Debts and Death Threats: How 2 Sri Lankans Were Made to Work


Selvan and Kalai did not know that they were working illegally in Singapore.  At home in Sri Lanka, they had each paid $3,000 to an agent who promised them high-paying hotel jobs. When they arrived, they were instead made to wash dishes for 12 hours a day. They were not aware that they did not have work permits. Kalai was discovered and arrested for working illegally. Selvan turned himself in to the authorities.

The young men’s hands were wrinkled from soaking in water full of chemicals. Speaking in subdued voices, they told us how. the Sri Lankan civil war had ravaged their homes, and now  they were desperately searching for jobs  to support their families. The agent fees of $3,000 each were far too steep for them, but their families pawned their jewellery and borrowed money in the hope that their sons’ well-paid jobs in a Singapore hotel would secure them a better life.

As soon as Selvan and Kalai arrived in Singapore, they were told that the hotel job did not exist. Instead, they were made to wash dishes at different restaurants for 12 hours every day – without rest. Occasionally, the boys went foraging in the kitchen for food. .  They did not receive a cent for their work;  all of their salary went to their supervisor, Bala.

Selvan and Kalai were frustrated about their harsh working conditions and the lack of salary. But when they questioned Bala, they were threatened with violence. They begged to go home, only to have their pleas quelled with threats to kill them and their families in Sri Lanka. Selvan and Kalai’s agent had promised to get them legal work passes but never did. After one month of hard work, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) caught Kalai. Selvan heard of Kalai’s capture and was aghast to know that he had been working without a permit. He surrendered himself to MOM.

The investigation process was an emotional roller coaster ride. Initially, Selvan and Kalai were relieved that MOM had rescued them from Bala’s clutches. However, this changed when they were told that they could be prosecuted for working illegally. After a lengthy investigation, Kalai was not indicted, but had to return to his family in a worse condition than before: he was emotionally distraught and had little to show for his hard work in Singapore. HOME and some generous donors provided him with financial assistance and donated clothing, but he still faces the difficulty of paying off the large debt he incurred to come to Singapore.

The Ministry of Manpower allowed Selvan to work in Singapore. He is now working at a shipping company and is making up for lost time.  His story highlights the importance of creating a system in which victims of trafficking and exploitation are encouraged to report perpetrators. Kalai and Selvan were victims of deception. Their agent in Sri Lanka abused their financial vulnerability, cheated them of their family savings, and put them in an uncompromising position vis-à-vis the law.. Their employer never paid them a single cent for their hard work in Singapore. Because Selvan came forward to report his case despite the risk of being prosecuted himself, authorities now have a chance to bring the people who deceived and exploited him to justice. Hopefully, this will help to prevent other young men from falling into the trap that Selvan and Kalai did.

It is crucial that Singapore’s anti-human trafficking law adequately protects trafficked people from prosecution for offences that occurred as a result of their traffickers’ actions. If victims are encouraged to come forward and report exploitation without fear of punishment, we can go further to prosecute and prevent human trafficking in Singapore. #stoptraffickingsg


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