Our first live dialogue, cancer screening access for FDWs, and IM’s passing
February always goes by quickly. We hope you remember to take breaks regularly to slow down, as the months will only get busier. The beginning of this month was marked by an exciting new venture, while the month’s end was marked by a sudden loss.
Trigger Warning: This month’s newsletter contains mentions of coma and death. If you may be sensitive to these elements, please take note before continuing to read, and feel free to reply to this e-mail to reach me if you need to speak to someone.
Our first interaction with a live audience
At the end of our last newsletter we touched on how, alongside casework, we feel ready to strategise. We want to move the needle in society, and live in one that is more just, kind, and fair. This requires changing attitudes and minds of the public while keeping the movement accessible and without putting folks on the defensive.
With that in mind, we tried something new at the beginning of this month. We held our first in-person dialogue with a small group of attendees. We talked about Migrant Mutual Aid – what we do, why we do it, and how people can get involved. It is a simple agenda. After 2.5 years of doing this work, we breezed through our slides. We have never done these sorts of public sharing before, which is why we decided to start with a private group in a closed door event. Although we had areas of improvement, it is a start. It felt exciting to explore new ways to do things.
MN (M16) and breast cancer screening
We started supporting MN in July 2022, when we sent her our first SSF transfer for her first few cycles of chemotherapy. MN is a 44 year old domestic worker from the Philippines with stage 3 breast cancer. After a fundraiser for the rest of her chemotherapy regimen, she arduously completed 16 cycles of chemotherapy. She still required surgery after, plus post-op radiotherapy from her local hospital. As she is out of work and managing her daily expenses by herself, she is unable to cope with her ongoing medical bills. The locally advanced nature of her cancer is a contributing factor to the high healthcare costs, despite her returning to the Philippines where treatment is cheaper. This month’s SSF transfer supported her for the hospital deposit prior to her admission for surgery. She has had a successful surgery since, and will be starting on radiotherapy soon.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst women. Our local screening guidelines suggest that this demographic should receive a mammogram once every year from ages 40 to 49, and once every 2 years from ages 50 and above. The cheapest mammogram I could find from our local cancer society’s page is $107 for foreigners, for both tourists & work permit holders. In comparison, within the same programme Singaporeans receive free first mammograms, while PRs pay $25. Furthermore foreigners require a doctor’s referral to receive this mammogram – a requirement that does not apply to Singaporeans/PRs. MN first discovered her breast lump in October 2019, 3 years before collapsing in a toilet in the Philippines that forced her to not delay her treatment any longer. But by this point, the cancer had progressed tremendously. This simply isn’t fair. Domestic workers like MN carry a large burden of our nation’s caregiving work and yet have different levels of access to healthcare.
What would MN’s life have looked like today had our state-mandated 6 monthly health check-ups for domestic helpers included mammograms – especially, or at least, for those who already have suspicious breast lumps? If ‘public/heavily subsidised’ mammograms were priced more affordably for work permit holders, even if her employer refused to pay, MN could’ve more easily afforded the test herself. We must organise and work towards more equitable healthcare; and in the meantime, your support goes a long way in supporting workers like MN who fall through the cracks in our healthcare system.
NJ and remembering IM
As mentioned over multiple SSF newsletters since June 2022, NJ is the wife of a 41-year-old Bangladeshi worker, IM. IM was seriously injured in a bus accident on his way home from work on a company-issued bicycle. He went into a coma after his accident in May 2022. After repatriation to Bangladesh, IM was dependent on NJ for his basic needs. NJ’s life has been a very physically and emotionally difficult one, handling both the complex legal matters of this case as well as the daily caretaking of her husband.
It is with heavy hearts that we share that after battling multiple infections for most of last year, IM succumbed to his condition last week and passed on. He is survived by his dedicated caregiver, NJ, and their 7 year old son. We feel honoured to have witnessed his will to live despite his tragic accident and difficult repatriation, and his wife’s steadfast commitment to his care.
We grieve his passing deeply. Most of us have met either NJ or IM in person. When NJ first spoke to us over the phone, she told us that one of the reasons IM was motivated to continue working in Singapore was so that he could send his son to a good school. He had just enrolled his son into a Madrasah in their hometown for a few months when the accident happened. Like many parents, IM went to great lengths to secure a good education for his child. We will honour IM’s life in our own way as a team, and we hope you can keep his family in your thoughts and prayers too. We will be organising a larger fundraiser for his family in due time, & continue to support NJ in the next few months while waiting for the outcome of IM’s legal case.
Slowing down and signing off
We am grateful for a team that takes care of others, as well as of ourselves. We have been checking in with one another, and we will be meeting in person soon instead of online, which is something we always look forward to. Take care of yourself, just a little more today, and as one of my teammates always says: tell someone you love that you love them.
Analysing WICA payouts, access to healthcare, and on storytelling
Happy new year; whether you’re still celebrating the Gregorian New Year, or gearing up to celebrate the Lunar New Year!
KR is a 30 year old Bangladeshi who worked as a construction worker in Singapore for 3 years before moving back home in 2017. He was referred to us by a Singaporean who worked with him in TWC2, where he used to volunteer as a translator/case worker. In a work accident in 2015, KR fell from an 8m height, losing the tips of 4 fingers and cracking his backbone. He received a WICA compensation of $27,000, out of which he paid $8,000 in outstanding debt to his recruitment agents. The rest of the payout went towards attempting to obtain finger prosthetics to allow him to work, living expenses, and family medical bills. He is unable to sit or stand for long periods of time due to his injuries, and has worked as a salesman, a driver, as well as a tutor to support his family.
He wants to establish a more stable means of income for himself and has asked for support in purchasing a second hand TukTuk. Within the time we were planning a fundraiser for him, his mother, who was already ill, passed away. As his needs became more urgent, we decided to send him what he needs via SSF instead. He is currently in the midst of purchasing his vehicle, and we are happy to be able to support his own initiative to make a living for himself.
The WICA payout can be estimated via a MOM calculator linked here. The compensation calculation is tied to one’s ability for future employment, and payout is based on a rubric of percentages corresponding to one’s permanent physical disabilities. The tagged percentage is not necessarily proportional to one’s actual functional loss. For example, KR’s ‘percentage of permanent incapacity’ is 26% for losing the distal phalanges of 4 left-handed fingers, neglecting other disabilities (whether temporary or permanent) such as pain from the backbone injury – as this supposedly does not affect his employability in the future. WICA doesn’t begin to account for mental health or other unapparent factors indirectly related to the ability to work. The payout itself is a flat-rate that does not account for inflation or potential salary increases. Despite a disability that is permanent, KR’s payout was only equivalent to about 3+ years of work, money he used to sustain himself and his family for 7 years post-injury.
An update on our last fundraiser
MS, for whom we fundraised SGD 3,500 in late 2022, is a 49 year old Filipino single mother who has worked as a helper for the same employer in Singapore for over a decade, but recently returned home for a gynaecological surgery. Following surgery, she was diagnosed with left ovarian cancer early this month. While her ovaries have been removed after her initial diagnostic hysterectomy, the primary cancer has already spread to her rectum, which has not yet been addressed. Her oncologist advises 6 rounds of chemotherapy every 3 weeks, costing upwards of another SGD 3,000. We are planning a follow-up fundraiser for her, as MS has expressed that she will not be able to cope with the bills by herself, and we are still working out an appropriate amount to fundraise for her.
If you have not already, we encourage you to read our post linked above about the current healthcare challenges migrant workers face, after subsidies for public healthcare for migrant workers were removed in 2008. While many cancers may not be preventable, with more accessible healthcare, early detection is possible which improves survival outcomes. In the case of MS, she had to wait till returning home to the Philippines before she could do further tests and receive her surgery. Healthcare should be subsidised for migrant workers again. When that is not possible, it should be more accessible than what it is now – especially for outpatient care that is often not covered by private insurance. This goes for both migrant workers and Singaporeans.
Sharing other important work
This month also sees the launch of a new website called Migrant Death Map. The title of the website is self-explanatory, and I won’t use our newsletter space to reiterate too much what is already well articulated on the website. Overall, this website is a damning report that touches on various aspects of migrant workers’ labour rights in Singapore.
I initially expected to see deaths concentrated in areas like Jurong Island, and it surprised me to see that deaths are spread across the country (with possibly a greater focus over the city area). It made sense, of course, upon reading that the most common cause of death were workplace casualties. We already have the first reported workplace death of 2023, a 37-year-old Burmese painter who fell 4 storeys from a concrete ledge at a condominium while painting parts of the wall that were out of reach from their construction gondola.
It is frustrating that these workplace deaths are normalised because of a false assumption of the “inherent safety risk” of these industries, despite many deaths being wholly preventable if our labour laws were stricter. The website opens with the statistic that they found 455 reported deaths, and I think about how this number will increase by the end of this year. Reflecting on the mutual aid work we do here, I don’t know which shared meal celebrating our friendship, or phone call to their employer, or online fundraiser makes that difference between life and death – and that is both a reaffirming yet depressing reality, a reality we must never normalise.
Looking beyond firefighting
Living in the most expensive city with a recent increase on a regressive tax, and having leaders tell us most of us would want to work longer if we could; it all feels a little dystopian. I think a lot about how so much of our time and energy is used to earn a living, pay bills, stay afloat, and fight fires. In mutual aid terms, we strive to leave no one behind while continuing to advocate for systemic change – but in reality, so much of that capacity is taken up just responding to the next acute crisis that pops up; a friend’s repatriation, another workplace injury, or a personal health scare.
The crises are unavoidable, and they will continue to come. But something I wish for ourselves in the new year, alongside the urgent casework, is to also build that capacity to strategise towards that dream of a kinder, fairer, and more equitable world. Each of our cases have fundamental issues that we highlight through their stories, and we feel ready to do more with the knowledge and experience our team has gathered in the last 2 years. We don’t know what that looks like yet, and it is something our team is constantly interrogating. Still, we have hope that our alternative world-building comes closer to reality, one story at a time.
As always, thank you for your support and for journeying with us.
Rounding up the year and reflections on the definition of “migrant workers” within the scope of MMA work
We kept the newsletter relatively short this month given that this is the season for “unplugging” and spending time with loved ones and/or getting some contemplative downtime. The SSF disbursements this month were made to migrant workers with urgent medical (and related) needs – a hysterectomy in the Philippines in one case, and aggressive penile cancer with a prognosis of 3-6 months, in the other case.
MS is a 49-year-old Filipino domestic helper, who has worked for the same employer in Singapore for 12 years. She is a single mother of 3 sons, 1 daughter and 1 grand-daughter living in Manila.
In October 2022, MS was diagnosed with multiple cysts as well as a tumour in her left ovary, for which the doctors advised a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus). At the time, MS’s condition was causing her back pain severe enough that she had difficulty sleeping at night.
MS’s salary is $900/month. Her employer advanced her two months of salary to cover some medical costs, but was ultimately unwilling to pay for MS’s surgery in either Singapore or the Philippines. MS returned to the Philippines where medical costs are cheaper, and has since gone through a successful hysterectomy. MS borrowed from her neighbour to pay the initial hospitalisation deposit. The money sent to her from the SSF was to enable her to repay this debt. We are awaiting all final bills, which includes the full costs of her surgery, initial health check-ups, medications and hospitalisation, before starting a fundraiser for MS.
MS is in the process of recovering from the surgery, and has shared with us that she is experiencing deep fatigue in this process. She hopes to return to Singapore in good health and to resume work for the same employer, as per their agreement if she bears all of her own medical costs.
HL is a 32-year-old Burmese worker who has been working in Singapore for over 7 years. He was diagnosed in June 2021 with an aggressive penile cancer, which has relapsed several times. He was recently given a prognosis of only 3-6 months, and thus planned to return to Myanmar to his family.
He was referred to us at this point, and we got in touch to explore how we could support him. He shared with us that although he felt hopeless, he wants to continue to fight until his last breath. He has no spouse or children, and was financially supporting his father and youngest sister (of 9 siblings). He explained that his family would only be able to support his food and other daily expenses once he goes home, but not the cost of his treatment (anticipated to be chemotherapy and possibly traditional medicine). He himself had only $100 at his bank account at that point, and it was his colleagues who had pooled money to buy him a plane ticket home. He did not even have a luggage bag for the journey home.
We sent HL funds from the SSF for him to buy a luggage bag, some gifts for his family, some groceries and other necessities before flying home, with the intention that any money remaining would be cash on hand for him to commence treatment as soon as possible. We continue to be in touch with HL, and will wait for him to get a quotation for his medical treatment before we consider how best to financially support him.
HL’s case raised discussion within the team as to the definition and parameters of “migrant workers” that fall within our scope of work. HL is a S-Pass holder, whereas all workers we have assisted financially so far were work permit holders. Ultimately, we decided that it would be inappropriate for MMA to have eligibility criteria based on the exact work pass status of a person seeking support. It is true that S Pass holders earn more than work permit holders, and do not face the same range of systemic vulnerabilities that work permit holders do. However, S Pass holders are a significant portion of Singapore’s workforce (see here), and we owe Singapore’s comfort and prosperity to them too. Furthermore, S Pass holders still do face systemic difficulties. In particular, they are excluded from subsidised healthcare in Singapore’s public hospitals, and pay much higher rates for private health insurance such as Integrated Shield Plans. When illness strikes, this can make all the difference. In HL’s case, the costs of medical treatment since his July 2021 diagnosis have clearly depleted his finances despite an S-Pass salary. This near-destitution has consequent effects on his family unit – which he and his siblings work together to support – at a time that is particularly difficult for people in Myanmar. Given that an important motivation for MMA’s work is to extend solidarity to migrants who are unable to access institutional or other support, it would not be consistent with our ethos to exclude persons requesting help purely on the basis of their work pass status. Of course, it may be that individual cases prove unsuitable for MMA’s support, but we believe we should consider all circumstances on a case-by-case basis, rather than pre-emptively exclude entire categories of migrants.
We always seek to be transparent with our contributors and our community. If you have any reservations about our approach, please do feel free to write in to us and we’d be happy to listen and discuss.
In our November newsletter, we explained the work we have been doing to support MA, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi worker who sustained serious injuries when he fell from a height in Chinatown Point in January this year. In that newsletter, we stated that MA has been on a Special Pass since his surgeries. This is inaccurate, and we apologise for this error. MA has remained on his work permit, and he has been receiving a basic monthly salary from his company. He has not been able to work since January not because he’s legally precluded from doing so by holding a Special Pass, but because of his work injuries. All other details in our November write-up are accurate.
Cancellation of a worker’s work permit in cases of work injuries is entirely within an employer’s discretion. Many employers cancel the work permits of workers who sustain work injuries, but some continue extending their injured worker’s work permit. It is difficult to predict or ascertain when or why an employer might take one course of action or another in a given case. In MA’s case, it may be that his basic salary during his recovery period is covered by the employer’s insurers, or the employer may have been mindful of the added scrutiny on this case given the news coverage and MOM following up on the matter.
By way of update, MA flew back to Bangladesh earlier this week, a great relief to him given the great strain on his mental health throughout this year. He continues to pursue his claim under common law for his significant work injuries.
Reflecting on families left behind, systemic aspects of Singapore’s migrant labour regime, and “safety measures” for transporting workers in lorries
We made major disbursements from the SSF were made to families after the illness and death of their only/primary breadwinner (SH and R). Another significant disbursement was made to a worker just diagnosed with cancer – at only 35 years old – so that he may prolong his life for as long as possible in order to spend time with his family (RN). The case of IM/NJ (covered in several previous newsletters and which we continue to support) brings home the devastating, potentially multi-generational consequences that one work accident can have on a family. Additionally, VR’s case (below, with a fundraiser ongoing until 7 Dec 2022) illustrates the debt and poverty cycles in which migrant workers and their families can become enmeshed simply from one family member becoming ill.
At the same time, these ‘tragedies’ are not simply the variations of life. They are contributed to – if not caused by – features of the migrant labour system: whether this is wages systemically kept ultra-low (VR’s case), the systemic difficulties migrant workers in Singapore face in pursuing claims for work injury compensation / wage theft (IM/NJ, MA and DH), or due to the systemic vulnerabilities which make it so hard to enforce laws meant to reduce workplace and/or lorry accidents (see our reflections below on DH’s case).
How the SSF was disbursed this month
We wrote about SH in last month’s newsletter. In short, SH was a 50-year-old Bangladeshi man who was diagnosed in October 2022 with Stage 4 liver cancer, and who unexpectedly passed away less than 24 hours after arriving back in Bangladesh, where he had hoped to spend his last days with his family. As explained in our previous newsletter, our team decided that an SSF disbursement would be more appropriate than the fundraiser we had initially been planning, since SH’s family’s needs were now urgent after his sudden demise. This disbursement has now been made. This is based on discussions with SH’s widow as to their current needs and monthly expenses.
R (M02)’s case was a major case we had been supporting in the last three years. You can see our previous newsletters as well as previous fundraisers – in collaboration with #SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers. As we updated in our July 2022 newsletter, R unfortunately passed away from his multiple myeloma (a type of bone marrow cancer) in June 2022. The family R left behind includes his wife and his two young children.
By the time R passed away, his family had exhausted all the funds raised on his medical treatment. In fact, R’s brother, who is also a migrant worker in Singapore, incurred new debt to support R’s last few days in the ICU. R’s brother declined our offer to explore ways to help pay off his debt, stating that we had helped their family enough, and that any further support we wished to offer should go towards R’s widow and children.
The funds we sent to R’s family comprises 6 months of monthly expenses. We hope that this will tide R’s family over while they find their feet again and find new means of livelihood.
RN is a 32-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker who was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer in October 2022, with a prognosis of 1 year without treatment. His dependents include his wife, who was 9 months pregnant when he was diagnosed, and a son. When our team met him this month, he was hospitalised in Singapore and had just undergone radiotherapy for his bone metastases as well as a palliative operation to remove his feeding tube.
We sent RN funds from the SSF to ensure that he had cash in hand to commence treatment as soon as possible upon repatriation to Bangladesh – specifically chemotherapy, which is not expected to cure his cancer but to (hopefully) prolong his life to a best prognosis of 2 years. Given his age, his short prognosis, and the fact that he has worked away from his family for the last 8 years , any additional time RN is able to spend with his family is precious. We continue to be in touch with RN and will continue to render support as he continues with his treatment.
We are currently running a fundraiser for VR, a 35-year-old shipyard worker from India, to pay off debts he incurred to pay his father’s medical bills and recent funeral. Despite the dangerous nature of his work (see more in our fundraiser), and four years into his employment, VR’s salary is only $650/month. It leaves no room for untoward expenses, which VR and his family faced when his father contracted kidney disease, eventually passing away in July 2022. VR had to take out loans to afford these expenses, and his mother pawned her jewellery to afford her husband’s medical bills.
The low wages of migrant workers means that, on top of grief and bereavement, illness and death in the family often push them further into debt and financial precarity. We hope to be able to help VR repay his outstanding debt of $3900 (out of an initial total of $8620) so that he can return home debt-free to get married and start his future family – as he wishes to do at the end of the year – with a peace of mind and without perpetuating this particular aspect of the cycles of poverty onto his future family.
You can read the details of VR’s case on our fundraiser (on Instagram and on our website), and we would be very grateful if you could share it in your circles! The deadline of the fundraiser is 7 December 2022, and we have a remaining $1348.50 to raise.
“Safety measures” on transporting migrant workers in lorries
The dangerous, dehumanising and discriminatory nature of transporting migrant workers in lorries has received increasing public attention in the last year (see, for example, Humans Not Cargo on Instagram, this Talking Point episode, and this art exhibition organised by a group of migrant workers). In October 2022, the government introduced a range of “safety measures” that mainly comprise: (i) a mandatory 30-minute rest period for workers before they are allowed to transport other workers on lorries; (ii) assigned “buddies” for these drivers to ensure they are “alert and fit to drive” and (iii) requiring companies to fit rain covers on lorries used to ferry workers, “though they can do this in phases”.
Much can be said about the inadequacy of these measures, as some NGOs such as HOME have expressed. Without diving into policy arguments or details, we simply wish to share the experience of one worker we supported in August this year, DH. DH was forced by his company to routinely ferry 28 of his fellow workers on a lorry which had a maximum capacity of 21 pax. This was despite DH’s repeated protests that this was dangerous and that he did not want to do it. When the lorry broke down mid-drive one day, DH – like any sensible person – called a tow company, who towed the lorry away. DH’s company promptly fired him, claiming “disobedience”, and paid him $352 of his outstanding $1,400 wages – on the basis of deducting the tow company’s charges from his salary.
In this particular case, DH was happy to be repatriated and be done with his time in Singapore. The only sticking point was the wage theft. Our team spoke to the employer and managed to recover DH’s rightful wages. Although there was a satisfactory conclusion in this case, it bears noting how casually employers are able engage in wage theft. One of the reasons they can do so is the systemic difficulties that migrant workers face in recovering their unpaid salaries (see e.g. here and here).
From our point of view, DH’s case is a poignant illustration of how futile laws can be when dealing with a population whose vulnerabilities are multi-pronged and systemic. We leave it to you to conclude if a mandatory rest period and a buddy system would have made any difference to DH, or any worker who finds himself in DH’s position – particularly with the pressures faced in the construction industry following COVID-19.
Change in terms of SSF use, completed fundraisers & new casework
Happy Deepavali / Diwali to all who celebrated last week! We hope that everyone is staying safe in this current phase of the pandemic, and our thoughts go out to our healthcare workers who continue to work under systemically strenuous circumstances.
This month, we’ve continued to support the fairly complex case of NJ / IM and received several referrals for new cases, which we (i) supported through the SSF, (ii) are preparing listings for, or (iii) both. We also conducted and closed two major fundraisers for, respectively, flood recovery efforts in Bangladesh and MN, an FDW who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer (more on both below).
Before we give details of each of these cases, we want to draw your attention to an important change in the use of SSF funds.
Use of SSF funds for administrative expenses
Thus far, individual MMA team members have covered MMA’s administrative expenses (such as domain and server costs) on a personal basis. However, as our work has grown, it has become difficult for us to keep doing this. Beginning in October 2022, we will draw on SSF funds to cover MMA’s administrative costs and will be reimbursing one of our teammates for the costs they have paid out of pocket since we started our work. These costs are very small compared to the amounts disbursed to individual migrant workers. As a ballpark, administrative expenses currently amount to approximately $30 to $50 per month, though this may vary in the future. Donors will receive information on the exact figures in the monthly SSF newsletters we send via email. We have also amended our SSF description on our website (under the “Contribute Now” tab) to reflect this change, in order to properly seek consent from potential new contributors. As transparency in using SSF funds is important to us, do feel free to write to us if you have any concerns or thoughts about this change.
We’ve covered the case of NJ / IM in the last few newsletters, which you can refer to below for background information. We are still in the process of taking stock of the family’s needs and any medical-related expenses for IM’s care that may be incurred prior to a potential WICA payout, so that we can prepare a fundraiser. This has been complicated as IM’s medical condition is unstable, so the family’s situation evolves quite quickly.
When we last wrote to you in Sept, NJ had been preparing to transfer IM from the Dhaka hospital to one in their hometown. However, IM’s medical condition deteriorated and he is currently still in Dhaka, where he was in the ICU for some time. NJ recently shared with us that she took a loan through her relative in order to pay for IM’s medicines and other needs since his repatriation. We know from previous work that loans such as this tend to place pressure on personal relationships and deepen the financial stress faced by families in predicaments such as NJ’s.
NJ herself has been in poor health due to the stress of being the sole caregiver to both IM and their son. NJ and her son now live in the hospital, sleeping on the floor next to IM’s bed.
The funds sent to NJ from the SSF comprises two sets of expenses: (i) the needs of NJ and her son; and (ii) the expenses necessary to transfer IM from the Dhaka hospital to one in their hometown.
We will continue to assess the situation, particularly after IM is transferred to the new hospital should his condition stabilise – and decide next steps in preparing a fundraiser.
NJ and IM’s case illustrates a key difficulty in accessing WICA compensation in cases of severe injury but where the insurance company disputes the claim. The only way to resolve the WICA claim would be for NJ to work with her Singapore lawyers to take the case forward. However, the sheer financial and mental toll of coping with IM’s medical condition has been too overwhelming for NJ to engage meaningfully with this. We are continuing to support her in the ways we can.
SH was a 50-year-old Bangladeshi man who had worked in the construction industry in Singapore for 20 years. When he was referred to us by his medical team at one of Singapore’s public hospitals, he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer, and his prognosis was less than 3 months. He was thus keen to be repatriated as soon as possible to spend his last days with his family while hospitalised in Bangladesh.
Our team met with SH in the hospital before his repatriation. He was very worried about his upcoming hospitalisation costs back home, as well as the livelihood of his wife and two sons as he is the sole breadwinner in the family.
The first amount disbursed to SH from the SSF comprises 2.5 months of living expenses for SN’s family – approximately the duration of his prognosis – so that they could spend his last days together without having immediate financial worries. We had planned to put together a fundraiser to tide his family over for a certain period of time before they could find new means of livelihood.
Unfortunately, SH’s condition rapidly deteriorated upon being repatriated and he passed away the day after arriving in Bangladesh. We understand that SH’s repatriation was delayed due to a decision made by the airlines to discharge him from his original flight. He ultimately flew home on another flight two days after, and managed to spend less than 24 hours with his family before passing away.
We are continuing to support his family and our team has decided that an SSF disbursement would be more appropriate instead of the initially planned fundraiser, since the need for the family is now urgent. This disbursement will be reflected in next month’s newsletter.
MA is a 24-year-old Bangladeshi man who works in the construction industry. He lives with sarcoidosis, a rare condition that causes small patches of swollen tissue, called granulomas, to develop in the organs of the body. It often affects the lungs and lymph nodes, and can also affect the skin. This means that MA requires regular lung function tests and chest X-rays. We initially supported MA’s case last year, and he was scheduled for a follow up this year, which took place earlier this month. He wanted to pay for the chest X-ray himself but required support to also afford the lung function test. (It may be worth recalling that, despite their very low salaries, migrant workers pay private rates for medical services even in public hospitals.) The funds sent to MN from the SSF was to pay for this test.
Completed fundraisers #1: MN
Thanks to amazing support from our community, this month we raised $7,224.50 for MN, a 44-year-old Filipino domestic worker who was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in April 2022. As explained in our Sept newsletter, we had previously sent MN a total of $1,916.55 from the SSF, for three rounds of chemotherapy.
We then received a further $7,224.50 in contributions between 26 Sept to 21 Oct, which more than covers the anticipated medical costs of the ten rounds of chemotherapy that MN’s doctors have prescribed. The last donor, Grace, who made a large contribution towards the fundraiser, requested that any amounts above the fundraising target go to MN for any future needs.
MN has been responding well to the chemotherapy, and we are thankful to all contributors for raising the amount necessary so that MN and her family can focus on her treatment without financial worries.
Completed fundraisers #2: the climate crisis in Kurigram
In our Sept newsletter, we wrote about our fundraiser – a collaboration with YouthNet BD – for Kurigram, a district which requires extensive rebuilding following floods in May 2022 that were Bangladesh’s worst in a century. We closed our fundraiser this month with SGD 8,027.39. We are sending this amount to YouthNet BD this coming week, and will continue to update (primarily on Instagram) on the relief and rebuilding projects made possible by these funds.
While our fundraiser has closed, the issues on which it sought to shed light continue. The climate crisis continues to most devastatingly affect communities that are the least responsible for it. Just a few days ago, another cyclone hit Bangladesh, requiring the evacuation of a million people. Storm Nalgae continues to batter the Philippines. If we – collectively – are to have any hope of addressing the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to our world, we must unlearn the framing of climate change as a politically neutral phenomenon and understand it to be an international justice issue – inextricably intertwined with other justice issues such as cycles of poverty and labour migration.
Thank you for reading this newsletter & for supporting our work, as always. We hope this month treats you all kindly and we look forward to writing again to you very soon.
Healthcare insecurity, the reality of repatriation, and the intersection of climate justice and migrant justice
This month, much of our casework has involved migrant workers requiring medical care. We also continue to support the relatively complex case of IM / NJ, which has been fairly intense for our team but has provided insights into how various parts of the migrant labour system in Singapore function. Finally, we launched a fundraiser to rebuild a district in Bangladesh that was hit by unprecedented, climate change-induced floods in May 2022.
As mentioned in our August newsletter, MN is a 44-year-old Filipino domestic worker who was diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer in April 2022, while on home leave in the Philippines to take care of her mother. We had previously sent her funds from the SSF for the first two cycles of chemotherapy. As MN’s last employer had expressed a desire to re-employ MN whenever she can be back in Singapore, MN considered seeking support from them to partially fund her remaining chemotherapy – with the rest to be raised by an MMA fundraiser. However, MN was eventually hesitant to reach out to her employer, so we are finalising a fundraiser for her outstanding treatment that will go live soon. In the meantime, due to time-sensitivity, we sent her a further funds for her third round of chemotherapy, which she underwent on 14 Sept 2022. We are in active communication with MN, who updates us after each chemo session. Each session takes a lot out of her, but she is in good spirits and she shares that the lump in her breast has shrunk since she started her sessions. There is a long road ahead for MN in her treatment and recovery, but we are confident that with a fundraiser and the support she has been receiving from her family in the Philippines, she will have every chance to overcome her diagnosis.
As mentioned over the last few newsletters, NJ is the wife of a worker, IM, who was severely injured when a bus hit the company-issued bicycle he was riding back to his dormitory after work. He was the sole breadwinner of a family including NJ and their young son, and is now in a permanent coma.
As you may recall from our previous newsletter, during her time here in July to see her husband in the hospital, NJ engaged a lawyer to try and access any monetary compensation legally due (whether under WICA or otherwise). The case is ongoing.
On 26 Aug 2022, IM’s employer repatriated him back to Bangladesh. He is currently in a hospital in Dhaka, and will soon be transferred to another one in his and NJ’s hometown (3 hours away from Dhaka).
Given his condition, IM continues to require intensive caregiving (e.g. feeding, changing diapers, ensuring his tracheostomy tube remains clean). NJ has had to be the sole caregiver this last month, while also caring for their son. The funds sent to her from the SSF comprises:
One month’s expenses for NJ and her son, and
Funds for her to seek medical attention, as the stress of recent events has caused her to be persistently sick, but she had been unable to afford seeing a doctor.
We are currently taking stock of NJ’s monthly expenses and any medical-related expenses for IM’s care that may be incurred prior to a potential WICA payout. We then plan to conduct a fundraiser for these costs.
Pending casework and reflections on medical insecurity
ML is a 37 year old Burmese domestic worker, whom we got to know through another domestic worker here. Since her breast cancer surgery 8 years ago, she has recurrent breast lumps every few weeks, and intermittent bilateral arm pain. ML has been using natural remedies to manage her symptoms, but is keen, with our support, to seek medical attention. She is in the process of checking with her employer when she can visit a doctor (since any appointment will be on a weekday), as well as how much of the estimated medical costs her employer would be willing to cover. We will keep you updated.
Through the cases of both MN (above) and ML, we see the financial and systemic barriers that migrant workers face in accessing healthcare. Even when a case is possibly a work injury, as in IM’s case, it may take time or require an entire legal dispute in order to access the compensation necessary to pay for medical treatment. This insecurity is exacerbated, of course, by the fact that migrant workers pay unsubsidised (i.e. private patient) rates in Singapore’s public hospitals.
The reality of repatriation
IM’s repatriation was a learning point for us. Although we were not directly involved in the repatriation, since NJ is now advised by a legal team, NJ inevitably reached out to us for interim support. As we understood it, IM’s repatriation caused NJ a high level of stress as the company decided to have it done on a Friday, which is a weekend in Bangladesh, thus making it difficult to assure that IM could be picked up from the airport in medically necessary transportation and smoothly checked into a hospital. NJ’s requests for more time to find a suitable hospital bed were declined. We are extremely grateful that IM is, ultimately, safely back in Bangladesh and with his family. As we learned during this process, it seems that so long as a migrant worker is certified medically fit to travel by a hospital in Singapore, their employer is entitled to repatriate them as they see fit, without necessarily taking into account factors like whether there are arrangements or facilities prepared on the other side to receive the worker safely.
Climate justice and migrant justice
“Climate change” is often framed as a politically neutral phenomenon. However, as catastrophic events in one developing country after another in recent months – Bangladesh, Pakistan, and now Puerto Rico – have shown, “climate change” needs to be re/framed as an international justice issue (as many developing countries and activists have argued all along). Bangladesh is often described as “ground zero” of climate change. The climate crisis displaces an average of 700,000 people there every year. It is directly linked to cycles of poverty as well as the phenomenon of large-scale labour migration to countries such as Singapore. For us, climate justice and migrant justice are intimately intertwined. We thus collaborated with YouthNet BD to put together a fundraiser for Kurigram, a district which requires extensive rebuilding following floods in May 2022 that were Bangladesh’s worst in a century. Do check out our post on Instagram for more details as to the issues involved, and we would of course be super grateful if you could share and contribute as you see fit. You can also see a fuller version of the post (as well as a geeky reading list!) on our website.
Thanks, as always, for journeying with us.
Work Injuries, Difficult Recourse, and a Team Update
We hope you’ve been well! It’s hard to believe that 3/4 of the year has gone by again. This month was particularly trying for us because we had to manage concurrent cases while the team was temporarily not at full strength. Some are still ongoing, but we are also pleased to share that others have resolved fairly well.
MT is a 44-year-old Filipino domestic worker who was diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer in April 2022. We got to know her through her sister, who is also a domestic worker in Singapore. MT was on home leave in the Philippines when she experienced heavy bleeding, prompting a hospital visit and resulting diagnosis, and she has not been able to return to Singapore for work since. Her doctor has advised about 5 months of chemotherapy in 2 phases, which will cost approximately 366,308 PHP (SGD $9,050) in total. She began therapy last week and we sent her money to cover the first two weeks (i.e. two cycles). We will be fundraising for the remainder very soon.
As mentioned over the last few newsletters, NJ is the wife of a worker, IM, who was seriously injured in a bus accident on his way home from work. He was travelling on a company-issued bicycle. She was flown in by IM’s company to settle his affairs and take him home (he is in a permanent coma) but while she was here she engaged a lawyer to try and access some monetary claim/compensation (WICA or otherwise) in order to be able to relocate IM to a care facility in Bangladesh. Workers like IM are usually sole breadwinners, so with the complete loss of that income and without a reasonable payout, NJ will not be able to provide the long-term care that IM needs in addition to supporting her family and young son.
The company only arranged for her to be here for 3 days and when she requested an extension to meet with lawyers, be with her husband, and make important decisions, the company refused. In the end they changed the date on her flight at the lawyer’s request but did not want to pay for any other expenses during the extra week she was here. The amount spent on NJ includes cab rides to and from the hospital, cab rides to and from the lawyer’s office, meals, personal necessities like toiletries, the flight change, and baggage (because the company purchased a ticket with no baggage allowance).
Once IM is certified fit to fly he will be repatriated, and will need to be admitted into a hospital or care facility in Dhaka (3 hours from where NJ and her family live). We will also be conducting a fundraiser to help NJ with her daily expenses for the time being and any medical-related expenses incurred prior to a potential payout.
B is a Filipino domestic worker whom our team has known for quite some time. She occasionally helps us with case work, remittances, and refers workers to us from time to time. Recently she found out from her daughter that their utility bill hadn’t been paid for a couple of months; she reached out for help covering the amount because the cost had compounded and she was unable to afford it.
D is a lorry driver from India who got in touch with us because his company had issued him a termination letter after he refused to transport 28 workers on a 21 pax lorry. He was also only paid $352 out of $1,400 salary-in-lieu. Unfortunately, we were not able to stop the termination or negotiate a transfer but one of our team members spoke to his employer and in the end he was paid what he was owed. He is now back in India.
MY is a worker who was asked to perform welding work even though he had not received the training/qualification for this. He went to the MOM with a list of workplace safety infractions his company had committed and was advised to file a TADM case, which is usually for instances of salary dispute. In the end, he decided not to pursue a case in fear of being blacklisted from re-entering Singapore–which while unlikely, remains a real fear for workers when it comes to whistleblowing. He decided to head home to Bangladesh, and will be re-applying to return to Singapore when he finds a new employer.
Short Updates on Previous Cases
J, the worker who was being physically & verbally abused by his employer & his son, filed a successful salary dispute claim. He has been compensated and placed under different employment.
JB, the domestic worker who was wrongfully terminated by her employers + subject to exploitative working conditions while she was here, has received the amount we fundraised and is heading to Kuwait for new domestic work.
“Proper Channels” and Improper Business Practice
In the last month we have found ourselves having to deal more directly with the MOM, especially in cases where our negotiations with employers or other actors were not possible/fruitful. In almost every instance–including those where workers’ lives were in immediate danger–they were advised by the MOM to open a case with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) and wait for an appointment. TADM mediations are typically for salary dispute cases, and although most workers do have legitimate salary claims because of systemic underpaying and wage theft, it is not necessarily the crux of the issue that requires immediate attention by a legislator or MOM officer.
Besides, even in an event where a worker does wish to file for a salary dispute, it is rare that he receives what he is rightfully owed during TADM sessions. Despite extensive proof of non-payment, the mediation process involves a “middle-ground” or compromise, facilitated by an MOM officer, where employers only end up paying a portion of the sum they are owed. Given that any recourse outside of TADM (such as common law claims in magistrates’ courts) is expensive for workers, they have little choice but to settle and accept a less overt form of wage theft.
We accompanied two workers to the MOM to report physical abuse and an unsafe work environment, and both times they were advised to “go to the MOM website”, leave “feedback”, and file a case with the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP). Despite being physically present at the MOM, it seemed that no officer of the Ministry was able to escalate the issue or ensure these men were no longer in immediate danger.
From 2013-2021, there was an average of 12,735 workplace injuries (including major, minor, and fatal injuries) per year. This number includes both local and non-local injured persons. (Source: MOM Workplace Safety and Health Reports). 12,735 workplace injuries every year is approximately 1,061 workplace injuries every month, and approximately 37 workplace injuries in a day. This means, for the better part of the last decade, there have been approximately 37 workplace injuries reported to the MOM every single day.
What is the point of safety banners at workplaces that say “you have the right to stop work if it’s unsafe”, if there is no meaningful assistance rendered to workers who exercise this right? Why are they expected to navigate a slow, complex bureaucracy in the face of actual danger to their lives?
Unsafe Workplaces, Supporting Families, and Commemorating R’s Life
Eid Mubarak to those who celebrate! We hope that this month has been restful and fulfilling for all of you. July has been a busy month for the team as we have been working on many intensive, complex cases.
Upon finding out about this report, A was taken to his employer’s home where he was intimidated and slapped twice. A few days later, A was instructed not to return to work as his employers had cancelled his Work Pass, and eventually repatriated him without notice or salary-in-lieu.
A is one of 3 workers we are in touch with who have been abused by these employers and been made to work in unsafe environments. It is important to note that multiple police reports have been made against these employers and multiple appeals/reports have been made to the MOM as well. Despite this, the company remains MOM-accredited for the SCAL scheme.
We sent $2,000 to A in June to cover urgent debt repayments. Many workers agree to loans with high interest rates for lack of better options, and without a steady salary to continue repayment, A’s loans would have ballooned significantly. The $2,000 is intended to help him offset this while he prepares to return to Singapore under new employment (and unfortunately with an additional loan).
J was a colleague of A and an employee of the same painting company. Like other workers employed there, he was physically & verbally abused by his employer’s son and lorry driver for a misunderstanding regarding timecards.. J made a police report which received no follow-up action, and we accompanied him to the MOM to request a transfer. Unfortunately, much of decision-making is mired in bureaucracy and J remains in the custody of his abusers. We sent him $100 as emergency funds should he need to urgently leave his dormitory or worksite. We are working on this case with the relevant parties and will also provide updates when we can.
As mentioned in the last newsletter, NJ is the wife of IM, a worker who was seriously injured in a bus accident. We sent her $800 to process a passport and visa for entry into Singapore. IM’s company arranged for her to be here from last Thursday to Saturday (to see her husband and make a decision about his future care) but this was not sufficient to accommodate the time & space she needed to meet with lawyers, be with her husband, and process everything. She requested an extension but the company did not want to pay for her food, transport, and lodging beyond last Saturday. We used $650 from the SSF to cover this cost.
IM’s case has been taken on by a lawyer and we will provide updates when we are able.
JB is a Filipino domestic worker who was subjected to exploitative working conditions and wrongfully terminated by her employer in Oct 2021. We sent her $300 at the time as cash-in-hand because she was repatriated without money. Unfortunately, it has been difficult for JB to find new employment in Singapore. Her husband is a fisherman and does not earn enough to support the family’s needs and her children’s school fees. We sent her $745 to use for 2 months of expenses, and will be conducting a fundraiser to support her with a bit more. Do look out for this on our Instagram and help to share if you can!
We are deeply sorry to share that R passed away early this month. He battled multiple myeloma for close to 2 years, and we are honoured and grateful to have known him in this life. R is survived by his wife, two children, and his brother, Z, whom we have been in touch with since 2020 and who graciously cooks us a meal every Eid.
This was a big loss for our team. R was one of the first few workers we got to know when Migrant Mutual Aid was set up. Like all other migrant workers who come here, he sought to provide for his family and fought very hard to do that. We grieve his passing very deeply, but we also celebrate everything that he was and hope he rests peacefully.
We will not be conducting any further public fundraisers for R, but if you would like us to direct your contribution this month to his family, just write back and let us know.
Family Support for Injured Workers, Healthcare Rights, and Precarious Life
We hope you are enjoying the month of June and that rest has been easy. This month we have been assisting with more cases than usual, some of which we will address below. These cases have revealed quite a bit more to us in terms of migrant worker deaths, the healthcare system, as well as the trappings of debt that many workers are caught in. While the cases are different each time, the problems remain similar because they are inherently systemic, and as we try to support individual workers, we are also trying our hardest to move towards organising for structural changes.
E is a migrant domestic worker who was experiencing tooth pains earlier this year. She went to a dentist who does quick consultations (but no treatment) for migrant workers and found out she needed 4 fillings, 1 denture, and an overall scaling. The total cost of treatment would have amounted to close to SGD $1,000 and unless dental procedures are deemed “necessary for their health”, this is a cost workers must bear on their own. After some time, E eventually decided to get treatment during her leave to return to the Philippines.
Dental procedures are often considered ‘elective’ or ‘cosmetic’ but the ability to visit a dentist once every six months (as per medical recommendation) should be a right protected under universal healthcare. Even with MOM’s ‘medically necessary’ clause (which appears to be a protection), many employers do not purchase dental insurance for their workers (over and above the compulsory medical insurance). Thus, even in cases when treatment is deemed necessary for health, employers might choose to deny it so as to avoid paying a high cost, ultimately still cutting off a worker’s dental care access.
We have been in contact with his company as well as his wife, who has no means of supporting herself because she is a full-time caregiver—she was meant to receive money from IM after Eid but the accident happened. We sent NJ a sum of money from the SSF to cover the cost of her Endometriosis medication for two months, their 6-year-old son’s Madrasah fees, and other miscellaneous household expenses & bills.
M is a 43-year-old Malaysian Tamil worker who has been working in Singapore for 20 years. He recently came into financial hardship due to two medical emergencies and a death in his family. In April 2021, his brother suffered a stroke that rendered him unable to work. In January 2022 M’s father passed away, and just last month in May, his brother’s wife had to undergo a heart operation. M incurred a debt of about SGD $5,000 to foot all the costs involved, and he is being charged an exorbitant interest rate of 10% from some of his lenders.
We sent M some funds a few weeks ago to settle the most urgent repayments and are conducting a fundraiser for him (see the post here) to make the remaining amount by 21 July 2022. Please help to spread the word!
What often goes unconsidered when workers are injured or lose their lives is the devastating effect on their families back home—both emotionally, as well as means of survival. Most workers, who come here for better work opportunities, are sole breadwinners for entire families. Even in the instance that a worker makes a successful WICA claim, the payout is barely enough to make up for a complete loss of income. When deaths and injuries don’t happen at work, as they often do too, and so aren’t WICA-claimable, families are left with nothing.
Many of you might have read/heard that 27 workers have died from workplace incidents this year. The rate and scale at which workers lose their lives in this country, especially in the process of building it, is both terrifying and unacceptable. In Precarious Life by Judith Butler, she offers mourning and grief as ways to acknowledge collective humanity.
“Some lives are grievable, and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?”
So many migrant workers have died in Singapore, be they through workplace incidents (leading cause), medical illnesses, suicide, or capital punishment. Most of them barely get a mention in the news and are reduced to statistics in Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Reports before they have a chance to enter the national consciousness; their bodies repatriated home to families who might not have seen them in decades.
The success of this nation operates on deep forms of cruelty—cabinet ministers draw over a million dollars in annual salaries, construction companies turn profits in the multi-millions, CEOs get richer during the pandemic, all while workers lose their lives (& livelihoods) to a future they are not allowed to partake in.
We hold on to the promise of a different, possible future. Thank you for building with us.
Conclusion of #SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers and Medical Case Updates
We hope May has been kind to you so far. As always, things have been busy, but we have two very positive pieces of news to share with you this month.
The zakat fundraiser we ran in collaboration with #SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers closed at the end of Ramadan, and we are very pleased to share that we successfully raised SGD $25,000 for R, who will be using this funds for a bone marrow transplant (BMT). He has received the funds and his therapy + timeline for surgery is on track. In the grand scheme of things, especially in a wealthy nation line Singapore, $25,000 is not a lot. But as a small group of individuals, these fundraising efforts are often nerve-wracking, no matter how many times we’ve facilitated them or how routine the process might seem after a while. It is so possible to do big things when many communities come together.
Our best wishes are with R as he goes through with this life-prolonging surgery, and we will continue to share any significant updates as they come.
Ramadan Fundraiser Update, Research Projects, and Ongoing Cases
Ramadan Mubarak and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! We hope the long weekend was restful and kind to you. This month has been a busy one for all of us on the team, especially with work (outside of MMA) and our personal lives/commitments. Nevertheless, we have a few updates we’d like to share with you.
In our last newsletter we mentioned that R—a worker who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and subsequently repatriated in 2020—is in need of funds for a second attempt at a bone marrow transplant (BMT). Our best bet at raising the $25,000 needed was via #SGMuslims4MigrantWorker’s annual zakat-eligible fundraiser, and we are pleased to share that the amount has been met. We will be initiating the payout from LaunchGood and settling the remittance to R at the end of this week.
The fundraiser will remain open till the end of Ramadan, and all remaining contributions will go to TWC2. They are seeking to raise at least $30,000 to distribute replacement mobile phones to destitute Muslim migrant workers: both male construction workers and female domestic workers. Especially since COVID-19, fully functioning mobile phones are indispensable for regulatory compliance, daily communication, approval to leave dormitories for work & recreation, and even mental health and medical needs. But many migrant workers, given poverty and low wages, can only afford poor quality mobile phones insufficient for these purposes.
While cases continue to come in and we continue to support them, we have also expanded our work to include some research that we think is important for both the immediate and long-term landscape of migrant justice in Singapore. At the moment, we are putting together an accessible legal handbook (in the relevant languages) for migrant workers to use. The importance of this was made clear through a number of cases we have worked on, where the complexity and nuances of the law and legal language has made it difficult for both workers to understand their rights, and for us to figure out how best to support them.
We have also found, on many occasions, that the helplines & help centres put into place by the state to support & soften this legal process ends up performing a bureaucracy that is so difficult and time-consuming to navigate, especially for a worker who is 1) not a native speaker of English, and 2) simply does not have the time to stay on hold or 3) make a trip down to the MOM in person. The intention behind this handbook is to equip workers with usable information needed to work through these bureaucratic obstacles, as well as be able to understand the potential risks and recourse involved.
Illegal Salary Deductions, Ramadan Fundraiser, and Being in a Documentary
We hope this newsletter finds you in good health and spirits. The greater part of these last 2 months have been spent doing research work and handling cases that do not necessarily require funds/fundraisers e.g. speaking to employers and providing information and emotional support to workers. We also have 2 other updates that we will go into below.
J is a Bangladeshi worker who experienced pain in his anal region for a prolonged period while he was in Singapore and eventually returned to Bangladesh in April 2021 due to his boss’s refusal to exercise J’s insurance and pay for his medical treatment. He took a loan of 1.8 lac to cover the surgery that was needed and we fundraised for the repayment here. The post contains a voice recording from his employer/supervisor asking if he wanted a monthly or one-time salary deduction for his hospital bill—which is illegal. Unfortunately, a lot of workers are subject to illegal salary deductions for costs that employers are meant to bear.
Instances of wage theft tend to persist unchecked because employers are uniquely positioned to mediate between workers and the law. During the height of COVID-19, one of the most common forms of illegal salary deductions were for quarantine fees. Workers’ welfare in lockdown, amongst other things, was a topic that was brought up in Parliament quite a lot and the government’s solution to this was to waive the foreign worker levy and levy rebates for April. Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad justified this saying “employers should be able to continue to pay their salaries and provide accommodation and food” and “urg[ed] employers to pass on the support measures to workers.” What this fails to consider, however, is that employers can pass on support just as easily as they can pass on costs, so in a system that fundamentally operates on the low-wage labour of foreign workers to turn massive profits, it is no surprise that employers do the latter more than the former.
“How do we support mothers? How do we educate children? How do we organise against state violence? And then afterwards, how do we create some kind of political education that exists in the archives and documents what we were doing so that someone else might pick up the work and continue.”
Casework Updates, Imminent Hangings, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed
It’s been a whole year (!) since we started this fund and it is difficult to put into words just how grateful we are that you have, and continue to, extend so much trust and solidarity as we do this work together. As we continually highlight, the SSF is a brilliant and important safety net for workers because the nature & influx of cases we get are volatile, meaning some months depend on the fund far more than others. Last month we disbursed about $10,000 via the SSF for 10 medical-related needs, while this month we only needed to exercise it once.
N is the 30-year-old Bangladeshi worker who was in need of a tonsillectomy last month. His employer was refusing to pay for the procedure and had only been reimbursing $30 per hospital visit. We covered his A&E bill in January and, because his employer continued to refuse payment despite the scheduling of a specialist appointment, we also covered his consultation and scope procedure fees. In instances like these we only negotiate with the employer if the worker is keen and we have their consent.
We accompanied him to his appointment and the doctor confirmed that while one tonsil is larger than the other, it is not untoward and he doesn’t need surgery at this point. Considering tonsillitis is an infection, it is likely that he recovered on his own after the initial bouts of severe pain. While his medical need is fulfilled at this point, N suspects that his company is involved in unethical practises regarding workers’ insurance claims. He raised the issue with us and we are working together to see if we can put together a case to bring to MOM or to the company directly.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
I finally got around to crossing this book off my list after 2 years and I’m really glad I did because there is so much to be learnt from Freire, especially as we try to make the shift from theory to praxis. It’s not long and I highly recommend it if you haven’t given it a chance (PDF available here).
¹Foley, Barbara. Marxist Literary Criticism Today. Pluto Press, 2019. p 28.
³ Freire, Paulo and Macedo, Donaldo. Ideology Matters. Boulder CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. pp 25-26.
New Medical Needs, Podcast Episode, & the Nature of State Violence
We hope the new year has been kind to you so far. It’s hard to believe we are now officially in our second year of doing this together. January has been an unusually busy month for us with 17 cases to work through but we are pleased to share that the SSF has been a constant source of support for workers. The fund was exercised a lot this month and details of each transaction + case are below.
AK is a 23-year-old Bangladeshi worker who was diagnosed with sarcoidosis (an inflammation in the lungs and lymph nodes). It requires lifelong monitoring & medication but does not impair his ability to work. He reached out to us in Nov 2021 because his employers were threatening to cancel his Work Permit after receiving a Letter of Undertaking from MOM—a document which requires employers to acknowledge any medical conditions that their worker might have. Despite the fact that AK had been paying for his own medical bills (before we stepped in to help), his employers booked a repatriation flight back on 18th Nov 2021 and even declined to issue a transfer letter after AK obtained a doctor’s memo declaring him fit to work.
On the bright side, he has currently been placed at a new job via the SCAL scheme and his sarcoidosis is improving with the medication he was prescribed.
Migrant Mutual Aid Wrapped
The end of 2021 is close and while this year has been nothing short of difficult, the new year traditionally brings hope and possibility. There is lots of joy and excitement around this time of year, but there is also a collective cynicism about resolution-making and our ability as fickle human beings to stick to them. As a team we are not exempt from the desire to use the new year as a threshold for change; to try things we haven’t yet been able to, emboldened by something as simple as linear time. So while we will be gathering as a team to talk about 2022, we are less inclined to make resolutions as we are tangible changes and decisions that can elevate and spiral our work upwards.
That being said, we would like to invite you to write to us with any feedback, comments, thoughts, critique etc that you might have. It doesn’t have to be formally put together or solution-oriented or directly related to any of our cases. All offerings are welcome. You are a big part of the process of change-making and we would love to hear from you and involve you as much as possible.
This month we did not exercise the Standing Solidarity Fund because we have been working on non-financial related cases. While we are not at liberty to share details at this point, they mainly involve wage theft, wrongful/unlawful termination, denial of medical treatment/information, and WICA cases. Nevertheless, we thank you for your continued trust, solidarity, and allyship with workers.
Imagining the Revolution
I want to end the final newsletter of this year by returning to bell hooks, a writer, feminist, and activist who passed this month. It was a loss I grieved deeply because bell hooks and Audre Lorde are the two writers that moulded the trajectory of my thought and the way I feel very fundamentally. I referenced hooks’ All About Love in a previous newsletter because it provided such a powerful lens for understanding and embodying love in activism—a term so richly used but poorly understood.
“To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.”
Wrongful Terminations, Life Expectancy in the Global South, and the Death Penalty
We hope you had a good Diwali/Deepavali and that the end of the year is treating you kindly. We’ve had a very busy month working through complex cases and have had to learn to be patient in these processes. The law continues to favour employers and workers continue to be denied a fair shake but we do this work with the hope that one day we no longer have to.
We made a number of SSF disbursements this month which have been able to support 4 workers and their families in various ways. We will address each of these and some other cases below.
As a quick recap, ‘A’ is a worker we fundraised for + supported via the SSF in April-May 2021. He had flown back to India to be with his ailing father, who was also a migrant worker in Singapore for 16 years. ‘A’ needed support with paying for his father’s dialysis and fistula surgeries. Unfortunately, we received news at the end of October that his father passed away after his condition deteriorated rapidly.. He was 51 years old. ‘A’ requested help with the funeral-related costs and we used the SSF to send him the funds as quickly as possible. ‘A’ is still in India and waiting for an opportunity to return to Singapore to continue working.
This prompted us to consider the inequality of life expectancy rates, especially in the Global South where people and resources continue to be exploited by the Global North for profit. Singapore is not exempt from this pattern of racial capitalism, seeing as more than 1 million members of our workforce are low-wage migrant workers from neighbouring countries. Poor migrants are unable to access good, affordable healthcare—both in their home countries and in the country they spend most of their adult lives labouring for. This means that the checkups and tests we take as routine under a subsidised healthcare system are completely inaccessible to men like ‘A’ and his father, resulting in belated diagnoses, undetected illnesses, and overall bad health. To live beyond their 60s is fairly uncommon for people in the Global South, an entire deterritorialized geography of people who have suffered the biggest blows of capitalism’s externalities.
*Blacklisting is a common term used by employers and agencies to intimidate workers, but the only body with the authority to prevent someone from seeking employment in the country is the MOM, and this is usually for instances where the worker has broken a law.
Inaccessible Medical Insurance, Supporting Workers’ Families, and the SBS Lawsuit
We hope this message finds you with stamina and in good spirits despite the recent extension to COVID restrictions in Singapore. This last month has been a difficult one with regards to migrant justice—more migrant men killed and injured in road accidents while being transported on lorries, more workers who have been reaching out to us regarding negligent employers and outstanding medical claims, and another set of restrictions that leave workers trapped in dormitories for yet another month (or more).
Yet, there is hope. This month also saw workers at Westlite Jalan Tukang Dormitory stand up for their rights and demand accountability. They organised and confronted dormitory management over mismanagement of the COVID outbreak at the dormitory, with video and photo evidence surfacing regarding the lack of proper housing and isolation facilities, pest-ridden food unfit for consumption, and the lack of access to healthcare. Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng responded by patronisingly referring to migrant workers as ‘brothers’. You can read the worker’s reply here.
Kidney Transplant Fundraiser and One Year of Migrant Mutual Aid
It feels like just a few months ago that we began this collaboration, and three quarters of the year has gone by within a blink of an eye. October will mark exactly one year since we started Migrant Mutual Aid. To our team, this is all still quite surreal. From the amount of funds raised collectively, the workers we have supported, the friendships we have built, and the solidarity that so many people have extended — from our coordinators, to people who self-organised their own fundraisers for MMA, to you — we are very appreciative.There is so much more to be learnt and done, and it is lovely to have you here.
We are also happy to share that our team is slowly expanding! Individuals have reached out to us in varying capacities to offer time and energy, which makes the work a lot easier.
Ms R is a Filipino domestic worker who was referred to us by her friend. She had been experiencing gum & tooth pains, and was in need of a dentures replacement. Through the healthcare workers callout we did on Instagram in May, we managed to partner with a dentist who was willing & able to treat Ms R’s root canal for free. However his clinic was not able to provide the dentures replacement, so Ms R sourced a dentist that was affordable and she was comfortable with. We disbursed $310 from our SSF for this procedure and she is in much better health now.
S (M13)’s listing is currently live on both our Instagram page and website. You can read the full details of his case here. As of 20th Sept, we have raised $5,937/$14,244, and if we cannot fulfil the rest of the amount by mid-October, ‘S’ will have to reschedule his surgery for later in the year of after, depending on when we can fulfil the amount. We have spoken with him about contingency plans in case we don’t meet our first fundraising deadline.
Scam Cases and The Politics of Moonlighting
We hope you and your family had a restful long weekend over the National Day holiday. This is the time of year that is most disillusioning for some when we ask ourselves, “What is the real Singapore story?” We watch tributes and narratives aired on national television that present only a minute—and even then obscured—version of our ‘stories’. We watch fireworks blast against the backdrop of a well-manicured skyline, the construction of which remains a violent yet opaque part of our history. We know men have died building these skyscrapers, yet there is little to no information on the exact statistics of these figures, let alone their names and faces. This makes it difficult for us to learn, to organise, and to lobby for a more equitable Singapore. Critiquing and fighting for change against power is to love our country and our people enough to desire change; yet it is a patriotic sentiment that is so deeply policed and clamped down on.
As always, your solidarity via this fund has been immensely helpful. In the last month we have continued to coordinate listings that were either non-monetary or did not require fundraisers (thanks to your contributions!).
*While there is no legal definition of “moonlighting”, the term is commonly understood to refer to a situation in which a person, aside from having a full-time job, additionally holds either a part-time job, or is self-employed (e.g. freelancing). It is important to note that the only group of workers in Singapore who are completely barred from moonlighting are foreign employees holding an S Pass or Work Permit.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
New Fundraiser, A WICA Case, and Concluding ‘Into The Forest’
We hope the month of July has been pleasant for you so far and Eid al-Adha Mubarak to those who celebrate, including our Muslim migrant workers, many of whom still have their mobility restricted one year on.
Mr. S was referred to us by HealthServe because he needed to replace his damaged phone before returning to Bangladesh after a successful WICA case outcome. We were able to meet this need fairly quickly after conducting a phone call-out via Instagram but upon meeting ‘S’ to pass him the phone, we learnt that he had a few other pre-existing needs.
“When we are engaged in acts of love, we humans are at our best and most resilient. The love in romance that makes us want to be better people, the love of children that makes us change our whole lives to meet their needs, the love of family that makes us drop everything to take care of them, the love of community that makes us work tirelessly with broken hearts.”
SSF Transactions, New Listings, and Closing the India COVID Fundraiser
We hope you are having a good month of June so far, and Happy Father’s Day to everyone—including domestic helpers who play an important role in our parenting, and all the migrant men who spend many such celebratory days away from their families to earn a living.
May/June has been a particularly busy month for our team, and we have managed to work through a couple of cases without having to list them. We are also currently coordinating 8-10 listings that are not yet active on our website, or that require other non-monetary assistance. We will address these individually later on in this email.
We began this fundraiser in May in response to India’s growing COVID-19 crisis. The fundraiser was live for 5 weeks and a total of SGD $14,080 was raised via public contributions. As a team, we decided to make a top-up of SGD SGD $1,000 from the SSF to each organization to further support their efforts on the ground, making the final total SGD $16,080 (i.e. SGD $8,040 to each org).
One thing that was noteworthy about the fundraiser is the way groups and individuals found ways to self-organise within their work/art/capacities to support our larger fundraiser. We want to shout out @paatiphilosophy and @thelocalrebel (both on Instagram) for their self-initiated craft and zine fundraisers respectively.
As this particular fundraiser comes to a close, we also want to reiterate the intention behind it. Migrant Mutual Aid is partial to mutual aid work and initiatives everywhere, as we believe solidarity is always with the working class and those who have been made vulnerable by oppressive systems. COVID-19 has exposed how the status quo privileges a certain class of people, and it is only through solidarity work that we can redistribute wealth and self-organise networks that are built by people and that work for people.
While we do the work in Singapore, we must also be cognisant of the fact that we are inextricably plugged into a larger system of global racial capitalism that leads many South Asian migrants to countries like Singapore to seek work opportunities. Furthermore, both pre-independent and modern Singapore’s infrastructures and architectures were built by Indian slave labour during British colonialism and migrant workers from South Asia. Contributing aid towards India’s health crisis is an important step in displaying our regional interconnectedness and solidarity.
JP is a 41-year old Filipino domestic helper who is now back in her hometown Ilo Ilo after working in Singapore for 8 years. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in April, and her employers terminated her contract after learning about her diagnosis without warning, notice period, or severance pay. She has since flown back to the Philippines and is receiving treatment there. The money sent to JP through the SSF was used for a downpayment on her curative surgery and we have just received news that she will require further chemoradiotherapy as her cancer was discovered to be at Stage 3C during surgery.
We will be listing the case for public fundraising soon, where we will share more information about her story, the gross negligence on the part of her employers and her agency, and her needs moving forward. Do keep a look out for JP’s listing this month, and please spread the word if you can!
Hello from the MMA Team, Update on Recent Projects, & Thank You for Your Solidarity
We hope this email finds you in good health and spirits. This is our first time reaching out to contributors since we started the Standing Solidarity Fund in February 2021, and we wanted to personally thank you, as well as share how we have been using the fund. We do this not only to create transparency and accountability around our processes, but also to continue building trust with communities (yes, you!) who are allied in our work towards migrant justice and equity in Singapore.
We would like to highlight A’s situation in particular as a case in point to illustrate why we set up the Standing Solidarity Fund. ‘A’ is a 22 year old worker from Tamil Nadu who was referred to us by another organisation in Singapore that does not primarily work with migrant workers. When we reached out to ‘A’, he was in urgent need of help. He abruptly left Singapore to be with his ailing father in India, who suffered a heart attack from end stage kidney failure (ESRF) and was in need of an immediate fistula procedure to commence dialysis. A’s father himself was a migrant worker in Singapore for 15 years before returning to India a few years ago. ‘A’s basic pay is $520/month and he is the sole breadwinner of the family; he had to borrow money from his manager in Singapore to purchase his ticket home. He did not have any means to afford his father’s procedure, and we were able to quickly verify the need and send him money from the SSF, as reflected above. Right after his father underwent the fistula procedure and was set up for dialysis treatment , India went into their second lockdown. ‘A’ mentioned over a call that his father would probably not have made it if he did not get the fistula in time. We made multiple disbursements to A due to the evolving nature of his father’s need (the first fistula operation failed) as well as the current complex situation in India which has caused immense inflation and priced A’s family out of most necessities, including food and healthcare.