Palestine on our minds
We, alongside the global community, watch the events unfolding in Gaza in horror. There is a brokenness many of us on the team feel daily, feeling helpless in the face of the depravity of the ongoing genocide. In the last month, I have seen more corpses on social media than I have in my medical career. Why do we use the term “innocent children”? What other kind of children exist who deserve death from an enemy who did not have to see them to launch the trigger? Why do we focus on “women and children” – are the men in press jackets, in hospital scrubs, in a baker’s apron… not worthy of the same compassion? We reflect further below.
Here is a breakdown of how we used the Standing Solidarity Fund from 1 October – 31 October 2023:
$1,165.00 – 2 months of family expenses and medical treatment for his big toe amputation
$3,728.00 – For 3 (new, more intensive) chemotherapy sessions for his lymphoma before planning for a bone marrow transplant
$18.30 (direct payment to DigitalOcean for cloud server costs)
Here is a breakdown of how we used the Fund for Bereaved Families from 1 October – 31 October 2023:
$3,100.00 – 6 months of family expenses, estimated from previous disbursements
J (unlisted) – Dealing with the complications of a relapse
Remarkably, we discovered that domestic helpers from RR’s country of origin had united to raise S$4,000 for her and her grieving family. This initiative was led by a helper who came from the same village as RR, and was sending these funds directly to RR’s family. Through her, we contributed S$3,100 from our Fund for Bereaved Families (FBF) to RR’s family. Remaining sensitive to the difficult time the family must be going through, we opted to send her an average amount based on our previous FBF transactions, instead of speaking with the family on their needs as we would usually do.
RR had been working in Singapore for a mere 4 months at the time of her passing, and the circumstances surrounding her case are distressing. There have been claims of abuse, as well as the confiscation of RR’s phone, which has raised significant concerns regarding her freedom and the extent of control exerted by her employers. Regrettably, we are unable to share further details in our newsletter, as we have not obtained consent from RR’s family. We are currently strategizing on ways to hold the relevant parties accountable. RR’s tragic story serves as a poignant reminder of the critical need for ongoing advocacy and support for migrant domestic helpers who often find themselves in vulnerable situations. We send our deepest condolences to the family and friends of RR.
Relearning history, bearing witness to hypocrisy, and doing what we can
Translations from left to right:
“Bengal’s mothers and daughters are all freedom fighters”
Supporting Non-Work Injury Cases, Consequences of Employer Cost-Cutting on Health, and Our First Climate Rally
We had multiple recipients from our Fund for Bereaved Families (FBF) this month, and we are sharing our reflections on these cases as well as our participation in this year’s climate rally. Additionally, we are pleased to share the good news we received about RB, a worker mentioned in our August 2023 newsletter, who underwent open-heart surgery for his heart defect.
Here is a breakdown of how we used the Standing Solidarity Fund from 1 September – 30 September 2023:
$18.10 (direct payment to DigitalOcean for cloud server costs)
Here is a breakdown of how we used the Fund for Bereaved Families from 1 September – 30 September 2023:
$7,445.00 cost of 6 months of family expenses and for building a permanent home for SH’s bereaved family (wife ‘L’ and 2 sons)
$1,505.00 cost of 6 months of family expenses to M’s bereaved wife
$1,205.00 cost of 6 months of family expenses to E, bereaved wife of H
‘SH’ – is “ The Singapore Dream” even real?
We last mentioned SH in the October 2022 newsletter. 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.
Unfortunately, SH’s condition rapidly deteriorated upon being repatriated and he only spent less than 24 hours with his family before passing away. He is survived by his wife ‘L’ and two sons. He was the primary provider for the family. After his passing, we continued to support his family by covering their living expenses for the next six months. We discussed their specific needs with ‘L’ to ensure their well-being during this challenging time.
Recently, through our Fund for Bereaved Families (FBF), we reconnected with ‘L.’ She informed us that she had lost her rented home following SH’s death. The family of 3 has been living in a temporary shop space provided by a neighbour rent-free. ‘L’ also shared that the village community had supported her in raising funds to buy a piece of land. However, she lacked the financial means to build up a home on that land for herself and her children to live in. As a team, we collectively decided that rather than supporting her with only living expenses, which will only temporarily address her precarity, assisting her in the construction of a permanent home would provide long-term stability. From the FBF, we provided her with six months’ worth of living expenses along with funds specifically earmarked for the construction of this house.
We challenge the prevailing bias associated with supporting non-work-related deaths, which suggests that some of these medical conditions would have arisen regardless of the workers’ time in Singapore. Migrant workers trade the limited time they have in this life in exchange for the promise of a better future in this seemingly prosperous country. However, the stark reality is that even after dedicating 20 years of their lives to this “affluent” nation, individuals like SH are unable to leave little to nothing behind for their families, not even a place to call home.
We often underestimate the immense sacrifices made by workers who relocate far from their families in pursuit of “The Singapore Dream.” They endure long separations and measly salaries, which are deliberately kept low to benefit our economy. We should no longer tolerate the notion that anyone working in this expensive city can live on meagre $500 monthly wages. Every individual, regardless of gender or nationality, deserves a decent living wage, and everyone is entitled to safe and secure housing.
‘M’ – when withheld information has life and death implications
On June 16 2021, M, a 40-year-old Bangladeshi worker, had blood in his urine with painful urination while at work in a condominium. Despite M informing his supervisor, the supervisor declined to bring M to a doctor, citing their employer’s preference for M to instead seek medical attention the next day instead. After prolonged negotiation between them, the supervisor eventually agreed for M to see a general practitioner, who referred M to go to the emergency department (ED). M went to a public hospital ED, where the emergency physician referred him further to the urologist. Importantly, M’s ultrasound by the urologist showed an enlarged right kidney as well as what could possibly be a tumour (as described by the urologist themself). He was discharged from the ED with an early appointment for a scan of his urinary system.
Frustratingly, his employer had purposely not informed M of his follow up appointment for his scan in view of concerns of more medical costs to the company. What they did not know was that this scan would have likely showed M’s bladder cancer, thus the symptoms of bleeding and pain on urination before. A few months later in October 2021, M was hospitalised in a different public hospital for COVID-19 infection, with the same complaint of blood in his urine. After extensive work-up, he was found to have metastatic bladder cancer that had already spread to his bones. His symptoms also significantly worsened, so much so that the initial plan to repatriate him had to be cancelled as he was no longer fit to fly due to extensive blood loss from his urine. M went back to Bangladesh after being stabilised in Singapore. We initially kept in touch when he started some palliative treatment back home to help control his symptoms and spend the last few months with his family with dignity.
Despite knowing his prognosis, we were deeply saddened by his passing in July 2022. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact his wife, we reopened the case in May this year upon establishing the FBF. We had resigned ourselves to the idea that our chance to support his family was lost. However, in July this year, we received a surprising Telegram notification that M’s wife had joined Telegram and we managed to get in touch. We learned about her well-being and her need for assistance, particularly for her three sons’ schooling expenses. Consequently, we disbursed six months’ worth of family expenses from FBF.
M’s case ignited a profound sense of anger within us. It was this very anger that fueled our relentless efforts to connect with his family over the course of a year, nearly two years after we first met him in 2021. We can’t ascertain whether his high-grade cancer would have been treatable if it had been diagnosed earlier, given there was a suspicion for four months before the actual diagnosis. Nevertheless, the mere thought of this possibility is heart-wrenching.
Even if an earlier diagnosis wouldn’t have altered his prognosis, the core injustice in what his employer did remains glaringly wrong. We went so far as to consult lawyers to explore potential actions against the company. However, following M’s passing, the legal route became exceptionally challenging to pursue.
As we revisit our old notes to write this section, we’ve come to realise that M’s employer seemingly declined further testing and falsely informed the medical team that the insurance they had purchased for him only covered $5,000 of hospitalisation costs, despite the minimum amount being $15,000. While seeking redress against the employer may seem unattainable, we are thankful that we were able to offer support to M’s family through the FBF disbursement. Additionally, the reconnection with his wife allows us to provide ongoing support and assistance to her as needed.
‘E’ – checking in with our previous cases
We last mentioned ‘E’ in our March 2023 newsletter. ‘E’ is a 21 year old Bangladeshi lady, and the widowed wife of ‘H’. ‘H’ was a 28 year old Bangladeshi male migrant worker who arrived in Singapore in February of 2022 as a painter. A couple of months later, he had a seizure at work, and was later found to have had a large inoperable brain tumour. Unfortunately, he lost consciousness the day after being admitted to the hospital, and passed away a few days later. He is survived by his wife, ‘E’, and their then 1.5 year old son. We had sent her 2 months of living expenses ($300) from SSF in March this year to alleviate her financial burden, given that she had lost her family’s main breadwinner.
‘E’ received support from her late husband’s company in Singapore and from Bangladesh’s Wage Earner Welfare Fund (a fund specifically set up for deceased repatriated Bangladeshi workers), but this amount has been used up. With the newly established Fund for Bereaved Families, we reached out to check-in with E. Residing with her parents, she finds herself in a situation where her brother, a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia, shoulders the responsibility of supporting her family, his own household, and their ageing parents. The family’s financial situation is strained due to the numerous dependents relying on her brother’s income. Given her eligibility for a disbursement from FBF, she felt a sense of relief, knowing that it would provide increased financial stability for the upcoming six months. She asks us to pray for her now 2 year old son.
‘RB’ – mutual aid in practice
We speak of RB in the Aug 2023 newsletter, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi male repatriated due to a heart defect for which he required surgery. He successfully proceeded with his open heart surgery, thanks in large part to his hospital interpreter, who had connected us to his case. Our primary role in this case was facilitating communication between RB and his employers to help him secure an extension of stay in Singapore, allowing him to complete his work-up here. Beyond this, RB’s interpreter reached out to her friends within the Singaporean and Bangladeshi communities, and took the initiative to contact a doctor in Bangladesh who agreed to do the surgery free of cost, and started a fundraiser to cover the debts he incurred in coming to Singapore.
The interpreter efforts are another powerful and tender example of how organising doesn’t need to happen in the form of a formal organisation. There are so many ways in which people demonstrate solidarity and come together to support one another in times of need, often with the urgency, on-the-ground networks, and nimbleness that larger formal organisations just don’t have. The interpreter leveraged her networks and resources to provide crucial, timely assistance to someone within their proximity who needed that help. As a token of our appreciation for her support, we are sending her a thank you card and some chocolates.
Can we reimagine a city built for migrant workers too, and not just by them?
On 23rd September, we attended SGCR’s Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park. Our booth was right next to Orang Laut’s booth (please check out their work), and we shared the various ways climate justice and migrant justice intersect. The topics we explored were transport, housing, and working conditions, both of actual work and of rest during work too. We had prepared texts for people to read at our booth, but also engaged attendees by encouraging them to share their own thoughts, both in conversation and on paper.
You can read about how migrant and climate justices are linked when we post our sharing on Instagram. Reflecting on the event itself, we actually found that many of these issues are not as well recognised and reckoned with amongst attendees as we thought they may be. We see the value in these public engagements that we previously may have shied away from; and it is an important reminder that there is a lot of work ahead. Workers in lorries are constantly exposed to harsh weather elements, there are no mandatory break guidelines when it comes to extreme weather conditions, many dormitories lack adequate cooling facilities… the list goes on.
This newsletter felt heavier to write than previous ones, likely because we addressed mostly cases of bereaved workers this month. I still remember standing outside M’s dorm in the west of Singapore, going through his medical documents with him and watching my teammate give him a hug before he flew back to Bangladesh. We hope to assist as many bereaved families as we can with this fund. If you know a worker or a bereaved family requiring assistance even after traditional options are explored, please always feel free to drop us an email. We remain committed to this work and are grateful for your support. Thank you also to the folks who dropped by our booth and said hello!
Dealing with Disillusionment, Struggling with Stability, and Bouncing Back from a Failed Pitch
August has been a long month of patriotism-flex – starting with National Day, followed by the build-up to the Presidential Elections. That’s not a real term, but how I’d describe what the atmosphere felt like to me. I love a good celebration, and I was the first to tell my niece how cute her National Day Parade wrist tattoos were, but sometimes August felt disillusioning.
The feeling always hits out of nowhere; maybe while staring into an expensive display of fireworks, or when I hear a politician say “solidarity” for the 5th time across 2 sentences. The latter is just a personal pet peeve from a suspicion that civil society language is intentionally co-opted by state actors, taking power away from these words’ intended meaning. These thoughts are not very well-formed but I would love to hear if any of you have felt the same too. The patriotism my friends and I embody doesn’t only come in the month of August, but in our everyday lives in the ways we show up for folks who live here; citizen or not, “born here?” or not. It’s quiet, difficult, consistent, and persistent.
Here is a breakdown of how we used the Standing Solidarity Fund from 1 August – 31 August 2023:
$1,400 for loan repayment for son’s medical bills
$17.83 (direct payment to DigitalOcean for cloud server costs)
There were no disbursals from the Fund for Bereaved Families this month.
A (M12, previously L01)
A is a 31-year-old Bangladeshi worker who came to Singapore in 2014 for work. A’s case was first referred to us by HealthServe in 2021. For his need in July 2021, we initiated a fundraiser and raised $4,900 to assist him in repaying the loan he took for his father’s surgery (case L01 linked above).
A’s time in Singapore has been tumultuous. He has come to Singapore 5 times now, across the last 9 years. Unfortunately, during each stint, he faced challenges such as repatriation or unexpected company shutdowns, all of which were beyond his control. Here’s a brief timeline of A’s working experience in Singapore:
- Came to Singapore in 2014, paying $12,000 SGD in agent fees for a job. After 1 year, he left because the company couldn’t renew his work permit due to a work permit quota.
- In 2016, A returned to Singapore, paying $7,200 SGD in agent fees. After 10 months, the company was shut down due to a fatal accident, and he was repatriated with his other colleagues.
- ‘A’ came back a third time in late 2016, paying $4,500 SGD in agent fees. He worked for 2 years until he sustained a workplace injury that sent him back to Bangladesh. He received a payout from a WICA injury claim, which helped with his agent fee loans. During this trip back to Bangladesh, his mother passed away.
- A returned to Singapore for the fourth time, paying $1,600 SGD in agent fees.
In July 2022, on his 4th working stint here, A contacted us about his abusive workplace. The men in charge routinely subjected workers to physical and verbal abuse on top of overseeing unsafe worksites.
During his 17-day tenure at this company, A was forced to paint at a height of about 4 to 5 metres above ground without proper safety equipment. A reported this infraction to the MOM and MOM did not provide a timeline for the investigation. Subsequently, when the employer learned of the report, A was taken to the employer’s home, intimidated, and physically assaulted. Shortly after, A was threatened not to come back to work as his Work Pass was cancelled, and he was repatriated without notice or receiving his owed salary.
In February 2023, A came back to Singapore (5th time now) after shouldering yet another loan to cover the $2,200 agent fees and purchasing his own flight ticket. The incoming flight ticket is legally supposed to be covered by one’s employer. In June, he reached out to us, sharing that his newborn son has pneumonia, leading him to take further loans totalling to ~$4,200 to cover his medical bills. Due to inconsistent work & salary at his current company, A’s loan repayment had been affected. To make matters worse, A’s company ceased operations on July 31 due to bankruptcy. A is currently actively seeking another job to avoid another repatriation, but required assistance with $1,400 SGD for loan repayments during this transitional period.
We initially planned on a fundraiser to support A. However, his employers had cancelled his Work Permit, thus his situation became urgent and we made an SSF disbursement to him. He is currently awaiting guidance from his MOM case officer about the next steps forward and if he is eligible for a transfer to another company despite his pass being cancelled. Even after the fact that migrant workers will never have permanence in this country, A struggles with the short term transience due to circumstances bigger than himself. His determination to still work here despite all this speaks to the desperation many workers come here with.
HN is a 50-year-old Filipino domestic helper who was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and we shared about her case in our last newsletter. We initiated a fundraiser for her this July and are thrilled to share that we successfully reached the target amount of $5,700 SGD. All of this money goes towards her treatment (radiotherapy, brachytherapy, and chemotherapy). HN, who is back home now, has been providing us with updates regarding her ongoing treatment and her overall health and well-being. Chemotherapy has been quite challenging for her, with multiple episodes of nausea and vomiting after. Her oncologist recommended her to consult with a nephrologist to assess her kidney function as she has elevated levels of serum creatinine.
As detailed in our July newsletter, HN has not only been a supporter of our work at MMA, but has also served as a source of strength for many workers during her 20+ year long career in Singapore. We are heartened to be able to alleviate her financial burdens through your collective solidarity during this difficult treatment period. We will stay in touch with her to provide her with as much emotional support as she needs through this process.
Working on a lorry documentary
In July, a serious lorry accident occurred along Kranji Expressway, involving 3 lorries and resulting in 26 people being brought to our emergency departments (EDs). When I worked in one of the largest EDs in Singapore, I recall one of my consultants sharing her experience when responding to a major road traffic accident (RTA) between 2 large transport vehicles carrying migrant workers. This was over 20 years ago, when RTAs on AYE only had NUH to be brought to; back when there was no KTPH or NTFGH. It is completely unsurprising to me that these preventable accidents have persisted with so little action despite obvious solutions. With our silence, we signal to the government and businesses that we accept this practice of ferrying workers in the back of lorries. Just this month, a detailed motion to phase out lorry transportation was rejected in Parliament, and two different statements were released by ~100 community groups to oppose the current practice. Given how much we harp on our status as a technocratic state, our inaction is confusing – the high statistics of migrant deaths and injuries show that lorries are dangerous for human transportation. The Migrant Death Map extensively documents this issue and compiled a timeline of the events that has shaped this practice, starting from the year 1987.
At MMA, we stand unequivocally with calls to abolish this inhumane mode of transportation – but, as TWC2 President Debbie Fordyce shared in a recent podcast episode on CNA, this must not be implemented in a way where the increased cost of safety is pushed upon the worker. To convey this complexity and with migrant voices as a central theme, we submitted a proposal to Malaysia’s Freedom Film Festival for a grant to create a documentary about lorry transportation in Singapore. We have spoken to migrant workers who were keen to create this with us, albeit anonymously for risk mitigation reasons. Although we were shortlisted to the pitching phase of the festival, we failed to secure the grant. No matter, as we will continue production of this documentary in our own capacity. We are in the midst of putting together a small team consisting of both migrant workers and Singaporeans to create this. Reply back to this email if you’re interested to join us!
Showing up at our second rally
We spent at least 2 years organising mostly in isolation, only working with closely related organisations if they engaged directly with our mutual aid casework (e.g. taking on case referrals or seeking specific advice on MOM protocols). This has helped us crystallise what we wanted the ethos of our mutual aid to look like, and more importantly, build friendships and learn more about community. With these in place, we have been confidently engaging more in wider civil society activities this year. This month, we will be participating in the Singapore Climate Justice Rally on 23 September (3pm-7pm) at Hong Lim Park. If you’d like to meet us in person, or know more about migrant justice (especially its intersection with climate justice), come by our booth and say hi! Till then, we will be preparing for this and other upcoming collaborations that we will continue to share about in our newsletters.
As always, thank you for journeying with us.
Reflections on policing, the generational impact of death, and non-financial mutual aid work
Thank you for journeying with us. We have started to publish the SSF disbursement amounts (previously redacted) in full on our website, and also a brief summary of our newsletter on our Instagram page, to share more widely about this work.
At our recent talk at Dakota Dreams (see below), we shared that a common misconception is that our work is mainly fundraising, when this is really only a small part of what we do. In this newsletter, you can read more about the different non-financial ways that we do mutual aid, such as in RB’s case.
This month, it’s been hard to reckon with how much of a police state we live in. This comes in the blows of court verdicts, harsh sentencing, and the extent the state goes to to deny systemic racism. A 21-year-old migrant worker was just sentenced to 3 years’ jail for counterfeiting $50 notes. While absolutely not condoning the serious crime of forgery itself, the severe sentencing for this young man shocked us. Court documents did not state the number of notes forged, and the carceral system had no compassion for the circumstances he was in that may have influenced his decisions. It was reported that the worker was on a special pass at the time of the act. A special pass is given to workers for permission to stay in Singapore while awaiting the outcome of their case (usually an injury claim). On this pass, workers are not allowed to work, and only have food, accommodation, and medical bills provided for. They do not receive any salary or basic wage despite the other financial commitments they have. This case, coupled with other recent news has been disconcerting, and we are grateful for our teammates and the support we lend one another as we navigate these emotions.
Here is a breakdown of how we used the Standing Solidarity Fund from 25 June – 31 July 2023:
$505 for 2 months of family expenses and medical costs.
$1066 for a downpayment to start radiotherapy, and the cost of her first chemotherapy with doctor’s consult fees
$15.53 (direct payment to DigitalOcean for cloud server costs)
Here is a breakdown of how we used the Fund for Bereaved Families from 25 June – July 31 2023:
$3,045 cost of 6 months of family expenses and Milad to RN’s bereaved wife
We last spoke of MA in our March newsletter. He is still in the process of seeking fair compensation for his injuries from a 3 storey fall through wet cement at his worksite. He required assistance for his ongoing medical needs and family expenses as he continues to recover and is not yet able to work.
HN is a 50-year-old domestic helper who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She is now back home in the Philippines, and started her treatment on 17th July using a first tranche of money that we could send her using the SSF. HN has been a friend of the team for a long time now supporting our mutual aid work, as well as a pillar of strength for many workers during her 20+ year long career in Singapore. While it is unfortunate that she had to leave Singapore so abruptly, she had a chance to say goodbye to her close friends before she left. We are fortunate to have had the chance to meet her for a farewell meal and celebrate our friendships through famous local hawker fares before she travelled home.
Once home, her local doctors advised her to start her treatment immediately, and because of this, she was unable to apply for social services support in time. The entire course of her treatment would cost $5,700, which includes radiotherapy, brachytherapy, and chemotherapy. We went live with her fundraiser earlier this month, and have nearly met the halfway mark of this goal (as of the time writing this newsletter).
HN shared that her previous employers are expats making high salaries, but when she informed them about her condition, they were cold and unempathetic. They did not offer any financial support or even a small token sum in solidarity. Our team appealed to them and they eventually contributed $500 to the fundraiser. When workers fall ill or decide to return to their home countries, they are often treated with indifference and detachment – reflecting the transactional nature of how domestic workers are valued solely for the labour they provide. This is despite the children they raise, the elderly they nurse, and the families they clean after all these years.
We shared the news of RN’s passing in our previous newsletter. Since then, we’ve stayed in regular contact with his wife. She has been completely distraught as she continues to mourn her late husband. While she navigates through this difficult time, we have been able to support her in a material way through the FBF, covering RN’s funeral expenses and six months of their family living expenses. Amongst the many worries that RN’s wife has shared with us, the one that comes up the most is how she can support her children and her elderly parents in the long-term. We remind her to take things one day at a time, and that we are there as a listening ear if she ever needs us. We are also checking in with one another in the team – some of us take on more care work than others, and it comes with its own emotional toll.
We are thinking of the many migrant workers who pass away with little to nothing left behind. It is myopic if we only consider workplace-related deaths as a death that we should reckon with. So many of these deaths, even if they appear “medical” like RN’s gastric cancer, have elements of nutritional insecurity, missed diagnosis, and delayed treatment that occurred as a result of their inadequate living & working conditions and support systems here. These workers come here to exchange their time for money – potential time watching their children grow up, time with their spouses, time in their jonmobhumi (জন্মভূমি, birth country). The impact of such premature deaths, again, with little to no savings, are felt across multiple generations. Often the cycle of poverty these workers intended to break continues and are passed down to their children. Well, how does one build intergenerational wealth with the incredibly low wages we provide anyway? These are some of the reasons we believe strongly in this new bereavement fund, and will continue to support RN’s wife in the ways we can.
RB (new case, unlisted)
RB, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker, fainted suddenly and experienced difficulty breathing while at work. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed a heart defect requiring open-heart surgery. Although not immediately life-threatening, doctors recommended prompt surgery and further cardiac testing. However, RB’s company insurance covered only his local hospital stay and other medical bills, and they declined to pay for additional tests and procedures due to coverage limitations. The mandatory minimum coverage of S$15,000 provided for migrant workers in public hospitals falls significantly short of the treatment RB needs.
Before we got involved, RB’s company informed him of immediate repatriation to avoid further financial liabilities. This process was made even more stressful for RB due to a language barrier. After becoming aware of his situation, we advocated for him with his employer, engaging in several phone conversations with his employers. We reached an agreement that favoured RB: he could complete his current contract until September to continue earning money and see out his MC period, but his contract would not be renewed, and he would have to leave Singapore afterwards.
Fortunately, there’s positive news about RB’s situation. His hospital’s Bengali interpreter, who referred RB to us in the first place, continued to actively participate in his case. They managed to raise funds to ease RB’s agent fee-related loans. Additionally, they connected with some members of the Bangladeshi community, who generously agreed to cover the entire cost of his surgery and medical care in Bangladesh. We admire the way everyone rallied together to care for RB. RB expressed his desire to return to Singapore for work once he has recovered from the surgery.
Dakota Dreams Sharing Session
Migrant Mutual Aid had a public sharing session for only our second time ever since starting this work. This was hosted by Ethos Books (details here, under “View Details”), and we co-chaired a panel discussion on mutual aid work with Beyond Social Services. We’re still getting used to the practice of articulating the ethos of this work in a way that is also digestible and engaging. The event went well and we connected to a handful of audience members after the event, with whom we hope to work together with soon. We shared on the cycle of hope and despair in mutual aid, where the small wins we get in our casework gives us daily doses of motivation to continue doing this work despite feelings of futility working towards the political change we need.
During the event, we reflected on how much of mutual aid is grounded by care work. This care takes on various forms, from the fundraisers we organise (our most public-facing work) to the quieter actions that makes up most of our work; supporting a grieving widow like for RN’s, accompanying workers to the bank for their first ATM card like for MA, or even just bringing a Get Well Soon balloon to their hospital bed like for HN. We want to reimagine care in a society where seeking support is stigmatised. Our policies often overlook human tendencies of interdependence and the need for care – both for migrant and non-migrant folks. Individuals are expected to resolve issues by themselves, even though these issues are shaped by systemic factors beyond their control.
One of the attendees at the event said, “we’ve privatised our profits, and socialised our losses,” and we see this happening in our society with big businesses and corporate interests put first. Mutual aid empowers individuals, like you and I, in reclaiming our autonomy by strengthening our own networks, thus reducing our reliance on systems that do not extend the same care to everyone.
We hope to catch you at the next one!
Thinking about Life & Death on Eid, the Custom of Milad, and the Tyranny of Verification
Eid Mubarak to those who are celebrating! This month, our team has been busy with the many cases you’ll read about below, including our first disbursal to a bereaved family member. We feel grateful that over Eid, our team came together to meet with each other and as well as with Z, the bereaved brother of R (M02). Z invites us to his living quarters in Singapore every Eid to cook the best mutton for us, amongst other Bangladeshi dishes. R succumbed to his multiple myeloma exactly a year ago, and we held space during our meeting to remember his beautiful life. Unfortunately, later that night on Eid, we received news on RN’s passing, whom you can read about below.
RN was one of our returning cases whom we had mentioned previously in the November 2022 newsletter. RN was a 32-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer in October 2022, with a prognosis of 1 year without treatment. His immediate family include his wife, who was nine months pregnant when he was diagnosed, and a son. His wife’s younger brother and parents were also financially dependent on him prior to this cancer diagnosis. In November 2022, we sent him $1,000 to commence his chemotherapy sessions to (hopefully) prolong his life to a best-case prognosis of 2 years.
Early this month, RN reached out to share a health update that his condition is not improving and that he needed some financial support for his family expenses, such as baby formula and groceries. Having already sold the land they owned and most of their assets, they could not continue paying for their daily necessities. We sent RN’s family $600 to tide his family over for a month before deciding on the next course of action.
Unfortunately, the next time we heard from RN was through his wife, who reached out to update us that his condition had worsened even more and that he had to be admitted to a hospital. She requested financial support for his medical costs and additional funds for family expenses. We sent enough money to cover his current medical costs and enough for one more month’s worth of medicine and family expenses.
Our priority was to ensure RN’s comfort by providing access to medical care while allowing the family to cherish quality time together without the burden of financial concerns. Thus it is with a heavy heart that we share with our contributors that RN later passed on on the morning of Eid itself, just last Thursday. Some of us had met RN just last October when he was still hospitalised in Singapore. His wife is still processing this news, who feels hopeless and fearful of this future without RN, especially for her 2 kids. We are in the midst of speaking to her and we will update further in our next newsletter, with a likely disbursal from our Fund for Bereaved Families. Upon the news of RN’s passing, we are thinking about how much this team deals with life and death, and the grief that comes with the community care we are building with each other.
J is another returning case whom we had mentioned in our January 2022 newsletter. He is a 38-year old Bangladeshi worker who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma (wrongly reported as throat cancer in our Jan 2022 newsletter) at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in late 2021, and was repatriated. He has been undergoing chemotherapy at a government hospital in Bangladesh but had run out of funds to continue. We sent him $2,000 in January 2022 to complete the course of the treatment.
Despite J’s successful completion of chemotherapy and being cancer-free last year, his cancer relapsed. He discovered this after having intense pain in his legs and hips. He had only just returned back to Singapore to work after his initial cancer treatment, and he had to go back to Bangladesh again to seek treatment. J reached back out to us seeking assistance with his chemotherapy treatment. Throughout this journey, J’s brother has shown immense support by financially taking care of their parents, J’s wife and two children, and even shouldering the burden of J’s medical expenses, including the first chemotherapy session.
We started supporting J’s medical expenses after his first chemotherapy session and we will be sending him funds for the five remaining chemotherapy sessions (approx. $400 per session), and his CT and PET scans ($736) at the end of his treatment. We plan to disburse this total amount of $2736 in 2 transfers, and we have already made the first transfer of $1200 this month. We are hopeful that J will be able to overcome his cancer diagnosis for a second time.
In previous updates, we shared the latest information on NJ and IM’s case. IM was severely injured in a bus accident while riding a company-issued bicycle, slipping into a coma in May 2022 and passing away in February 2023. Following his repatriation to Bangladesh for the last many months of his life, NJ was his dedicated caregiver for even basic needs. NJ’s life has been incredibly challenging, both physically and emotionally.
In accordance with Bangladeshi Muslim traditions, it is customary for families to hold a Milad after the passing of a loved one. During this gathering, community members are invited to share a meal, and religious scholars or Imams are invited to offer prayers for the departed soul. NJ has chosen to invite widows and orphans from her village and host a meal in honour of IM and to ensure his well-being in the afterlife. We are sending this money as requested by NJ. A Milad holds significant importance as a closing custom when someone passes away, and also emphasises the importance of caring for each other in the community.
It has been over a year since IM’s legal case for compensation began. NJ has been reliant on her family and our support thus far. Legal processes are known to take time, and the fact that NJ is dealing with this case single-handedly for such a long duration is truly remarkable, on top of the caregiving she was doing when IM was around too. We will continue to provide support in the ways we can until the conclusion of her legal case. In the meantime, we sent NJ 6 months of living expenses from our Funds for Bereaved Families. Hopefully, she will receive a settlement payment for IM’s death that will enable her to forge a meaningful path forward for herself and her son.
Handling large amount disbursals fairly
We have taken a new approach on disbursing large amounts of funds. For cases where we provide larger amounts of financial support to someone over an extended period, we are now breaking these amounts into multiple transactions instead of a single large transaction. Between the first and the next transaction, it gives the worker time to share the receipts of their expenses, such as the cost of the first chemotherapy, or a compilation of monthly expenses. This system is to allow us to receive the necessary documentation of a worker’s needs in a timely manner for our bookkeeping, while still recognising the “tyranny of verification” that many aid recipients face – a phrase we came across early in this work in a tweet by Riddhi Dastidar, one of the organisers of Mutual Aid India. Locally too, from the experience we’ve had with organisations such as ComCare, we recognise how difficult it is to receive aid for a cost that is impossible to provide a receipt for without the said assistance in hand.
Preventive care for all
In this year alone, we have provided assistance to RN and J, who are just a couple of the cancer patients we’ve supported through this work. We find that many similar cancer cases that come to us are diagnosed at late stages. We suppose this could be due to the lack of awareness of signs and symptoms, and a worker’s limited access to cancer screening at all. Many of our friends who are migrant workers also share that they further delay seeking treatment even when symptoms manifest because of the constant fear of repatriation, since they find no employer likely to support them through the expensive medical care in Singapore.
We wonder about the accessibility of regular cancer screening and health check-ups for migrant workers that are covered by their insurance, the way many locals have access to as well. Currently, their primary healthcare is still very much supported by the private sector. Most consults, especially female domestic workers and male workers not assigned to a migrant worker healthcare clinic, are not insurance claimable. As a vulnerable population in a society where so much emphasis is now being placed on primary healthcare with our latest policies (you can email me back if you’d like to know more about this), it makes sense to integrate them into our healthcare policy and planning, especially after the lessons from COVID-19.
This month has been heavy, and we will continue to look after each other as well as the communities we work with.
Illegal contracts, beating breast cancer, & building new structures
This month, we made some important SSF disbursals, give some insights into cases – including a case of illegal ‘quarantine fee’ deductions, and also share some thoughts on building capacity.
We mentioned N for the first time in April’s newsletter, with a promise on an update regarding a fundraiser for his recovery. He is a 48 year old Bangladeshi worker, repatriated home after a work-related injury that led to a big toe amputation. After being repatriated so suddenly and losing an essential body part, we decided it would be more helpful to send him the funds as soon as possible via SSF instead of a fundraiser. The money should cover 4 months of estimated medical expenses, household expenses, and his daughter’s tuition fees. His doctor stated that N will need 4 months to sufficiently recover till he can move around freely again. Ideally we’d like to support him for 6 months of expenses, and will have a fundraiser for the remaining 2 months at a later time. N plans to find another source of income in those 2 months after recovery, and the fundraiser will support his family while he does this.
We have been in touch with N, and while he is still in considerable pain and stress, we’re happy to share that he is on track with his recovery. While your contributions have eased the burden significantly for this family, using the SSF should not have been necessary in the first place. His company should have rightfully borne the cost of his treatment as his initial big toe injury happened at the workplace, and its loss is a permanent debilitation that will affect him for the rest of his life.
RT is a Bangladeshi worker who approached our team for assistance with returning home to visit his sick wife, who is also 7 months pregnant. RT had just arrived in Singapore on 2nd May, and needed to go home within a week of his arrival. Unfortunately, his employers would not allow him to return without him paying to the company:
1) an arbitrary sum of $1,500 in ‘quarantine fees’;
2) 1-month’s salary as notice; &
3) his own flight ticket home
Only the 1 month’s salary in lieu of notice period is lawful – the other two demands are illegal, as quarantine costs and return flight tickets are borne only by employers. Interestingly (and illegally), the employers had a “written contract” which RT signed, outlining these penalties if a worker does not fulfil their 2-year employment contract. Upon our review, the contract seemed less of an employment contract, and more akin to a modern day slavery contract in a first world nation. This includes an hourly wage at $3.25/hour and illegal $26 deductions from his salary to pay for his accommodation.
At the point when RT reached out to us, he had been asked to stay in his dorm room, and was not allowed to work. This meant he had no income, as he is paid by the hour. We sent him some funds to pay for a month of food catering costs and transport costs (e.g. to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge his report). MOM contacted his employers to inform them that they cannot make these illegal deductions, and can only claim 1 month of salary as notice from the worker. If you are wondering why the Ministry did not take further legal action beyond making a phone call and acting as a mediator of sorts in this case rather than a legal authority, we share the same frustration. MOM has the power to demand that all contracts with such illegal clauses be null and void, and for the company to re-issue contracts to all their workers, along with a penalty for this illegal contract. No such action was taken to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing this newsletter.
RT – on his own volition – borrowed money from friends to pay the company notice, and he received a flight ticket home. He did not want to pursue the case any further with the company beyond this. As he still wants to return to Singapore for work in the future, he did not want to risk being “blacklisted”. We explained that unless he has a police or ICA case, he should still be able to work here, but he did not want to take that risk. RT has since returned to Bangladesh and shared that his wife is doing better now.
On MN’s (M16) recovery from breast cancer
In September last year, we organized a fundraiser for MN, who was undergoing treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer in the Philippines. She had discovered a lump on her right breast in October 2019, but she didn’t seek treatment while she was working in Singapore. It wasn’t until April 2022, when MN experienced severe bleeding from her breast and collapsed in the toilet, that she returned to the Philippines for medical care.
Since the fundraiser, MN has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. This month, she shared the wonderful news with us that she is finally cancer-free. We arranged a call to celebrate with her after such an arduous battle with cancer. MN expressed feeling overwhelmed yet grateful for all the support she received. Her physical condition has significantly improved, and now she only needs to go for monthly check-ups. MN wants us to send her most heartfelt gratitude to everyone who has contributed in helping her fight cancer. We can’t help but reflect on the amazing feats we can achieve with the power of community.
An update on building capacity
At every SSF disbursal, we fine tune what guides our decision-making in a case. We translated these guiding principles into a flowchart to formalise how we decide between sending money via SSF vs doing a fundraiser. We reviewed our older cases as precedent and put into words what these previously arbitrary principles actually are, such as determining the urgency and sensitivity of cases. We want to create well-defined workflows to streamline our process as we take on more casework, while also ensuring there is room for malleability for difficult cases.
We are also in the process of setting up a Facebook page to have our work reach a bigger audience, whether the audience is one who requires assistance, who’d like to contribute, or who’d simply like to learn more about mutual aid. For example, we’d like to share more rights-based information in the common native languages of migrant workers, and would have to navigate how to accommodate so many languages.
Let us know if you have any questions or suggestions about our work, and we’ll keep you updated once our Facebook page is live. This newsletter is longer than usual as we wanted to illustrate the practice and frustration of illegal written contracts such as in RT’s case. We see them so often in our work in various scenarios from “employment” contracts to contracts that allegedly waive off the company’s obligation to pay for hospitalisation. While we are glad to support such cases, these situations should not be happening at all in an ethical and just society. We don’t know how to get there yet – be it with passing stronger laws or building a more collectively conscious society. As we do this trial and error, no one should get left behind (hence the SSF). Whether through contributions or by following the work, thank you for being with us as we find our way there.
Sustaining the movement, Labour Day Rally 2023, & a new Fund for Bereaved Families
A Belated Selamat Hari Raya to our Muslim friends and a Happy Labour Day to everyone! First off, we want to apologise for the delay in sending April’s newsletter – much of our time last month went into creating structures and systems around our work in order to sustain the movement, increase capacities, and share the work with more folks. For example, we took part in our second public engagement event through a booth at the Labour Day Rally 2023 organised by Workers Make Possible (more on this below). A lot of prep work was necessary for this event, and we appreciate your patience in receiving April’s SSF newsletter!
MS, for whom we fundraised S$3,500 in late 2022, is a 49 year old Filipino single mother who 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 with rectal metastases. Her oncologist advised 6 rounds of chemotherapy, costing upwards of another S$3,000. We successfully fundraised for MS again, and she has since received these funds to further her treatment.
N (new, unlisted on our website)
N is a 48 year old Bangladeshi construction worker, who was repatriated home by his employer after a work-related injury. He suffered an injury on his toe from wearing his work safety shoes, went to see his company doctor and was referred to the polyclinic. The injury worsened (N is also diabetic) and he was sent to the hospital on 3rd March 2023. Eventually, N had his toe amputated. His treatment was supposed to be ongoing in Singapore as he was asked to go to the polyclinic to continue his wound care. However, on 17th March 2023, he was hastily repatriated home by his employer. His employer passed him S$2000 but it was not clear what that amount was for.
Upon returning to Bangladesh, N stayed in touch with us and urged us to negotiate compensation from his employer as his foot wound is yet to recover and he is still unable to work. We contacted his employer on his behalf and they refused to compensate him. Had N stayed in Singapore, he would have been eligible to file for compensation under WICA because the injury occurred at his worksite and would be classified as a permanent incapacity.
Cases like N’s highlight the precarious nature of a worker’s time in Singapore. Workers are entirely dependent on their employers for their work permit status, job security, and even the extent of medical treatment they can receive. How an employer chooses to treat a worker remains unmonitored and unregulated for many workers. This power imbalance between workers and employers is exacerbated by the constant fear of repatriation, further suppressing workers not to raise issues they are entitled to such as further medical treatment. In N’s case, he was repatriated before he could file for work injury compensation or seek further medical treatment.
We are organising a fundraiser for N and will keep you updated.
#SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers Fundraiser 2023 and our newly-established Fund for Bereaved Families
The #SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers Fundraiser 2023 was a huge success, with the community raising more than the target amount of funds. In fact, it looks like we will have over S$40,000 in the Fund for Bereaved Families (FBF). The FBF will be a standing fund to provide financial relief to the families left behind when a migrant worker working in Singapore passes away. It is specifically for Muslim families, as it is a zakat-eligible fundraiser. For non-Muslim families, we can still tap into our current SSF to support them as needed.
We have been carefully considering how to best allocate funds from the FBF. We plan to set a cap on the amount withdrawable per family so we can support more families. If there are situations where a family requires support beyond this cap, we will tap into the SSF to help them. We want the fund to last for as long as possible. Our intention is to sustain this fund through annual fundraising efforts, such as continuing with the #SGMuslims4MigrantWorkers campaign if possible.
Public outreach via Labour Day Rally 2023
One of our objectives following the latest strategy meeting is to engage in public outreach and education, both online and offline. The outreach is geared towards facilitating sustainable systemic changes for migrant workers in Singapore and extending our resources to more workers by making our presence known.
While awareness campaigns can take many forms, our plans are primarily constrained by our team’s capacity. Our first goal is to define a few of the terms we use frequently – “charity”, “mutual aid”, and “system change”, to name a few. We will be working on a dedicated FAQ section on our website, so if there are any questions you want answered about us or our processes, please contact us on Instagram or reply to this email.
Secondly, we want Singaporeans to better reckon with and be able to recognise the conditions of migrant workers as a systemic issue while still centring workers’ voices. We are exploring whether we can do more events as part of our campaigns and utilise other forms of digital media.
This is why we agreed to participate in this year’s Labour Day Rally organised by Workers Make Possible at Hong Lim Park. As Hong Lim Park is a restricted space during such events, it was illegal for migrant workers (and other “foreigners”) to enter, so they could not rally with the rest of us. Despite this, many workers still soaked in the spirit of the event by standing along the park perimeter or joining us virtually. During this event, labour rights – or the lack thereof – in the everyday lives of workers were fleshed out as demands; demands for the right to unionise, to rest, to implement a minimum wage and more.
At our booth, we spoke with many of you for the first time about mutual aid, advocacy, and what we do at MMA. Many people still have not heard about the concept of mutual aid, or had not yet considered the indignity of some kinds of “charity”. This showed us the need to pursue more public campaigns like these to challenge pre-existing models of support, and hopefully move us towards more advocacy-based and justice-oriented approaches. We look forward to meeting and exchanging ideas with more of you at future public outreach events.
In closing, thank you all again for your support and solidarity. It is always motivating to know that people – like yourself, reading this message – are here with us reimagining and building a more equitable, caring, and safe world for everyone.
Unethical Fundraising & Building Community as a Form of Resistance
Ramadan Mubarak to our Muslim friends who are observing the holy month this year. We hope March has been gentle to everyone so far.
MN is a 44 year old domestic worker from the Philippines with stage 3 breast cancer whom we have supported since July last year. You can read more about her condition and some thoughts on breast cancer screening for domestic workers in the last newsletter. This month, the SSF has supported her costs for 6 physiotherapy sessions and 30 radiotherapy sessions. We were surprised to see that each radiotherapy session costs about SGD $6 each. Her costs were so low thanks to her Philhealth insurance, a government-owned form of universal health coverage that covers Overseas Filipino Workers.
E (unlisted on our website)
E is a 21 year old Bangladeshi lady, who is the widowed wife of H. H was a 28 year old Bangladeshi worker who arrived in Singapore in February of last year as a painter. A few months later, he suddenly had a seizure at work, and was later found to have had a large brain tumour. Unfortunately, he lost consciousness the day after being admitted at the hospital and he passed away a few days later. He is survived by his wife, E, and their then 1.5 year old son. As H was the sole breadwinner, E finds herself in a financially tight situation every month to cover her monthly expense of $150/month, including for medications for her son’s frequent indigestion. E initially received a lump sum from H’s company and from Bangladesh’s Wage Earner Welfare Fund (WEWF), but this amount has been used up and E recently reached out for support. She moved back into her parents’ house from her in-laws’, and is mainly supported by her brother. Her brother, a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia, currently supports E and her son, his own wife and daughter, and his mother.
The WEWF works like death insurance, where families of deceased repatriated Bangladeshi workers receive some support – E had received 35,000 BDT or SGD $442 from this fund. Currently, in our existing system where insurance or costs are primarily borne by employers only, there are no such dedicated funds in Singapore that support the families of migrant workers who pass away here.
MA (unlisted on our website)
MA is a 30 year old Bangladeshi man who previously worked in Singapore. He had a major accident in Chinatown last January, falling through 3 storeys of wet concrete, breaking multiple bones and suffering a concussion. We have supported him through his journey navigating operations, recovery, physiotherapy, WICA processes, salary claims, his father’s illness, and his mental health through the entirety of last year. We shared a beautiful farewell meal before he flew home in December last year. After almost a year of staying in Singapore for treatment until he could be formally assessed by doctors for his WICA payout, the estimated WICA payout was deemed too low for his ongoing disability, and he is currently seeking alternative means of compensation. You can read more about how a WICA payout is estimated in our January newsletter. Still unable to work back in Bangladesh, he requested support for some medical expenses for him and his parents, as well as expenses for Ramadan shopping for the family (clothes, rice, fruits, meat, water kettle, etc).
Unethical fundraising by employers
Many of you may be aware of NJ and IM’s story from our previous newsletters. NJ is a young Bangladeshi woman and wife of IM. As we shared last month, IM had passed after battling complications from his road traffic accident last May (he was hit by a bus when cycling back to his dormitory from work). In July last year, the team was shocked to discover a fundraiser on a popular fundraising platform that IM’s employers started shortly after the initial accident in May. They were fundraising the costs of his hospital stay to reimburse their company expenses, with unclear language that could lead donors to believe that the money goes directly to IM’s family, e.g. “I hope you find it in your good hearts to help him and his young family.” IM was unable to consent to the campaign (including consent to publicly posting distressing photographs of him that were included in the campaign), and NJ was not informed at all about the campaign. We had flagged this campaign to IM’s lawyers the moment we discovered it. After informing NJ, she did not insist on shutting it down – we were not sure at that time if this money would go to NJ or not, and we had already flagged how misleading the campaign was to the legal team building her case.
To our horror, our team discovered again this month that the campaign has still been ongoing since. The employer continued to make updates on IM’s health, feigning that IM is still in a state of unconsciousness at home, when he had in fact already passed. We immediately informed NJ and the lawyers again, and upon confirming that NJ has not received a single payout from the $41,000+ raised, we flagged to the fundraising platform and had the campaign shut down immediately. We’re waiting to hear about the next steps, and we’re not sure if the money already raised will be returned to donors. We are currently following up with the fundraising platform to ensure transparency and accountability of the funds moving forward.
Migrant workers are already exploited in so many ways during their time here in Singapore. We felt deeply disgusted to see the manner in which they are again exploited not only when they are no longer here in Singapore, but also in their death. It’s a system where the story and pictures of IM were used without consent to help this company ‘make back’ the money they spent on him, where a spouse like NJ has little power in how her husband is remembered, where unsubsidised healthcare costs of a migrant worker made a company think it is justified to do a campaign as unethical as this (this does not absolve them).
Building community in resistance to burnout
In our last newsletter, we mentioned that we had a team meeting planned at the end of the month. Despite the 5 long hours spent on a Saturday morning, we felt re-energised after the meeting. Between the hugs, laughter, crying, and homemade teh tarik, we refined our shared purpose and kinship. This is work that needs to be done slowly and consistently, and we don’t see any way out of the inevitable burnout without the sustenance of the friendships we build. With friendship, we can hold each other accountable tenderly when we make mistakes, we give space when teammates have difficult days, and we grieve together when we face loss.
We think the people we work with know that all too well; maybe community is something they are more familiar with falling back on. We are in awe of how many workers meet us (complete strangers) for the first time and entrust us with getting them out of incredibly difficult situations.
On the note of community, we want to highlight that migrant workers have been doing mutual aid work much longer before any of us knew what ‘mutual aid’ meant. In a recent workshop on mutual aid by Dean Spade, he talks about how the media portrays that social movement organising is for privileged people through stories of ‘white saviorism heroes’. In local context, this translates to ‘top Singaporean’-esque awards, features on ‘local heroes’, and feel-good stories on charity movements without questioning what necessitated this work in the first place. Much of our sense of what happens on the ground is guided by workers who have already helped their friends navigate through these situations. We are deeply appreciative of the work they constantly do, often without due recognition. With that, we are looking forward to the month ahead & hope you too find something that keeps you grounded in the work that you do.
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.