she made a mistake, Eva was hit on her arms with a wooden spoon and slapped on the face by the employer. Once she was hit, Eva knew she had to leave the house. She had actually made up her mind months ago that she wanted to leave and look for another employer. However, in spite of having offers from other employers, Eva couldn’t accept any offer as her employer had refused to sign a release form.

In Singapore, migrant workers are tied to their employers by their work pass. Employers can cancel the worker’s work permit and send them home at any time. The foreign worker, on the other hand does not have the option to quit, unless her employer agrees to release her, either to go home or to transfer to another employer.

Eva left her employer’s house and reported the abuse she had suffered to the Ministry of Manpower and the Police, but decided not to press charges with the Police, as she wanted to move on and find a new job to support her family. Investigation by the police could take a long time, and in the meanwhile Eva would be unlikely to have been allowed to work and support her family. In the meantime, the employer cancelled her work permit. Eva had to leave the country..

The fact that migrant workers in Singapore do not have the right not to switch employers encourages exploitation, and forced labour. It makes abuse hard to fight. The difficulties encountered by workers like Eva to change employers, act as a disincentive for workers to report abuses by their employer. They feel they need to endure bad conditions in order to keep their job.

Eva is still in Batam, waiting for arrangements with a new employer to be finalised.

A beverage for thought

A HOME volunteer encourages us to think about the recent Coca Cola advert. The view represented is the writers own, not that of HOME as an organisation. 

Coca Cola has long championed happiness. This has manifested itself in many ways, including a vending machine at a Singapore campus that gave a free Coke can when hugged. Earlier this year, the brand extended its message to construction workers in Singapore and Dubai. In Singapore, they dropped Coke cans with messages of appreciation from the community onto construction sites via drones. In Dubai, recognizing the high cost of making calls back home, they put up temporary phone booths where workers could get 3 minutes of free talk time in exchange for a bottle cap of Coke. 

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Both activities have seen polarized reactions. From applaud for recognizing the workers, to criticism for exploiting them. There is merit in both arguments. Construction workers are often exploited by agents who extract a high placement fee and by companies who offer low wages, and poor living and working conditions. Asking workers to buy a bottle of Coke, which they may not have otherwise bought, does seem unfair even if it was for free talk time.

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An objective view would submit that there was a positive side to this campaign. Construction workers are a much needed but invisible workforce in places like Singapore and Dubai, and local residents are often unaware of their circumstances. While their goal may not have been entirely altruistic, Coke has helped draw attention to the life of construction workers and made them visible. Being able to create this kind of awareness for a social cause is difficult to do. Driving public engagement is even harder. Non-profit organizations must recognize this, as much as commercial organizations must become more sensitive to causes they associate with.

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Continuing to focus on Coke’s motives and actions would be to lose sight of the core issue. The right thing for non-profits supporting this cause would be to leverage the awareness and engagement that has been created and lobby for better laws and fairness in the way migrant workers are treated.

And while another can of Coca Cola will not save the world, making someone happy, albeit briefly, cannot be that bad.

A visit to HOME Academy

Academy1  Devi Malarvanan reports from her visit to HOME Academy. 

Peek into the International School Singapore (ISS) campus on a regular Sunday afternoon and you will be both surprised and impressed. Ladies boasting different nationalities and who, in Singapore, go by the blanket term ‘domestic workers’ fill the campus. Sporting the HOME Academy uniform, they eagerly await the commencement of classes for the day.

The HOME Academy programme, has benefitted over 5000 domestic workers since 2009 and has a wide range of courses – including English language, computer training, baking, cooking, cosmetology, aromatherapy and caregiving. Either experts and professionals teach these courses or ‘domestic workers’ with the relevant experience to teach their peers. A chat with Ms Jacyntha England, one of the pioneers of the project, reveals that the primary objective of the project is to offer relevant training to domestic workers looking to expand their skill set or learn something new. She explains that the programme aims to empower these ladies, help them invest in their future and be more than a ‘domestic worker,’.

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Through HOME Academy these ladies’ many talents are highlighted and celebrated. The Masterchef-esque cooking contests and forum theatre sessions held to conclude the term are proof of this. As the ladies proudly display and cheer the dishes they have whipped up, it is clear to see they are enjoying this opportunity and the chance to share their experiences. On a similar note, one of the ladies enrolled in the English class, Ms Yanti, takes the forum theatre session as an opportunity to share stories she has written based on her real life experiences. She says, “I want to share what I have experienced. Life is easier after I share experiences with people…life is lighter.” Another student in the class, Ms Brianna, reflects on the classes, “We speak and act and it is a lot of fun. So far it is helpful for my communication.”

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Both ladies then continue their conversation with friends in the classroom as they munch on doughnut treats brought in by a guest. With their gestures and words it is clear the group are thankful for the respite from their weekly duties and the chance to develop their skills. It is even more heart-warming that some of their employers encourage them to do so and sponsor them for these classes.

To find out more check out our website or email Sisi Sukiato, migrants.home@gmail.com

The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) is an anti-human trafficking organisation advocating empowerment and justice for all migrant workers in Singapore