From Singapore to Indonesia: Building the Capacity for Cross-Border Legal Aid

October 26, 2015
Category: Training & Workshops

Many clients come home with nothing.

One woman worked for two years in Singapore, but returned with only $70. Another came home suffering injuries from repeated beatings. A third sought help after being sexually assaulted, only to be repatriated soon after.

Veteran caseworkers from organisations across Western, Central and Eastern Java in Indonesia shared these stories of exploitation at JWB’s inaugural workshops on pursuing compensation for Singapore-based claims. Organized in partnership with the International Organization for Migration’s Indonesia country office (IOM) in early October 2015, the two workshops in Jakarta and Surabaya included NGO advocates who had previously worked abroad as migrant workers, lawyers from legal aid agencies, and Catholic aid organizations in areas where migrant workers often return. The participants came to learn how to help clients pursue their rights to legal remedies under Singapore law, especially after returning home.

Caseworkers at the Jakarta workshop identify potential claims covered in the JWB Practitioner’s Manual for Migrant Workers. The manual was translated into Bahasa Indonesia with the support of the Tifa Foundation.
Caseworkers at the Jakarta workshop identify potential claims covered in the JWB Practitioner’s Manual for Migrant Workers. The manual was translated into Bahasa Indonesia with the support of the Tifa Foundation.

JWB staff and Singapore qualified lawyers led the trainings, discussing how to identify claims, collect evidence and engage pro bono legal help in Singapore.

The only help my client got was repatriation home. There is only so much we can do from here.

Lack of compensation is a huge issue for workers returning home. They lose access to government complaint mechanisms once they leave Singapore, and criminal complaints of abuse do not always result in compensation. Many never seek any help at all, as they are often afraid to approach police or other government agencies, and are often desperate to just return home.

Until now, such victims have had little access to legal remedies in Singapore after leaving the country. They have largely made do with claims against Indonesian employment agencies, who are supposed to insure workers against such abuse. Unfortunately, these claims amount to only a small portion of the damages victims suffer. Many more claims fail due to lack of evidence, corruption, or the agents simply disappearing.

Singapore lawyer Tan Cheow Hung of Beacon Law Corporation leads a partnership session at our workshop in Jakarta

Compensation is definitely possible and there are pro bono lawyers in Singapore who are ready to help. There will be obstacles to overcome, but working hand in hand, NGOs and lawyers in both countries can begin to address these challenges.


Working to help solve these issues, Singapore qualified pro bono lawyers joined JWB staff to guide participants in hands-on workshops that included identifying the most common claims clients have and analysing the evidence needed to bring a claim in Singapore. Our Singapore partners also discussed how to identify a reliable pro bono lawyer, the timelines involved in bringing claims, and the logistical issues in cross-border litigation. Participants fielded many questions about the practical issues clients face, including returning to Singapore for trial, covering costs, and ensuring reliable translation is always available.

JWB Executive Director, Doug MacLean, with caseworkers who attended the Surabaya workshop.


“We really appreciated this chance to learn about what can be done in Singapore, and we look forward to expanding our network with our Singapore counterparts so that we can better help workers.”


At the end of the workshops, participants were eager to begin building the cross-border networks of practitioners needed to effectively bring claims on a regular basis. Several participants came to us with ongoing cases, and our staff are now working to connect them to the pro bono legal assistance they will need.

Ultimately, the workshops are just a first step in building an effective cross-border network and developing the capacity needed to make remote claims the norm rather than the exception. We look forward to supporting organizations in both Indonesia and Singapore in our shared work to enable victims of exploitation and human trafficking to seek just compensation, even after returning home.

Special thanks to the Tifa Foundation for donating the translation work for our manual; to Herbert Smith Freehills Singapore, whose sponsorship of our Singapore workshop helped to make these inaugural workshops in Indonesia possible; to Tan Cheow Hung of Beacon Law Corporation and Professor Jaclyn Neo of the National University of Singapore for being co-facilitators; and to Nurul, Among, Alva, Emmy and Mia at the IOM for all of their organizing work and tireless interpretation.