By Theresa Tan and Melissa Sim
The Straits Times
PENNILESS, jobless and hungry.
That is the plight of a group of about 50 Indian workers who have made the streets and open spaces in Little India their home - some for as long as a year.
Many of the workers, who have turned the five-foot ways in Cuff Road into a makeshift camp, claim they had paid good money to come to Singapore in search of jobs, but were duped by agents when they landed here.
In interviews with The Straits Times, many said they paid between $1,500 and $4,000 to agents in India, who promised them 'nice jobs' in Singapore.
But when they landed, some found there were no jobs waiting for them. Others, unaware of regulations here, were tricked into entering on social-visit passes, which do not allow them to work. A few workers even claimed they were met at the airport by 'agents', who took the return portion of their air tickets and disappeared.
In desperation or out of ignorance, many turned to working illegally here, and were duly arrested, jailed and caned.
THE workers' plight has attracted the attention of various Singaporeans and civic groups here.
Some have banded together to provide the workers with food, and can be seen handing out packets to them several nights a week.
Those who agreed to speak to The Straits Times said they were not allowed to go home after being released from prison because they are needed here to help with investigations by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) or the immigration authorities.
Meanwhile, without a job and short of cash, they have little choice but to rough it out on the streets.
By day, some risk falling afoul of the law again by taking on odd jobs that pay them between $20 and $40 a day.
At night, they gather in Cuff Road to share food and sleep. A heap of luggage bags, piled near the Singapore Gujarati Society building in Cuff Road, is testament to their plight.
Mr Meghanathan Panchatchasam, from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is among them. The 33-year-old bachelor has been sleeping in alleyways for the past four months while waiting for the authorities to wrap up their investigations into his case.
He told The Straits Times that he was dumped at Woodlands, without a passport or a job, after his agent brought him here from Malaysia. Before long, he was nabbed by the police, charged, and sentenced to a month in jail and four strokes of the cane.
'I want to go home. I hate Singapore, my life here is wasted,' he said in Tamil.
In response to queries about the plight of the workers, an MOM spokesman said: 'The ministry ensures that all investigations are conducted promptly... some cases may take a longer investigation period due to the nature and complexity of the case.'
It added that foreigners who are needed to assist with investigations are issued with Special Passes, and are allowed to work under the Temporary Job Scheme. The ministry did not give details of the scheme.
Mr Jolovan Wham of the Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics, which runs a shelter for male foreign workers here, said the workers will still face problems. 'They often cannot find suitable jobs, aren't happy with the salary offered, or there aren't enough employers willing to hire them.'
The men, meanwhile, are resigned to a long wait.
One man in his early 20s, who wanted to be known only as Mr Nadarajen, said he has been sleeping in Cuff Road for the past four months after landing here and finding out that a promised job in construction did not exist.
He said: 'I arrived in Singapore on a social-visit pass. I didn't know I can't work on such a pass. I have spent all my 2,000 rupees in savings and I don't know what to do now.'
Local NGO TWC2 has been serving them serving free food in Little India
To make a donation, please make cheques payable "Transient Workers Count Too" and write "for the Cuff Road Project" on the back of the cheque. Post it to:
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)
5001 Beach Road
Golden Mile Complex
#06-27, Singapore 199588