WHEN my colleague offered this weekend to blog a photo essay about tailing a couple of Manpower Ministry officials on the hunt for illegal workers, I thought it would make an interesting read to highlight the unfortunate plight of foreign workers in Singapore. Many of them are paid such low wages, or mistreated by their agents, that they are forced to undertake work that they aren't allowed to do - then busted for it. Very sad business indeed.
What I thought was interesting, however, others thought was exploitative.
Not the agents exploiting the foreign workers, mind you. But that my colleague was exploiting the story for "pats on the back from your editor".
Alphonsus was capturing with his lens events that happen. Isn't that what photojournalists do? Would a war correspondent be exploiting war victims for awards and "pats on the back" too?
Then there were other comments about how horrid MOM was being to these foreign workers. One commenter's rebuttal, however, made me laugh: "What do you think the US does to their illegal immigrants? Fly them home first class?"
It made me recall an incident that occurred to another journalist in another time: My sister. Post-911.
She was an entertainment reporter at the time and was invited by one of the big film companies to review a movie and interview its cast. It wasn't the first time she'd done one of these trips to Los Angeles for the first-time in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 terror attacks either.
"Where's your information visa?" she was asked when she declared what she was there for.
A journalist's information visa? She didn't have one. She didn't have one during her previous trips either and there hadn't been problems - Orange Alert or otherwise. After all, it was not like she was going to interview someone in the White House or anything.
In this particular instance, however, despite her showing her press invitation from the movie house, physical examples of her work, her Singapore press pass, etc, it was all not enough.
My little sister, just about 23 years old or so, had her belongings confiscated, was handcuffed by two burly immigration officers, shoved head-first into a van to shuttle her to the detention centre in another terminal at LAX, then put in a holding room with two illegal immigrants who spoke not one word of English. She was to wait there for the first flight back home to Singapore.
"Don't I get to make a phone call?" she blubbered.
No. Apparently, she was only "taken into custody" and not officially arrested, so she did not have Miranda rights.
After nine hours, during which she actually helped one of the officers type out her statement (he wasn’t a wiz at spelling and was happy to let her do it herself while he watched), an officer took pity on her and turned a blind eye, allowing her to make that one phone call she was denied earlier.
Still, it was the middle of the Singapore night and there was little her then-fiance could do to help. In the end, one of the senior officers made a decision to let her off with a warning. She was to get her interviews done that day and leave the country the next. She was paroled for US$80 and her passport carries a record of that incident to this day.
(By the way, the US Embassy here, when asked, was not aware of the journalists’ necessity for information visas either and put it down to new ruling.)
So, is Singapore the only country that isn't exactly welcoming to illegal workers? Hardly.
Yes, the workers highlighted in Alphonsus' photo essay blog entry were pitiable, but there are people suffering the world over just because they work illegally and get caught for it. In my sister's case, she wasn't even an illegal worker and she was still treated like one.
The irony? Upon her release, she got to meet and speak to Morgan Freeman.
Read Alphonsus Chern's original post on the Singapore Manpower Ministry's illegal worker chase here.