In Limbo in Little India
The shophouses of Little India are a vibrant mix of restaurants, department stores and groceries catering largely to Singapore’s South Asian community. In the living quarters upstairs, migrant workers with various work-related disputes wait for their cases to be settled — often for a long time.
Mr Alam Jahangil, 49, has been jobless since 2018. The construction worker hurt his wrist while working and claims he has not been paid his salary while on medical leave or received any compensation.
While waiting for the Ministry of Manpower’s ruling on the dispute with his employer, he has been living above a shophouse along Syed Alwi Road in Little India. His family’s growing debt in Narsingdi, Bangladesh, weighs on the father of one.
“Thinking so much until heart pain,” he said.
Little India has long been a refuge for workers in limbo like Mr Alam because of the sense of community, the ease of access to NGOs dedicated to workers’ welfare and proximity to the MOM Services Centre.
He moved to Little India as it took him two hours to travel to the centre from the dormitory where he used to live. However, increased monitoring of public spaces and shophouse accommodations by the authorities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have raised concerns among NGOs, landlords and workers that the enclave may not remain the sanctuary it has been for workers in a jam.
ACCESS TO FOOD, CARE AND COMMUNITY
Special Passes are issued by the manpower ministry or the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to workers settling disputes with employers regarding salary or workplace injury compensation claims, awaiting medical treatment or job transfers.
TWC2 has no official estimate on the number of Special Pass holders living in the area. But the NGO helped some 370 men with their rent in June, all of whom are Special Pass holders registered with TWC2’s meal programme, The Cuff Road Project.
As Special Pass holders, these men are not allowed to work and need to find their own ways to settle food and rent, their biggest expenses.
One such Special Pass holder, Mr Alam, makes his way to Isthana Restaurant twice a day, where he collects food coupons from TWC2.
Between TWC2 and other NGOs like the SG Accident Help Centre and HealthServe, workers get most of their weekly meals free of charge.
The NGOs also help workers with rent, especially during the pandemic, said Mr Daniel Li, 31, clinic manager at HealthServe, which provides medical care and support to workers. Renting a room in Little India typically costs $200 to $300 a month.
President of TWC2 Debbie Fordyce said The Cuff Road Project doubles up as an avenue for workers to seek advice on their disputes with employers.
TWC2 volunteer Ashvin Umatathi, 25, a student at the Singapore Institute of Management Global Education, was at the Isthana Restaurant interviewing workers. He listened to their various reasons for waiting in Singapore to sort out their problems with their former employers. “I was taken aback by what I heard,” said the 25-year-old.
TIME MOVES SLOWLY IN LIMBO
Workers on Special Passes have to visit the MOM Services Centre often to meet officers for an update on their cases or get their special passes extended.
Electrician Mariya Arokiyasamy, 49, has been to the MOM Services Centre five times in the last two months. The Indian national said he had no problems during the first 16 years he worked in Singapore.
It was only at his most recent company, where he started working in 2018, that he faced problems. He was promised $2,600 a month in salary, but his employer instructed him to return $1,848 in order to keep his job.
He tolerated this mistreatment for two years, while gathering evidence through voice recordings. When he confronted his boss on the matter on June 24, his employer tried to send him home the next day. He turned to SG Accident Help Centre and has remained in Singapore in hopes of getting his money back. He claims he is owed a total of about $19,000.
ODD JOBS ILLEGAL BUT A SOURCE OF INCOME
Some Special Pass holders find income by working illegally, said Mr A.K.M. Mohsin, editor-in-chief of Banglar Kantha, a Bengali newspaper serving the migrant worker community. While the manpower ministry has a Temporary Job Scheme that allows interim employment for Special Pass holders between jobs, those who are injured cannot find work as jobs are typically in the construction, manufacturing or marine shipyard sectors. Those caught working illegally face fines of up to $20,000 or imprisonment of up to two years.
A Special Pass holder manning a stall selling paan, a snack made from betel leaf and areca nut, earns around $15 a day. “Everyone needs to eat. You, me, everyone,” he said.
While his earnings are less than a typical day’s wage in construction, he gets enough to cover his expenses and send a little home, he said. Others find temporary work as packers or in the area’s many restaurants.
INCREASED SURVEILLANCE AND INSPECTIONS
Much has changed since the Little India riot in 2013, when an Indian construction worker died in a road accident, setting off a 300-strong mob.
That led to a significant increase in police patrols in the area. The number of security cameras rose six-fold from 2016 to 2020. Numerous police warning signs were erected. Little India was also designated a Liquor Control Zone in 2015, with heavier penalties for flouting rules related to alcohol consumption.
Dr Stephanie Chok, 47, an independent researcher on migrant worker issues, said: “It is oppressive to have that heavy presence around the migrant workers as if every one of them was a potential criminal.”
The workers, however, are used to the police presence.
Mr Neduchenihan Vembariya, 33, a construction worker who lives at 46 Mayo Street said: “Any fighting or robbery, and the police come in five minutes.”
Since the pandemic, the manpower ministry has deployed officers to patrol areas frequented by workers to prevent large congregations. “Workers who do not cooperate will have their work passes revoked,” the ministry said.
Some large open spaces where workers gathered, including a plaza along Lembu Road and a field at Roberts Lane, were cordoned off.
The ministry has also been conducting more frequent checks on workers’ accommodations. Many workers interviewed in the area said they had moved in recent months.
S Pass worker Muthu Jayakumar, 47, from India, said he had to leave his room in Jalan Besar after manpower ministry inspectors found it overcrowded.
For 11 years, business owner Mr Arshad Hussain, 47, housed around a dozen workers in his shophouse at 74 Desker Road. Now, he is only permitted to accommodate six men. The drop in rental income makes taking in tenants not worth the headache, he said, as regular checks by the manpower ministry, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the National Environment Agency have made it difficult for him as he runs his shop alone.
But Mr Yim Seng, 47, of SGcare Physiotherapy Clinic, said the increased checks were necessary, especially during the pandemic.
“Many of the workers, especially those on Special Passes, have not been swabbed for Covid-19. It is natural that the Government wants to account for these workers,” he said.