Working for No Pay at a Pasar Malam: Indonesian Migrant Worker Deceived & Exploited in Singapore

20 December 2018

For two months, Rudi, an Indonesian migrant worker, lived in a pasar malam. He worked 16-hour days and showered in a public toilet as he was not provided proper accommodation.

For two months, Rudi, an Indonesian migrant worker, lived in a pasar malam. He worked 16-hour days and showered in a public toilet as he was not provided proper accommodation.

Rudi (a pseudonym), a 23-year-old Indonesian national, arrived in Singapore in April 2018. Rudi had seen a Facebook advertisement for jobs in Singapore and contacted the recruiter. Rudi was promised a daily salary of S$40, with working hours from 8am to 6pm; he was told that if he worked beyond 6pm, he would be paid overtime (at S$8 an hour). The recruiter informed Rudi that he would be working at a food stall and housing would be provided. Rudi was keen to take on the job and paid S$3,000 to an agent based in Indonesia.

Deception about the legality and conditions of work 

Before arriving in Singapore, Rudi enquired about the legal documentation required for his hire. The agent assured him the job was urgent and in need of a direct hire and that the relevant documents would be processed upon arrival in Singapore. Foreigners who wish to work in Singapore need to apply for a work pass. However, instead of applying for a work permit, the agent registered Rudi under a social visit pass meant for tourists.

Rudi’s agent deceived him into working illegally, leaving him vulnerable to being prosecuted by Singapore’s law enforcement. He ended up working at a pasar malam (night market) stall at Clementi, frying and selling food to customers. Despite the agent’s promise of a 10-hour work day, the employer made Rudi work from 8am-12 am each day, a total of 16 hours a day. He was only allowed to break for lunch for 5-10 mins; he was also only given one rest day per month.

Poor living conditions

‘The most surprising thing to me was the living conditions, where I was made to sleep.’

The public restroom Rudi had to shower in daily.

The public restroom Rudi had to shower in daily.

Rudi had to sleep at the pasar malam food stall itself, using a thin mattress and a pillow, which he laid on the wooden floorboards of the market. Rudi had to shower in a nearby public restroom, using a bucket and the sink to wash himself. He also had to go to a laundromat to do his laundry.

Employer deserts Rudi without paying wages

After working under these extreme conditions for two months, Rudi was not paid. On 5 July, Rudi’s employer told him the stall was going to be closed for business and that he would get his pay the following day. The employer returned Rudi’s passport but never came back.  Left alone at the stall with no wages, Rudi continued to live at the pasar malam, sleeping at the stall.

On 10 July, the stall’s tent was disassembled, forcing Rudi to shift to an outdoor park. At night, he slept on a bench at the park and continued to shower at the public restroom. Eventually, after three days, Rudi reached out in desperation to an Indonesian migrant worker who recommended he call HOME for help.

‘Not guilty’ but … a stern warning and order of removal

Rudi reported his situation to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). While they agreed not to prosecute Rudi for working on an ‘invalid pass’—a tourist pass rather than a work permit—the officer said that they would not be assisting Rudi to pursue his salary claim as he had been ‘working illegally’.

The MOM then told Rudi to report to the Immigration Checkpoint Authority (ICA). After several hours, the ICA officer concluded that Rudi had not deliberately overstayed. Nonetheless, Rudi was required to leave Singapore immediately and was issued an ‘Order of Removal’ letter, and promptly deported.

As the sole breadwinner of his family, Rudi’s main concern was to quickly pay off his recruitment fee debt and start earning an income to support his family. To pay the S$3000 recruitment fee, Rudi had used S$2500 of his own savings and borrowed S$500 from a bank in Indonesia. Rudi thus did not want to stay in Singapore too long, unemployed, and was reluctant to further pursue any claims that would prolong his stay without guarantees of adequate financial support. 

A trafficking referral has been filed for Rudi—with his consent, after he already left Singapore— as he was deceived about his working conditions and the legality of his documents/stay in Singapore. He was over-worked and improperly housed. He paid recruitment fees for his job in Singapore, a sum which would make Rudi reluctant to leave the job despite the poor conditions. When Rudi asked for his wages, his employer kept promising to pay him another day—then eventually didn’t pay him at all. Once Rudi entered Singapore, the agent confiscated his passport; the agent then handed Rudi’s passport to his employer. It was only finally returned to Rudi just before the pasar malam was torn down, and his employer deserted him. These various elements are recognized as indicators of trafficking by the International Labour Organization.

It is unclear if Rudi’s employer has been located and investigated by the Singapore authorities. The outcome of the case has not been made known to him or to HOME.

Singapore has acceded to the UN’s Palermo Protocol to Prevent and Combat Human Trafficking, an instrument which sets out the definitions to identify and protect those who are trafficked. Singapore also has a Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA). However, the PHTA still falls short of standards stipulated in the protocol. Key indicators of trafficking such as deception, coercion and forced labour are either not defined, or are not aligned with international standards; additionally, the rights of victims are not guaranteed. Such inadequacies in our legislation will hinder investigation and prosecution efforts. This is perhaps why Rudi was not recognised as a victim. To tackle trafficking in persons effectively, a review of the PHTA needs to be done to harmonise its provisions with international standards.

Stephanie Chok