Thursday, 2 April 2015

Life and Death

I don't know who wrote this. There was a picture but no name. But whenever I go to Singapore, I have noted how poorly the immigrant workers, the lowest of the low over there, are treated. They cart the home in uncovered lorries in the heavy rain. To read this, from a Singaporean woman who refused to look away and do nothing, goes beyond "inspirational". It shows that people do care. That no one is beneath the radar. And that you can make a difference. And sometimes it is the difference between life and death.

Some time ago, as I was driving home in a terrible thunderstorm, I saw these two Indian workers crouched under a tree. They were trying to cover themselves from the heavy rain with a plastic sheet but they were soaked through. At first I just drove past thinking how sad they looked. But then I thought, hey wait - I can help.

So I stopped the car and reversed back to where they were and asked them to get in. They hesitated because they were wet and muddy and didn't want to mess up my car. I said never mind just get in.

I brought them back to my place which was not far away. I gave them coffee and some food and some dry shirts that belonged to my husband as they waited out the storm.

I was really angry that their employer would leave them out in the rain like that without even an umbrella or raincoat. I gave them my number and said "If you ever have any problems you can call me and I will try to help you." And then, with some hesitation, they shared more of their story.

"We actually haven't been paid our salary for some months. And the boss keeps deducting from our salary. If we do things even a little bit slowly, he will deduct $50."

Now these guys only earned $600 per month. So deducting $50 was a big deal for them. Plus they had taken out loans to come here. One guy, Murugan, had paid $8000 to an agent for this job and his family was being hassled by loan sharks to repay. It was very stressful for him to not send money home knowing all the people who depended on him.

After some discussion, they said they would talk with their employer and contact me again if nothing was resolved.

Some months later, I did get a call. It was Murugan. He was in tears. "I don't know what to do. I'm not being paid again." So I gave him a number to contact at TWC2 and explained how they help workers in this situation. He would be in good hands. I didn't expect I would hear from him again.

But a few weeks later, the police called.

"Murugan was arrested last night and the only number he had was yours. Somebody needs to come and post $2000 bail for him because he's under arrest for attempted suicide."

I went down to the police station and posted the bond. But by then, Murugan had been moved to IMH for observation which is their normal procedure for suicide risk.

So off I went to IMH and eventually found his ward. There were two young police officers stationed outside the door. They agreed to let me see him.

This was a common ward and there were lots of people around with various psychiatric conditions. It was a disturbing environment. I found Murugan slumped over on a table with his head down. He was in a bad state.

"Why did you do this?"

He repeated how he hadn't been paid, how his family was depending on him and how he was failing them. He felt powerless and didn't know what else to do. I tried to give him some encouragement but he was in no state to really listen.

I followed up with the police station. "This guy is not a criminal. He believed taking his own life was his only option. The real culprit here is the employer. You should be going after them."

And believe it or not, they did just that. I was impressed. It's true I had to email them a few times and they had to meet Murugan one last time. But they not only dropped the charges against him but they got the employer to pay his back wages.

Apparently the employer was quite surprised by the turn of events. He never imagined this worker could have contacts in Singapore who would help him. But suddenly this seemingly powerless guy had the support of the police, me and by this time HOME Singapore got involved too.

So the story has a happy ending and we've stayed in contact. Murugan still comes over from time to time and sometimes his wife calls me from India. Things are much better for him now.

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