COOPED UP LIKE BATTERY CHICKENS

COOPED UP LIKE BATTERY CHICKENS

 

Workers keep quiet out of fear

 

WHEN I walked into the building at No 2, Kampong Ampat, it was like I was entering a different world.

 

By S. Murali

 

 

31 May 2008

 

WHEN I walked into the building at No 2, Kampong Ampat, it was like I was entering a different world.

 

A dingy staircase led to the third storey of the building, where the workers we were visiting were housed.

 

We seemed to walk through a maze to reach the dorm rooms, even having to walk past toilets and open bathrooms, all the while carefully avoiding puddles of dirty water and piles of rubbish along the way.

 

It was hard to believe that people lived here but, as we were to discover later, more than 600 were housed by employers on two floors; in some cases, 54 to a room.

 

Yes, that’s 54 people in a room measuring 25ft by 20ft.

 

How is that possible?

 

Well, there are 18 triple-decker beds in the 15ft-high room, packed next to each other like crates.

 

The only space left are the small corridors to allow access to the beds.

 

Perhaps calling them beds is not quite accurate, because there is no mattress or bedding at all.

 

There are only wooden planks for the workers to lie on, and they have lined the planks with masking tape to prevent bedbugs from getting at them through the cracks.

 

I tried to sit on a bottom bunk bed, which was centimetres from the floor. As I sat down, my neck was already at the level of the next bunk, meaning I or the workers couldn’t even sit up on the ‘beds’ without hitting our heads on the bunk above.

 

Clothes were strewn all over the place, washed and hung to dry in any available space. At the side of the beds, if there was space available, suitcases were piled up and functioned as makeshift tables.

 

Even with the windows open, a heavy smell hung in the air, making me feel claustrophobic.

 

It was like stumbling onto one of those farms where they force-feed chickens and house them in inhumane conditions.

 

But we are talking about people who are living and working among us.

 

Why are only a few of them willing to come forward and complain?

 

After pleading with us to ensure that they remain nameless, some workers told us that they live in constant fear.

 

Fear of being sent home for complaining.

 

Fear of being deprived the chance to do overtime, so that they can earn slightly more than $500 a month to pay off the debts they took to get to Singapore.

 

Fear of being blacklisted by bosses who can speak English.

 

Fear of telling their families back home that their ‘Singapore dream’ has become a nightmare, that they are now financially worse off than when they left their countries, and that they may lose their homes and land which they put up as collateral for loans.

 

AT EMPLOYERS’ MERCY

 

Social workers such as Mr Jolovan Wham believe that the problem is systemic, as the workers are joined to their employers at the hip due to the work-permit process, and feel that they are at their complete mercy.

 

Unfortunately, too often, they are right.

 

The workers we spoke to have blown the whistle on two occasions.

 

The first time they did, they were moved into even worse accommodations, allegedly as punishment.

 

If things don’t get better this time around, or if the workers get sent home, which is their worst fear, then we have to wonder if we have the correct system in place to protect their rights.

 

 

Source: The New Paper

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