Saturday 8 March 2014

Little India Riot COI: Day 11

Riot 'not linked to treatment of workers'
No latent frustration or tension among foreign workers, COI told
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

HOW foreign workers are treated in Singapore had nothing to do with the sudden eruption of violence in Little India, said two witnesses who work closely with the migrant worker community here.

Yet that does not mean these workers have had no grievances, the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Dec 8 riot heard yesterday.

After days spent questioning police on their tactics to quell the unrest that night, the inquiry yesterday turned its focus to the working and living conditions of foreign workers. This was to determine whether they had played any role in spurring the mayhem.

Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) executive director Bernard Menon made clear that there was no "latent frustration or tension".

Since the centre opened in 2009, he had not heard workers complain of social or racial discrimination, he said.

Mr Menon also highlighted a 2011 survey by the MWC and Manpower Ministry involving more than 3,000 workers, which found that 94 per cent of them were satisfied with work conditions here.

"The general majority of workers here are peaceful, genuine and hardworking," he said. "Of course, they fear repatriation. So they don't want to get in trouble, and rather fly under the radar."

When asked by committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam whether the riot was due to a "build-up of dissatisfaction", Ms Jennie Yeo, deputy executive secretary of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union (Batu), said no.

She explained how 40 workers from four work sites, who were interviewed after the Dec 8 incident, discounted unhappiness over working and living conditions as a possible cause. They blamed alcohol, said Ms Yeo, a labour movement member for close to 35 years.

Batu represents about 7,600 foreign workers, who make up a fifth of its membership. None were involved in the riot, she added.

The COI also heard from two foreign workers who were in Little India as the violence unfolded before them that night.

Excavator operator Seenuvasan Selvaraja, who came here 15 years ago on the recommendation of his brother, gave Singapore "100 marks", explaining that "the law and order was good" here.

"Staying here is like staying with your own family back in India," he said. "Within minutes, you can meet up with friends. This does not happen elsewhere."

Construction worker Kannadasan Murugan told the committee he was satisfied with his living quarters - a three-storey dormitory where 15 men share a "spacious" room, even if 50 of them have to jostle for a bath at any one time.

When asked by Mr Selvam whether his daily basic salary of $24 was adequate, the 34-year-old, who has worked here for 13 years, replied it was not, and that $30 would be fairer. Retired judge Selvam then asked: "Would you go on a riot because of your salary?"

Mr Kannadasan said, through a court interpreter: "No, sir. One does not have to resort to violence. One just has to take the matter up (with the authorities)."

Mr Menon and Ms Yeo, however, believe that more can be done for foreign workers here. Most, for instance, are not members of unions, which could look after their interests, they said.

Batu and MWC are now working together to change that, said Ms Yeo, who earlier caused a stir during the public hearing when she raised the issue of employers here retaining workers' passports.

A collective gasp was heard in the courtroom when she described how some employers keep their workers' passports and then set onerous conditions, such as a deposit of up to $5,000, before releasing them. This practice is not in line with labour regulations here.

Under the Passports Act, employers are prohibited from withholding their workers' passports without their consent, and have to return the documents on request.

Last year, it was made mandatory for employers to issue physical payslips to workers, but Mr Menon also pointed out this practice is not yet widespread. He added that the lack of a payslip and other employment documentation puts the workers at a disadvantage when it comes to wage disputes.

Ms Yeo also shared that workers who turn to the court to get unpaid wages have to cough up hundreds of dollars in fees - such as a $270 stamp duty - to enforce a court order, while having no guarantee of succeeding.

Former National Trades Union Congress president John De Payva called this "ridiculous" when he addressed the COI.

Mr Selvam agreed, saying: "This seems to me a case of double whammy in the sense that you go to labour court because you don't have money... It is a law that's nice on paper but not in practical terms."

Many in the crowd just onlookers: Witnesses
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

THERE was a mob of about 200 but it was some 10 rioters who were trying to overturn a police patrol car parked in Race Course Road, where a bus had run over and killed a foreign worker earlier that night, heard the Committee of Inquiry into the Dec 8 riot.

Construction worker Kannadasan Murugan was in Little India with friends that night when he heard about the accident and the rowdy crowd gathering around it.

He later witnessed some of them trying to overturn the police car. "I saw about 10 people trying to lift the vehicle," he said. "But they couldn't lift it, so they set it back down."

Both he and another eyewitness, excavator operator Seenuvasan Selvaraja, told the committee they saw about 200 people crowding around the accident scene, but that there were about 30 men actively throwing projectiles or overturning vehicles.

The two workers, who took the witness stand one after the other, later told committee chairman G.Pannir Selvam that many at the scene that night were also just onlookers taking pictures and recording videos of the events that were unfolding before them.

Both men condemned the actions of the unruly mob, and said they had no issues with working or living conditions here.

"This incident happened in a good country like Singapore, and now all of us, the Indians, will be looked at like we were all involved when it was just the act of a group of persons," said Mr Seenuvasan. He went on to say he felt the riot happened because the crowd was drunk and "not thinking and behaving properly".

Two more foreign workers are expected to give evidence when the inquiry resumes on Monday.

Little India Riot COI: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10

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