Sunday, October 23, 2011

Singapore Government condones illegal detention of foreign workers

Government silent over the breaking of its own laws

by Vincent Wijeysingha (source)


Unbeknownst to almost every Singaporean today, an illegal commerce is carried on with the full approval and, indeed, connivance of their government. This is the time-honoured trade of kidnap.


The Repatriation Companies perform a needed service, say the authorities. And what is this service that is so urgently needed that government departments, as one, are unwilling to acknowledge that what they do is illegal?

Let’s say you are an employer. And you have a migrant worker who has injured himself and cannot work for a time. Or you have not paid him for months on end. Or have made illegal deductions from his salary. Or have worked him for far more than the legal 72 hours overtime per month. Or have only paid him when there is work, contrary to the Employment Act that mandates that a worker must be paid if he is available for work.

Let’s say your worker indicates that he intends to take a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower (whose website, by the way, states its values as being “People Centredness, Professionalism, Teamwork and Passion for Progress”). Let’s say you cannot afford to be, well, ‘people centred’, because people cost money, you decide that your migrant worker is best dealt with by way of getting him out of your hair, which in fact means expelling him from Singapore, so he can no longer take the protection of the nation’s employment law.

But human beings are not like dried plums or computer peripherals. One cannot just put them in a box and DHL them back home. And for the sake of your reputation and the good name of your business, you would baulk at manhandling him yourself onto a plane from the award-winning Changi Airport.

But help is at hand. Legally constituted entities called Repatriation Companies exist. For a fee, they will do the manhandling for you. One of these entities, prosaically describes this on its website as, “Transportation of workers and personal airport check-in and transfer to the ICA Special Pass counter.”

In fact, what they do, contrary to that banal statement, is to seize the worker, force him into a vehicle that will take him to the entity’s premises, and keep him under lock and key until they spirit him away to the airport and on a plane and safely out of Singapore’s jurisdiction. The website of that particular entity names this “temporary custodial lodging.”

The last time I checked, one of the definitions of the word custody, according to the Oxford dictionary, is imprisonment. I don’t imagine the definition has been altered since my copy of the Oxford was published in 2005.

That such an entity exists and that it can proclaim to all and sundry on its website that it offers an imprisonment service, even though it is illegal, is not the key issue here. Businesses have made money out of far more reprehensible services, like selling kidneys harvested from drugged persons or renting children’s bodies to those whose sexual proclivities operate in that particular depravity.

What is at issue here, and equally depraved, is that departments of the Singapore government, the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs, are fully aware that such practices go on and decline to act when reports of these practices are made known to them. In the last 4 weeks alone, an NGO alerted the police to two such cases; the police declined to act.

Because, in the words of that MP, who is Chairman of the Migrant Workers’ Centre and Co-Chairman of the National Trades Union Congress/Singapore National Employers’ Federation Migrant Workers’ Forum, “…whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it.”

Despite five news articles on the practice of repatriation in both the mainstream and online press over the last few years, the government has declined to acknowledge the wickedness of holding a man or woman against their will in a locked space precisely so that they are unable to avail themselves of the protection of the law.

Let it be put plainly for the avoidance of doubt: the Singapore government is closing its eyes to the presence, in our midst, in this day and age, one hundred and seventy-eight years after slavery was abolished, of companies that, outside of the law, get away with kidnap and abduction and imprisonment. For one reason and one reason alone: that the worker in question – who, usually, mind you, has paid anywhere from three thousand to eleven thousand Singapore dollars to secure a job here – is forcibly prevented from seeking the protection of the law.

The Singapore Police Force, whose website proclaims the following Mission Statement, “…uphold the law, maintain order and keep the peace in the Republic of Singapore,” has, on the several occasions when local migrant labour welfare charities have sought their help in freeing a worker so abducted and so held, declined to accord to that worker the amenity their website proclaims to the world.

This is the tragedy of the Singaporean success story. This is its underside. That nothing, not even basic legal protections of the human person should be allowed to interfere with the “growth of the economy”. And the Member of Parliament who uttered those unfortunate words, and his friends in the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs, are the defenders of this intolerable silence.

In recent weeks, the government’s callous disregard of the safety and protection of the human person, his right to remain free except by leave of the law of the land, has come into stark focus with its cynical defence of the Internal Security Act following Prime Minister Najib’s announcement that Malaysia will soon abolish its own ISA.

After promising in 1991 to “seriously consider” abolishing it should Malaysia do so, the Prime Minister, albeit he himself being silent, has tried (and failed) to justify why Singapore needs to retain the ISA on its statute book.

The right to a fair trial by a judge sufficiently independent of the Executive based on convincing evidence and not merely administrative diktat is the fundamental right since it is embodied in the human person. It is the lodestar of a civilised community. It is the first right, the right to the sole custody of one’s body unless one has transgressed a readily-apparent law written down for all to know. It is the right upon which all other rights are based because, make no mistake about it, if power cannot compel you by other means, it will compel your body, as the Singapore government has been wont to do since forty-nine years ago come next February, when it threw into jail upon the basis of no evidence whatsoever, one hundred and eleven men and women who had broken no law. And one of them was kept in jail for thirty-two years. Without having broken any law or even been told for the first nineteen years, of the charge that had been laid against him and which justified his detention.

And in the 1970s and 1980s imprisoned almost forty more people without benefit of due process and without, until this day, having produced any evidence against them, being content with unfounded and unprovable assertions, dutifully reported in the Straits Times.

With the passing of the knuckle-duster style of politics in recent years, Singaporeans may believe that they will never feel the cold summons to detention without trial upon their shoulder in the dead of night. Not so, (for) our migrant workers who erect our buildings and lay our streets and sink our train tunnels and clean our food courts and make the products that we sell to the world. Not so.

For at any time of the day or night, when he least expects it, he may be abducted and locked away and forced onto a place so that his employer does not have the inconvenience of his appealing to the law to protect him from exploitation, from abuse, from harm.

Entirely with the connivance of the Singapore government. Let it be said: with the blessings of the Singapore government. For they cannot claim not to know that this goes on. The migrant labour welfare organisations and the newspapers have alerted them to it. Repeatedly. Let me repeat it for the avoidance of doubt: the Singapore government refuses to enforce its own laws that protect people from abduction, kidnap and imprisonment.

There are many Singaporeans at this moment in time who are opposed to our immigration policy. It has brought inconvenience, unrest, anger, resentment, and overcrowding to the community and, most importantly, lowered wages and increased housing prices. And they are right. For the immigration policy has not been operated with the Singaporean in mind. It has been made and operated with GDP in mind; a GDP that has not benefited the vast majority of Singaporeans: how many workers can boast a fourteen point six percent pay increase when the economy grew by that amount last year?

So, Singaporeans have experienced all the ill effects of the immigration policy with few of its benefits.

But to turn away from the travesty of justice that is the Repatriation Companies is to face the wrong side of the battle. The common antagonist, for both Singaporean and foreigner alike, is the Singapore government. Because if it is pleased to condone the abduction, kidnap and illegal imprisonment of the workers of another country, even countries as powerful as India and China, then the worker who claims the protection of Singapore citizenship is nowhere near better protected.

So, if you do one civic-minded thing in these next five years, do this thing: write to your MP or attend the Meet the People Session and tell him or her that you want the Repatriation Companies made illegal. And copy your letter to the Ambassadors and High Commissioners to Singapore and ask them to ask their governments to intercede with their Singaporean counterpart to stop this abominable practice. Because there is nothing - nothing whatsoever - at this moment in time, that will protect you if you happen yourself to fall into the hands of one of these wicked entities because you decided to exercise your rights under the labour laws.

I have seen men detained in the premises of Repatriation Companies. It is a most inhumane sight. It is not worth the economic growth it promises because it approaches banditry. Wealth is one, and a central one at that, but it is not the final arbiter of a nation’s wellbeing. We forfeit our right to look ourselves honestly and squarely in the mirror if we keep silent while this goes on.

The government of Singapore, not the judiciary, reserves to itself, in two provisions of the law, the right to imprison its people without needing to produce any evidence. And it ignores manifestly illegal practices that achieve the same purpose for the citizens of other countries.

It should have the benefit of neither provision. And nor should it ignore the Repatriation Companies that do the same to our foreign brothers and sisters who came to our island merely to do what our grandparents did not so many years ago.

                                -- Vincent Wijeysingha

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