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For S$5 an hour, migrant workers queue overnight for bak kwa

Paid for the hours they spend in line, the workers told TODAY they were happy for the chance to make an extra buck. But migrant-worker rights groups say the practice exploits cheap labour and demeans the workers.

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SINGAPORE — It has been years since migrant worker groups first raised concerns over employers getting their foreign workers to queue up — sometimes overnight — to buy bak kwa (barbecued pork) on their behalf, but with Chinese New Year just around the corner, the practice has emerged once again. 

Hours before a popular bak kwa retailer opens its New Bridge Road outlet for business, groups of migrant workers can be seen forming a line, some of them lying on makeshift beds of cardboard, others seated on stools found nearby.

Paid for the hours they spend in line, the workers told TODAY they were happy for the chance to make an extra buck. But migrant-worker rights groups say the practice exploits cheap labour and demeans the workers. 

When TODAY visited the shop — known for its long, snaking lines when Chinese New Year rolls around — yesterday, a group of seven foreign workers from a land surveying firm were first in line. 

The shutters came up only at 9am, but the Tamil Nadu natives said they started camping outside the shop at 11pm the night before. They bought 70kg of bak kwa. 

With the downpour overnight, “it was very cold” even with the jacket he had donned against the chill, said Mr Seeni Suresh, 30. But the inclement weather did not dampen his spirits — he earned S$5 for each hour in line and a S$10 meal allowance, totalling S$60. He also got half a day off from his usual work.

Throughout the night, the group kept awake by conversing among themselves, using their mobile phones and gulping down cups of piping-hot coffee. 

All were doing this for the first time, having been roped in by their workplace senior, Mr Pandi Sevugan, who has been doing this for 13 of the 14 years he has been employed by his firm. 

The 43-year-old said that he had rounded up six colleagues, in case there was a limit to the amount of bak kwa each person could buy. 

Further down the line was 28-year-old Rengasamy Pandiyaraj. The sewer maintenance worker was back in line for a second consecutive day to buy 50kg of bak kwa for his supervisor, earning S$5 an hour, or S$30 across two days.

Together with his three colleagues, he started queuing at 5.15am yesterday. The four fashioned mats out of flattened cardboard found in the vicinity and tried to nap for the few hours before the shop opened. 

“I slept three hours (last night),” said Mr Pandiyaraj. Despite the lack of rest, he found it difficult to fall asleep on the makeshift mat. Making S$5 per hour was equivalent to overtime pay for him and he also received half a day off, he said.

Work-permit holders are only allowed to work in the occupation and for the employer stated on their Work Permit cards. 

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics acting executive director Jolovan Wham said he had previously received feedback from workers who were made to get in line without extra pay, but not so this year. 

Nonetheless, the practice raises the question of whether foreign workers have a genuine choice in the matter, or are compelled by their bosses to agree to queue up. 

“Foreign workers can hardly say no to their bosses because their employment is dependent on the goodwill of their employers,” said Mr Wham. 

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) executive committee member Debbie Fordyce felt that the practice accentuated the “power imbalance” between employer and worker. 

“However, this is hardly as abusive as other situations that TWC2 regularly handles,” she said, citing examples of employers firing workers “at any time” and withholding their salaries, and workers paying “outrageous” recruitment fees for low-paying jobs. 

Migrant Workers’ Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang has not received complaints from workers about this, but urged employers to strictly deploy workers only according to the jobs stated in their Work Permits.

In response to TODAY’s queries, a Ministry of Manpower spokesperson said: “Foreign workers are generally only allowed to perform jobs as stated in their work pass applications. Employers are advised not to ask their foreign workers to run non-work-related errands such as queuing to buy bak kwa.”

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