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The men were beginning to doze off in their post-lunch siesta, when a van-load of officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) arrived. Strangely, the officers didn’t speak to any of them, said Chandan Sarkar, one of the 30 foreign workers on site, but went around taking pictures instead – of each man, the worksite, the building in which they lived, their laundry, where they cooked and so on. Just like tourists.
The boss assured his employees that since none of them were questioned and only photographs taken, everything was all right. Nothing to lose sleep over.
About a week later, the company office received a call from MOM. Pack all your workers into a vehicle and send them down to the ministry right away, was the order.
There at MOM, the men were told that their Work Permits had been revoked. This time, they were questioned at length. “MOM officer ask many many question,” recalled Chandan. “About salary, sleep where, cooking which place, working doing what, supervisor how?”
What was the problem?
Firstly, the men were hired as construction workers – it said so on their work permits. However, they were employed at a waste reduction and disposal site in Tuas, what Chandan called a “rubbish factory”. His job was to sort the trash: “Have plastic here, wood one side, iron another place, soil over there . . .”
Secondly, the men lived on site. ‘Home’ was the second floor at the corner of the large building, said Chandan. “Have 30 worker, from India, China, Bangladesh, and all worker sleep there in the building.”
“We eat there, we cooking there. But very dirty place, lah.”
Other than that, he didn’t sound as if he was unhappy there. With his basic salary at $20 a day, he was richer by $900 to $1,000 each month after grossing for overtime and working on rest days.
Salaries were paid on time too. “Boss very rich man. Business very good,” said Chandan. “Every day more [than] one hundred lorry come to factory.” Full of trash.
Of those days, one was particularly memorable. Chandan was about to discharge the contents of a “tong”( a trash container like in the photo) when something seemed to move: it was a one-and-a-half metre-long snake. “I jumping,” he recalled with some embarrassment at the fright he had. “But it die already.”
Given the outline of the story, TWC2 treasurer Alex Au said the most likely reason for MOM taking action was firstly, the men had been illegally deployed to a non-construction job when they were supposed to work in the construction sector, and secondly, the living conditions were almost surely substandard and posed a health hazard.
Chandan himself recalled that MOM officers had told him that he and his fellow workers had not done anything wrong. “The problem is between boss and MOM,” Chandan was told. Nonetheless, sixteen months later, he was still stuck in Singapore.
Chandan, who arrived for this job on 25 November 2010, had only been working three months, having paid $4,200 to his agent to secure the job. He had worked previous stints in Singapore, and by 2012 and aged 37, was marking his fifteenth year here, with only short breaks back home.
But after the action taken by MOM around March 2011, he was out of a job. And remained so, with no income and increasingly desperate, until MOM offered to place him on a Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). Each TJS contract was for a maximum of six months, but he was fortunate that after the first, he also found a second TJS contract, from April 2012 to October 2012. Both jobs were in construction.
“Chandan is lucky too in that both his TJS employers paid salaries promptly,” remarked Au. “At TWC2, we’ve come across cases where workers who had complained about unpaid salaries from their original job, were given a TJS job, only to be faced with unpaid salaries from the temporary job too.”
But why was Chandan kept in Singapore so long even though the MOM had told him the case was not his fault? He didn’t know.
Au speculated that he might have been required to stay in Singapore on the possibility that he might be needed as a prosecution witness, should MOM want to take the employer to court.
However, by August 2012, Chandan could happily say, “My case now settled. I can go back October 22,” when his current TJS contract ends.
“MOM say, because not my fault, if I find another job in Singapore, they will give me new two-year work permit.” One of his fellow workers from the “rubbish factory” did in fact find a new employer and was given a new work permit as promised.
“But I want to go back,” said Chandan.
Didn’t he like Singapore?
“I like Singapore a lot,” he said emphatically. “Many reason lah. Singapore money very good. Also, anywhere go, nobody disturb me,” indicating that he liked the low crime environment. “And if you want do business, no problem, very easy do business.”
So why was he not looking forward to another job in Singapore?
“I have a baby son,” he replied with a proud father’s broad smile. “One-and-a-half year old already, but I never see him.” The boy was born after he had left Bangladesh to come work for the abortive job. It’s been frustrating to not be able to go back to see his first-born all this while.
“I give him name Michael.”
He mentioned he was looking forward to more children. “[if] another son come, I give him name Jackson.”
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our