Companies are using gangsters to intimidate, threaten and to ultimately send ‘troublesome’ workers home.
Ali (not his real name) has seen better days. He wanders the labyrinthine alleys of Little India in search of friends and familiar faces. On some days all he needs are a warm wave of recognition and reassuring words, on other days he asks for a little cash to tide him over or for a floor on which to spend the night on.
The 30-year-old’s stint as a manual worker in Singapore has turned into a wretched nightmare, one that nearly came to an end in July when he was hours away from being put on a plane back to Bangladesh. That he didn’t end up on the flight home was down to a timely stroke of luck and quick thinking, and that he almost did was down to his employers – a flooring company – hiring thugs to ensure that he was never heard of again.
Worryingly, Ali told us that the use of gangsters (mostly Indian Singaporeans) has become routine when companies are faced with ‘problem cases’ like himself. However, his decent grasp, albeit halting in parts, of English and his refusal to be cowed saw him escape the fate of other less fortunate compatriots.
The eldest son of a retired primary school teacher, Ali’s problems began when he was injured at his workplace. Wincing as he recounted the incident, he twisted his upper thigh muscle and injured his hip whilst hauling a 30 kilogramme load.
“We had to install flooring at a building site in Jurong,” he said. “I had to carry two 15 kilogramme packs of laminate flooring up three floors.” As he neared the top, he slipped and fell, sustaining the aforesaid injury. When he reported his mishap, his Malaysian supervisor was having none of it.
“He told me to carry on; he said (very loudly) that he didn’t want to hear my problems,” Ali said with a look of incredulity. “So I returned and tried to do my work, but the pain wouldn’t go away.” Ali soldiered on, nonetheless. He endured the worsening injury for another two days, almost to the point of incapacitation. “They didn’t even give me painkillers,” he lamented of his ex-employers.
Ali defied company orders to seek medical treatment. “I had no choice,” he said. “The pain was terrible.” He sought treatment at Alexandra Hospital and subsequently at a polyclinic and was a given a total of seven days’ medical leave. That time off from work, legitimate though it might have been, lit the blue touch paper.
“When I took my MC (medical certificate) to my supervisor, he became furious,” he said. “He kept shouting at me, ‘Why you must go [sic] to take MC?’” But what really incensed the supervisor was the fact that Ali had follow-up appointments at Alexandra Hospital for his injury, opening the probability of more time off work.
Once the company saw his situation as untenable, things reached a boil. “One day, as I was preparing to go to work, my supervisor turned up outside my hostel gate,” Ali recalled. “He had never been here, so I knew something was up.”
His supervisor told him he’d like a quick chat. “Then I saw this big Indian guy come from nowhere,” Ali said. “He asked to see my documents and then told me ‘Go to your room and pack all your things,’ before shouting at me to move fast.”
Fearing that the thug might be an official from the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) or from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) or even a policeman, Ali complied. Soon he found himself in a van, destination unknown.
“I had no idea where they were taking me; that was scary!” Ali said. “Eventually, I ended up at the Claremont Hotel on Serangoon Road.” There was a makeshift office on the fourth floor (it is no longer there) from where the gangsters, numbering between four and five, ran their operations. Ali was made to turn in his papers and wait in the office, where there were two other Bangladeshis. The workers were told not to talk. Non-compliance would have resulted in physical harm, Ali was told.
“About two hours later, my supervisor came back with a paper,” Ali said. “I almost fainted when I saw it – a flight ticket.
“He said, ‘Today you go back to Bangladesh!’”
Ali was floored. For more than an hour, his mind raced. Having sold land and borrowed from over dozens of relatives and moneylenders, returning to Dhaka was out of the question. “I cannot show my face back home,” he said. “I cannot return to debts and I cannot return with an injured body.”
Fortunately for him, the ruffians didn’t confiscate his wallet or his mobile phone. He made a phone call to a friend whom he knew had access to a pro bono lawyer who was helping migrant workers.
“Luckily for me, this lawyer contacted MOM and they issued me a Special Pass, which they sent to the gangsters’ office,” Ali said. (A Special Pass is one that is issued to workers who are awaiting work injury compensation.) He was held captive for a further two days (he had to sleep on the floor).
“If MOM knew that there are these gangsters holding workers, why didn’t they do something about it?” Ali asked. Two other Bangladeshis who were in the office with Ali weren’t so lucky and ended up being sent home.
“When these guys are taken in by the gangsters, they sit quietly and cooperate,” Ali said. “By cooperating as much as possible, they hope they can avoid being sent home to Dhaka.”
According to Ali, companies pay these gangsters $200-300 a case to “fix” problem workers. Recently, a head gangster called Mani (not his real name), who is well known for coercing workers and packing them off back home had his shady operations raided by the police. When word of Mani’s downfall reached the streets of Little India, numerous workers in similar straits breathed a sigh of relief.
Ali however, maintains that the police aren’t really helpful to begin with. “They don’t believe us when we make a report,” he says. “Sometimes they rush through it quickly and send you out the door.” A combination of indifference and not being able to understand the workers prevents the police from solving issues faced by migrant workers in strife.
Meantime, Ali is on the mend. Once his case is solved by the authorities, he will have to head home. Although that would bring closure, it is a frightful prospect. Ali has racked up in excess of $10,000 in debts and would have to borrow just as much if he intends to return to Singapore.
Back on Little India’s streets, daily meals are taken at one of one two “soup kitchens” run by TWC2 on Cuff and Rowell Roads. And on most days he sleeps rough, on the five-foot ways of the enclave’s shophouses.
“I still want to know why the company did this to me,” he asked; a parting shot of sorts. “All I wanted to do was work.
“I gave them 100 percent. Getting injured was not my fault.”