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Raising awareness of mental health of migrant, domestic workers

A large part of the daily stress a majority of migrant workers face is financial in nature - mainly outstanding salary claims

Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) was set up in 2009 and is a bipartite initiative of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).

NMP Anthea Ong: "Our quality of life is defined not only by markers of economic growth but also our subjective well-being".


WHEN Ava* arrived in Singapore about 14 years ago, she cried every night for four months as she missed her parents and children.

"I was homesick and I kept most personal problems to myself," she said. "Until now, I still miss home and cry sometimes."

Siva* and Muthu*, who have been here for five years, are currently unemployed.

Muthu said: "We have no money for food, transport and medical. I am the sole breadwinner of my family as my dad and elder brother have died and my mum is sick."

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These are some of the many issues that migrant and domestic workers face when working on our island. And the emotional/financial burdens can have an impact on their mental well-being.

Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong has been an advocate of mental health issues and has brought up the topic numerous times in Parliament, the most recent being the Budget 2019 Debate.

Ms Ong mentioned that mental well-being must be an ongoing national government priority with the recognition that "our quality of life is defined not only by markers of economic growth but also our subjective well-being".

She said: "Our employment laws must also be updated to explicitly include psychosocial health and safety when we talk about workplace safety and health."

As stated on the Ministry of Manpower website, the total foreign work force in Singapore as at end 2018 was more than 1.3 million.

Ms Ong said: "In a country with more than five million people, our foreign workers make up a quarter of our population, their well-being must be of concern to us including in policymaking."

Siva and Muthu started their journey here working as labourers in a shipyard after the cousins paid S$11,000 in agent fees (each) for their jobs. Their salary payments ranged between S$500 and S$1,000 per month. For their entire employment, the employer withheld S$100-150 each per month as "security" which was never returned.

In addition, the employer company gave them no work and no pay for nine months, from December 2017 to August 2018, when their work permits expired, despite assuring them that work and pay would materialise. After waiting for months, the cousins finally sought advice and made a salary claim in March 2018. In January 2019, they were given the opportunity to look for a new job for two weeks but they could not find employment. Their claim is now at the Employment Claims Tribunal and they are awaiting resolution.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) helps workers facing salary and work injury issues on multiple fronts - from basic social work assistance to meals and even excursions. Its general manager Ethan Guo said: "The majority of migrant workers will however tell you that a large part of the daily stress they face is financial in nature. They are constantly thinking about providing for their family back home, ensuring loans are paid and sick family members have money for medical treatment. Essentially, they are like us in every way. The best thing employers can do is therefore ensure their workers are paid promptly and in full. This, over and above everything else, is what migrant workers will appreciate to help reduce the stress levels in their daily lives."

Mr Guo said that the number of workers the organisation sees has remained constant over the years. What they do notice however are certain trends.

"For example, we observe a larger number of workers who have difficulty getting their employers to pay owed salaries despite court orders to do so. These are seen as civil debts, and workers lack the knowledge, time and resources to explore possible debt collection methods against their errant employers, who end up getting away with not paying. At TWC2, we see over a thousand cases of industrial accidents annually and almost as many cases of short-payment and non-payment of salaries, that also add on to the workers' stress."

Hence, TWC2 has social workers and trained volunteers to provide advice and case follow-up to workers who have the misfortune of suffering the likes of a workplace injury or problems with salary payments.

Mr Guo said: "We also have a clinic to help those requiring more specialised assistance such as making an online application for a hearing at the Employment Claims Tribunal, preparing documents needed at the courts, and even the enforcement of court orders against employers who refuse to pay up."

Hence, NMP Ms Ong said that policies, such as paying the foreign and domestic workers' salaries electronically, should be mandated to encourage employers to pay them on time and to include foreign workers in our Smart Nation aspiration.

She added: "Since the community clubs already have the facilities, it would also be nice to have activities organised for the migrant workers to come together and integrate them in our heartlands."

Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) was set up in 2009 and is a bipartite initiative of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF). The Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) was set up in 2016 by NTUC to assist domestic employees, both local and foreign, in addressing work-related challenges that they may face.

Yeo Guat Kwang, chairman of MWC and CDE, said that it will naturally take time for any new migrant worker or domestic worker in Singapore to adapt to being away from home, as well as to Singapore's way of life, culture and social behaviour. It is thus crucial that they are aware of who they can reach out to in Singapore should they require assistance.

"When handling cases, we ensure that they are being helped by case workers who speak their native languages. This is critical because it creates affinity and provides a sense of comfort that we understand them and the problems they face. Our case workers will also constantly check-in with the workers on their well-being and update them on the progress of their cases so that they have a sense of certainty that someone is assisting them."

MWC processes about 4,000 cases per year and CDE processes about 1,000 cases per year and to help ease some of the anxieties of coming to a new environment, all newly-arrived migrant (work permit holders) and domestic workers must attend a Settling-In Programme (SIP) upon arrival in Singapore.

SIP is a one-day orientation programme to educate the workers on employment-related issues, Singapore's social and cultural norms, and rules and regulations. It is also an important platform where they can find out who they can reach out to if they face problems in Singapore.

Mr Yeo said: "The respective SIPs are a very important platform that allows us to reach out to newly-arrived migrant and domestic workers. A card sleeve with MWC's contact details are issued to all migrant workers when they do the thumbprint scan at MOM. We also adopt a proactive upstream approach to try to mitigate issues before they manifest."

Ms Ong said: "Mental health awareness is in its nascent stage in Singapore, and has yet to include the migrant worker community but studies have shown that 6 in 10 migrant workers with outstanding salary claims are at high risk of serious mental illnesses. We must not exclude them as we continue to make mental health a national priority."

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

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