Channel NewsAsia Singapore Today’s Interview with Justice Without Borders

July 29, 2017

(c) Channel NewsAsia, Singapore Today
June 29, 2019
Glenda Chong

Featuring our Executive Director, Douglas MacLean, explaining how JWB works in helping victims of labour exploitation and human trafficking seek just compensation, even after returning home.

Audio Transcript

Singapore Tonight: Welcome back to Singapore Tonight. Thank you for staying with us.

Help for migrant workers in Singapore is robust but only if they’re still in the country. So what happens if there is a dispute and these migrant workers get sent home? How do they claim compensation then?

Well, Justice Without Borders, or JWB, is a regional non-governmental organisation that works to fill this gap. The NGO is based in Singapore and is the first and only of its kind to help victims of exploitation claim compensation even after they’ve headed home.

Glenda Chong speaks to the Executive Director of JWB, Douglas MacLean to find out why and how they do it.

Douglas MacLean: Our organisation is focused on just one thing — making sure that victims of labour exploitation and human trafficking get access to just compensation even after they go home. Basically if somebody isn’t paid, if somebody’s overcharged, or in the worst cases, if they are physically or sexually assaulted, they can hold their abusers to justice here in Singapore even if they have to go home and see their families.

We help the people that slips through the cracks. We are talking about currently, domestic workers who might have an employment claim. Their employer tells them that they’re putting their salaries into a bank account for six months, a year, two years, and give it to them when they go home. Of course, when they go home, they get nothing.

Talking about the employment agencies that should only be charging two months salary on a two year contract but charge six months, eight months more.

And finally we are talking about the people who come home with bruises, third-degree burns on their backs, sexual abuse. These people who all have a valid claim here in Singapore sometimes can’t remain in Singapore to do so. They move beyond the government’s reach. And so, we’re there to step in as a bridge and help them reconnect back to the legal services that they need.

Basically there are very good services and access to really good laws here in Singapore. If you happen to have money or if you’re a company, you hire lawyers and they’re able to connect you back to those legal services and you can get your problem solved.

Unfortunately for migrant workers, they usually don’t have that kind of money.

The bigger problem is that experts here, whether they are lawyers or other NGOs or even government service providers don’t always have the necessary contacts back home to keep in touch with a person and to make sure that they continue with their case.

Glenda Chong: How do you go about helping these migrant workers? Who do you work with?

Douglas MacLean: So here in Singapore, we work with frontline NGOs. Those that gets migrant workers who are leaving their employment, who come to them with a problem. We always work with the embassies and we collaborate with the Ministry of Manpower.

So basically, the first step is to the front-line organisations and then as those workers are heading home that still have problems they get referred to us. The problem has been to date that if they’ve had a problem and they go home, they just gave up their claims. There’s basically no infrastructure to support them after they have returned home. They have to have some sort of valid claim and has to go beyond just a statement that they make. And to have some sort of evidence, even if it’s just a little bit.

The second is there has to be some minimum amount of money they are asking for. If they have been cheated out of two or three hundred dollars, it’s actually more expensive to help that person that it is for them to just give up the claim and move on. So we look at about SGD$3000 here as starting minimum.

And finally, and most importantly, they have to be committed to the claim. They can’t just say, “Well, this person didn’t pay me for a few months, or my employer hit me. You know I just don’t want to deal with this claim anymore.” They really have to be committed. We have those three criteria to see what we can do to help.

Glenda Chong: JWB, Justice Without Borders, why did you decide to base yourself here in Singapore?

Douglas MacLean: Singapore has the strongest rule of law in Southeast Asia. This is a place that has developed good mechanisms for bringing in migrant workers and for addressing their issues. It’s a place where you can actually develop the very next steps in cross borders civil litigation. It’s a place where you can do things on the cutting edge of the law that you cannot do anywhere else. The Ministry of Manpower continues to refine and involve the laws. We see quite a number of legal changes just over the last couple of years. They’ve said that there’s always improvements that you can do.

One of the key limitations for all governments is that once a person has left their borders, it’s very hard for them to extend their hands over into another country. Singapore can’t go into Indonesia any more than Indonesia can come into Singapore.

Glenda Chong: What about expanding to say, ASEAN, for example? Or even the question’s, why not Qatar?

Douglas MacLean: We’d love to be there. The problem is the rule of law is just not what it is in Singapore. Their legal system is set up so that you go in as a migrant worker, you are bound to your employer. And trying to go after an employer there in court is just an exercise in futility. It won’t work. So until they have legal reforms that enables us to do what is already possible in Singapore and Hong Kong, We just can’t go there.

We’re very much about helping the people who need help now, now. And Singapore and Hong Kong has amazing legal systems that make that possible. In ASEAN we are already working in three countries. We’re looking to expand. Clearly Myanmar is becoming a home country. They are sending more and more people. That will be one base. Malaysia has lots of experience with migrant workers. Their folks on the ground need a lot of help with cross-border litigation. We’ve actually worked with them for the UN for about a year and a half. Yes, as time goes on, we’ll be expanding throughout the rest of ASEAN and hoping to help more people if we can.

Singapore Tonight: Glenda Chong with Executive Director Douglas MacLean on helping migrant workers when they head back home.