Thursday 20 March 2014

Little India Riot COI: Day 18

MOM: Workers told of rights even before coming here
Director: Ministry will house, feed workers if employers cannot do so
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2014

THE Manpower Ministry (MOM) defended Singapore's foreign worker policy yesterday, addressing a number of labour issues raised earlier by migrant worker rights groups as potential causes of workers' unhappiness in the public hearing into the Dec 8 riot.

Divisional director Kevin Teoh of MOM's foreign manpower management division told the committee he was surprised that rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) had testified it was feeding some 350 "abandoned workers" at its soup kitchen daily, given that the Employment Act clearly placed the responsibilities of housing and feeding work permit holders on their employers.

Last Tuesday, TWC2 president Russell Heng had told the committee workers "basically have to resort to charity to survive in Singapore" as they waited for their complaints - usually salary arrears or work injury compensation - to be sorted out.

While the law required employers to care for their workers in the interim, Dr Heng said TWC2's experience was that "in practice, this is not the case".

Mr Teoh disagreed with the notion that MOM abandoned these workers and said when an employer is unable or unwilling to fulfil its obligation, the ministry would step in to house the worker and provide food - sometimes in partnership with help groups such as the Migrant Workers' Centre - while a complaint is investigated.

"Sir, like you, I was equally surprised when he made the assertion here," said Mr Teoh. "We are now checking with him specifically which are those workers he is referring to. If he has the necessary information, we're prepared to look into it."

He also clarified that while a complaint is being investigated, there is no ban on a worker seeking alternate employment as long as permission has been granted him by MOM.

The ministry begins education efforts even before a worker arrives in Singapore, added Mr Teoh, with employers required to put in writing the wages, deductions and other terms in an employment letter to the worker in his native language.

Guidelines on worker obligations and rights are also issued to overseas training centres.

The guidelines are given once more to all workers when they are fingerprinted in Singapore for their work permit cards, and they have to take mandatory exams to test their knowledge of employment rights before they begin work. "So, collectively, we don't believe that the worker does not know his basic rights, does not know where to go," said Mr Teoh. "There are many avenues available to him."

It is also untrue that workers are being forcibly repatriated, said Mr Teoh, another issue raised by rights activists, including Dr Heng and Workfair Singapore's Mr Vincent Wijeysingha, as it is a topic covered in the materials provided to guest workers.

He told the committee that workers could inform immigration officers at the checkpoint if they had ongoing employment-related complaints that were being investigated by MOM. The ministry dealt with 23 such cases flagged by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority last year, he added.

Mr Teoh also clarified that of the 1.1 million foreign non-domestic workers in Singapore, about 330,000 were employment pass and S-pass holders earning at least $3,300 and $2,200 respectively. Of the remaining 770,000 work permit holders - who earn less than $2,200 a month - about 370,000 are Malaysians.

Dr Heng had told the committee that Singapore has one million low-wage foreign workers, if domestic helpers were included.

Officers in besieged ambulance fled before it was torched
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2014

MOMENTS before an ambulance was torched, officers seeking refuge inside in the heat of the Little India riot on Dec 8 last year were told to run.

"I shouted to the rioters, 'I'm a medic, we come here to help you,'" said Staff Sergeant Yaacob Kamis, 50, at the Committee of Inquiry into the riot yesterday. "Then one of them shouted to us, 'You all run, you all run.'"

This exchange occurred after an overturned police vehicle in front of the ambulance was torched, said the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) ambulance medical orderly of 29 years.

Eight officers - two traffic policemen, two Certis Cisco auxiliary police officers and four SCDF officers - were inside.

"One police officer asked my paramedic to be strong, then the door opened and we ran," said Staff Sgt Yaacob, adding that it was opened by several men from the mob.

One of those on board was Station Inspector Muhammad Adil Lawi, who has told the committee that the decision to evacuate was not borne out of cowardice but because "the threat was very real".

Staff Sgt Yaacob took shelter in the back of the ambulance after he was injured by a projectile when he tried to reverse the vehicle.

While he was in the back, a man climbed on board and toyed with the engine switch. He said: "(The man) tried to turn on and off the engine."

An APO on board has told the committee that he heard the foreign worker say in Tamil: "I want you all to die today."

The ambulance was set on fire shortly after they ran.

When asked if the outcome would have been any different if they had stood their ground instead, the SCDF officer said: "I think it would be better to run than fight, for our own safety."

COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam said: "I'd do the same if I were you."

Auxiliary police officer patrols to be improved
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2014

A SENIOR police officer has pledged to "constantly review and improve on" a system of auxiliary police officer (APO) patrols in Little India in the wake of the Dec 8 riot.

Feedback on the patrols has been positive since they began in 2008 in a tie-up with the Singapore Police Force, the inquiry into the riot heard yesterday.

The aim was to manage anti-social behaviour among foreign workers and to reinforce a uniformed police presence. But faced with complaints following the riot that the system is ineffective, Superintendent Victor Ho, 38, told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) yesterday he will "constantly review and improve on" the system.

This relates to matters such as the timing and location where these APOs are deployed, as well as how they handle incidents.

APOs do not have the power to carry out arrests, but they can keep an offender at the scene while waiting for police officers to arrive. They can also issue summonses for environment offences, such as urinating, littering or spitting in public.

The APO presence in Little India has been ramped up from 12 teams in 2009 to 27 teams currently, Supt Ho said. Each team comprises one APO and two security officers.

But COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam had harsh words for him. "(They) ticket for littering and things like that, but the major problems of (foreign workers) going into these void decks, nothing was done. It seems that you go for the smaller thing but you ignore the major things."

Supt Ho said residents' feedback had been taken on board. For instance, APO patrols started from 10am last year instead of 4pm before, after it was highlighted that foreign workers were starting to congregate earlier.

Meanwhile, closed-circuit television cameras will be progressively installed at void decks in Little India, following a successful year-long trial of 20 cameras at Teban Gardens and Jurong West.

The real-time footage will be monitored at the APO command post at Rochor Neighbourhood Police Centre. "The installation of CCTVs aims to extend the reach of APO patrols and enhance their capabilities to react to situations on the ground," said Supt Ho.

Two carparks to stay as informal gathering points
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2014

TWO carparks in Little India have been left undeveloped deliberately as they are recognised by the Government as informal gathering points for foreign workers, an Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) representative told the inquiry yesterday.

Instead, the carparks at Kinta Road and Kampong Kapor were closed off and given to the Singapore Contractor Association Limited (SCAL) to run pasar malam and other recreational events on Sundays, modelled after an earlier SCAL-run gathering space at Weld Road.

URA group director for conservation and development services, Mr Ler Seng Ann, believes there is "a conscious effort" by the Government not to sell state land which sees large gatherings of foreign workers on weekends. Such land is designated as "informal gathering spaces" and are temporarily set aside for such a use.

"We defer development (of such land) till much later; we have no immediate plan to develop the area," he said.

The URA leads the nine-agency Little India Taskforce set up in 2006 to improve the physical infrastructure in the area. Many of its proposals, including the widening of pavements and traffic light crossings, were implemented between 2008 and 2011. Open drains along the side streets in Little India were also covered to double as walkways, and the pavements were tiled with non-slip terracotta tiles to make the area more pedestrian friendly.

Mr Ler added that Campbell Lane would be made into a pedestrian mall, with construction starting this quarter.

This would provide another gathering space close to the Little India Heritage Centre.

"We are actively working on it now and aiming to complete it by 2015, to tie in with the Little India heritage centre," he said.

Little India Riot COI: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Day 11, Day 12, Day 13, Day 14, Day 15, Day 16, Day 17

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