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Lunch with Flora: Joshua Sham on migrant workers in Singapore

7 months ago / ntuc / worklifesg

It's NOT just lunch though.

It's noisy at Saizeriya, a casual Japanese-Italian restaurant in City Square not in Johor Bahru, and Mr Joshua Sham is speaking rather boisterously.

Who is Joshua, you ask?

An ex man in blue, he left the police force after 15 years to join the Migrant Workers' Centre as the non-government organisation's Head of Operations and Workers’ Network.

Supposedly to handle cases involving foreign workers, his two years and counting with the MWC has since included a wide array of other activities. Such as the setting up of network groups amongst the 900,000 migrant workers in Singapore and reaching out directly to the dormitories for them to be the eyes and ears of what's happening... something that proved to be helpful on numerous occasions, such as during the incident of the eight radicalised Bangladeshi men.

What's the most impressionable incident for you? I ask the man.

Just a few weeks ago, he received a message one morning from a dorm manager that 67 workers from a particular marine firm were planning not to go to work. They cited salary issues, including non-payment of more than two months.

What happened next is worthy of a Die Hard film.

He drove down immediately, saw this car exiting, sped up and stopped his car right in front of it.

He didn't know whose car was it, nor could he see who's the person in the vehicle but instinct (maybe from those decades of being with the police) told him it was somebody important.

It turned out to be the MD of the company.

After investigation, it is revealed that over 100 workers were not paid their salary. HOWEVER, this company is not the direct employer but instead, a contractor of a (rather infamous) shipyard that was previously under probe by MOM over unpaid wages.

As such, I'm not going to name and shame said company since it was eventually a happy ending. The MWC managed to work with them to resolve the outstanding wages and other work conditions the workers were unhappy with. More importantly, they managed to avoid a near-strike, which would have been very unpleasant. Remember the case of the SMRT bus drivers' going on strike?

I'm unfamiliar with the eatery he has chosen and had read on the Internet that the food is passable at best and to be honest, I was rather worried lol.

He orders the chicken spinach gratin and advises me against the squid ink pasta. The waiter suggests the chicken bolognese. We get the lunch drink bar which allows free-flow of a soft drink or coffee/tea for just $1.50 nett.

Moving forward, I ask Joshua what's next for the MWC.

He says he hopes to reach out to more workers of every nationality (especially since there are almost a million of them here in Singapore) with increased efforts, such as with their Forward Response, Engagement and Intel Deployment Asset vehicle, otherwise known as FREIDA.

Manned by two staff at a time, the mobile office makes its rounds throughout the island in the evenings to engage migrant workers when they are back from work. Besides visiting smaller dormitories located at more remote industrial areas, the vehicle will also be used as a forward deployment centre in major incidents like strikes and riots.

The centre will also be working with NEA regarding food safety. He cites the top 3 sources of unfair treatment to be salary, meals and housing.

The end goal, he says, is to touch every single migrant worker in at least one way.

I decide to let him eat.

Did you know, he adds, that if an employer forcefully tries to send a worker home, once at the immigration counter, the migrant worker just has to tell the officer on duty that he is being sent back against his will and the officers will then bring him down to ICA who then refers the workers to MOM if they have cited manpower / employment concerns. MOM then resolves it.

This is to help those migrant workers whose rogue employers try to get rid of workers whom they have mistreated and in such cases, they will usually disallow them access to their phones/ other forms of communication where they can access help. As such, the safest (and probably easiest) place where they can get help is at the immigration counters at the airport where the employer can't be next to him.

We've come to the end of lunch and I have no professional photographer with me to do any photo shoot. Instead, I pass my trusty iPhone to my colleague to "snap a couple of shots" during which he happily makes funny faces with every new frame.

We shake hands and he's off, down the escalator, merging into the crowd.

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About the MWC

Set up in 2009, the Migrant Workers’ Centre is a bipartite initiative of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF). The MWC is a non-government organisation whose mission is to champion fair employment practices and the well-being of migrant workers in Singapore.

They advice and assistance to migrant workers seeking remedies against unfair employment practices. They will also provide shelter and food in the interim while awaiting workers’ case settlement via lodgings at Tuas View Dormitory and a soup kitchen at Geylang respectively.

More importantly, they provide opportunities for social integration and upgrading for migrant workers to promote social integration and greater responsibility for migrant workers.

PS: If you thought this article seems kinda familiar, I gotta admit that it's heavily inspired from a certain popular article. After all, imitation is the highest form of flattery, right?