Volunteering at the Migrant Worker Legal Clinic

TWC2
Editor’s Note: 
Issues relating to migrant workers have recently come under the spotlight. Read about how it was like volunteering at the Migrant Worker Legal Clinic for Vanessa, Charmaine and Wei Zhen. 
What is the Migrant Worker Legal Clinic?
Migrant Worker Legal Clinic is an initiative jointly organised by the Law Society of Singapore’s Pro Bono Services Office and Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC), providing free legal counselling services for work permit and S pass holders. The help-centre is strategically located in Geylang next to the Aljunied MRT, which is where many worker dormitories are situated. MWC staff who are fluent in the native languages of the migrant workers will be present to provide interpretation services if needed.

The legal clinic helps to ameliorate the power imbalance between employers and workers, because of the workers’ lack of knowledge of their legal rights and our legal procedures, by providing a simple and free avenue for workers to obtain legal advice and information. Workers typically do not have access to such information because of language barriers and high costs involved in seeking legal help, which can leave them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Meritorious cases may be channeled to the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme through the legal clinic, where Pro Bono Services Office will assign a defence counsel to represent the workers for free in court.

Surprises

Coming to MWC’s inaugural legal clinic session, we were surprised to find that our first case involved not an individual worker, but 4 workers facing the same salary dispute with the same company.  In response to this new situation, besides going through the usual procedure of interviewing each individual worker, we also deviated slightly by addressing and advising the 4 workers collectively as a whole afterwards. This proved to be very helpful as we later learnt that this problem was much more widespread and that a good number of other workers were similarly in the same predicament, arising out of the employer’s bad practices.

Our second surprise came when the second case involved not a migrant worker per se, but a migrant social worker bringing a case for the sakes of migrant workers. This was a really heartening twist to the typical salary and injury claims workers bring, and it was encouraging to witness how even Malaysians were so willing to help out migrant workers.

We can only say the experience was a humbling one.

Having volunteered with migrant worker NGOs previously, we were humbled as these two cases were so complex and so different from our past experiences. It was humbling, because the cases were not just diverse, but exhibited various shades of complexity, opening our eyes a little wider to seeing and comprehending the enormity of issues that could besiege workers simply due to their status as being in transit between Singapore and their home country. It was humbling, because it showed us how there were limits to what lawyers and the law could do. It was humbling, because it showed us how much more work there needs to be done in this area.

As the workers walked off with a clearer idea of the solutions available to them, we too walked away with a clearer idea of how we could be part of the solution. This legal clinic session did not just add to our understanding of the common problems that besiege workers. It also showed us how we, in our personal capacities as law students, could fit in the framework of helping to resolve those specific legal issues.

Article Contributed By:

Vanessa Chiam, Charmaine Yap, Lim Wei Zhen (NUS Law Year 1s)

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