In Bangladesh, men who have returned from labours in distant Singapore often regale their young compatriots with glowing tales of a city of abundant opportunity, where hard work finds good reward. But for many seeking a better living and lured by the promise of this distant island nation, the reality can fall badly short.
So it was for Ahsanur Rahman, who arrived from Satkhira, a town in the marshy Sundarbans, four years ago. He was just 22 then and hopeful that his big bet on Singapore would pay off. He had saddled himself with some S$8,000 in debt to pick up a work-skills certificate and fund his passage here, all on the chance of earning enough to complete his half-finished geology degree.
Financially strapped themselves, his fisherman father and his bedridden mother could ill afford the luxury of Ahsanur’s college education. Yet the lean, fresh-faced young man had hopes of forging his own path.
His first job, however – doing plumbing and pipefitting for meagre wages – was a rude, physical shock. “During my first week here, I cried and cried for the whole week. I didn’t expect the work to be so tough,” he said. “If I knew that it was construction and such work, I wouldn’t have come. Because I was studying.”
His spirits bolstered by encouragement from friends and relatives, Ahsanur soldiered on, even if just to draw $18 a day excluding overtime. Despite the hard work and low pay, he insisted that “this company was very good.” They treated him well, and never missed a pay cheque – basic, almost trivial things that he would learn not to take for granted, the hard way.
Ahsanur endured 20 long months of backbreaking work before he repaid his debts and bought his way back home. By now, though, his college dreams were asunder. “My studies were lost,” he recounted. “Very sad. Very sad.”
In 2009, Ahsanur returned to Singapore for another roll of the dice. Promised a job at a local construction firm, he arrived to a nightmare – his employer failed to show up and his in-principle approval letter, which was required for the collection of a work permit, had been cancelled.
Ahsanur was desperate: no job, no accommodation, and a hefty debt accrued from funding his second passage to Singapore. He sought help from a cousin, who lent him some money as he sorted his options. “If I go back, I will die. Because I owed so much money,” he said of his fear then.
He wrangled with ministry officials, who wanted to send him home. He bargained with a prospective employer, who insisted on taking a lump sum payment and future salary deductions in return for offering him a job. With his back to the wall, Ahsanur acquiesced.
Ahsanur’s second work stint lasted only about a year, as the company – sanctioned by the manpower ministry for regulatory transgressions – couldn’t renew his work permit. This time, though, he quickly secured the interest of yet another company — his third employer – a metalwork firm that promised better wages of $25 a day.
But third time lucky for Ahsanur it wasn’t to be. Time and time again during his six-month stint at the new firm, his boss would hold up salary payments, offering instead to lend him $100 to $200 to tide him before the promised disbursement of wages.
By April 2011, Ahsanur had notched a tally of some $4,848 in unpaid wages, and finally run out of patience. He took his case to the Manpower Ministry. However, his boss disputed this, and produced papers – which Ahsanur says are forgeries – that show the shortfall to be just $1,300.
Eleven months on — it is now March 2012 — his case is still in the twilight zone. Another article will narrate the details, but the brief facts are that he made a police report about the alleged forgeries of his signature though there is no sign of the investigation making any progress.
Nonetheless, he isn’t entirely downcast. In place of his shattered dreams, he has crafted new ones. In fact, it is those new dreams that are making him frustrated now. He wants to go back to pursue them but cannot because his case is languishing here.
“My family now have tiger prawn business in Bangladesh,” Ahsanur said excitedly, “and I want to go back to help.” He also beamed about his 17-year-old wife who will soon graduate from higher secondary school.
But wife was soon set aside as his attention switched quickly back to prawns. “You know, prawn business is now number two in Bangladesh foreign exchange,” he tells Transient Workers Count Too. “Sewing and exporting clothes is number one.”
The family, with some money that he had sent back earlier, has bought five acres of land, though it may be more accurate to call it five acres of water, for it is mostly one large pond into which they release tens of thousands of prawn fry monthly. His brothers have been building wooden walkways over it from where boxes with holes can be lowered periodically into the water. The holes are large enough so that young shrimp can swim free but fully-grown ones cannot. By raising the boxes, they can harvest about six to seven kilograms of highly-valued tiger prawns a day.
Asked how much that would fetch the family in terms of income, Ahsanur hesitates. “Ah, it is secret,” he finally says with a wink.
Articulate, animated, and now armed with hard-won street smarts, Ahsanur belies the many stereotypes cast upon low-skilled foreign workers that ply their unsung trades in this glitzy city-state: He has brains, he has plans, and he knows about the economic opportunities presented by exporting to the wider world. For all that he has suffered, he still says: “I like Singapore. Everything, the people I also like. But some bosses are no good.”
Not just the bosses, though. There is also the bureaucratic system that keeps him here while his claims are (not) processed. And that’s the key issue for him now: when will he be allowed to go back to pursue his dream?
UPDATE: Ahsanur wins his case and gets every cent he is owed. See The scenic route to solving salary disputes.