Shah Alam hopes to go home soon. It’s better than staying on in Singapore, sleeping on the streets. “Now raining season, got big problem for me,” he says. “Even at night not raining, floor also wet.”
To wash himself each day, he depends on the kindness of a restaurant owner in Little India. “Over there,” he says, pointing to a small diner a few doors away, “boss say I can use toilet.”
A recent newspaper story reported that there are only about 150,000 dorm beds for more than 700,000 non-domestic Work Permit holders in Singapore. Although there are no direct statistics, this suggests that many workers are housed in less than satisfactory places, e.g. shophouses with no ventilation and 30 men to a bathroom. But there are some who are even worse off, and these would be those thrown out of work and left with no accommodation at all. Such as Shah Alam.
According to the Manpower ministry’s rules for employers of Work Permit holders, employers are required to provide “upkeep and maintenance”, even to their ex-employees until the day of their departure, but going by what Transient Workers Count Too hears from the thousands of out-of-work workers who stream through our Cuff Road Project each year, this is almost a joke of a rule. Despite many workers’ pleadings to their case officers at MOM, easily 99% get no help with accommodation.
Whether it is because there simply isn’t sufficient housing for foreign workers or disinterest by MOM officers, or both, is hard to say.
Shah Alam Mohammad Hossain Ali, now 33, first came to Singapore in 2007 to work for Yong Beng Huat Services, a landscaping contractor, with a salary of $16 a day. With a bit of overtime (“but Sunday, no OT”) he made about $500 a month. Despite this low salary, somehow he managed to scrimp and save to pay back the $7,500 in ‘agent money’ he had paid to get this job.
On renewal of this work permit in 2009, he said he had to pay a further $2,500 to his boss “Ah Yoo”. This does not appear to be legal.
He was housed at a dormitory in Kaki Bukit, with a deduction of $35 a month for laundry. Food was not provided; the workers had to buy their own. But even this meagre, hand-to-mouth living came to an end on 14 October 2011 when he cut his left thumb badly while working at Paya Lebar airforce base.
Treatment at Tan Tock Seng Hospital took four months, and even now he says there is neither strength nor the sense of touch in that thumb. “Now thumb no feeling,” says Shah Alam. “Hot water, cooling water, no feeling. Also sometimes pain.”
As for money, “Boss give me $16 a day for two weeks,” he says. “After that no more.” Around that time, his job was terminated and Work Permit cancelled. “Boss [when] cutting work permit, he say ‘you go outside’.” Shah Alam was thrown out of the dormitory.
Fortunately, at the time, he had a cousin also working in Singapore and managed to bunk in with him.
Shah Alam should have been entitled to ‘MC pay’ since he was for months on medical leave, but either he didn’t know to raise this with his MOM officer, or the officer didn’t bother to look into the matter. With no income at all, money became a huge problem and so in December 2011 he found a block cleaner’s job in Chinatown. Illegal work pays more; he was promised $30 a day.
“‘I working only three day. Police see me and ask paper, and I don’t have work permit paper.” He was by then on a Special Pass which forbade him from working.
He told MOM how absurd it was that he was not allowed to work and yet had to wait around for treatment and the compensation process. How was he to survive?
MOM then put him on a their temporary job scheme and Shah Alam found a dorm cleaner’s job at Jalan Papan. He was given a bed in the dorm too. He started in January 2012 and continued till October 2012.
Yet three months later — this interview took place in December 2012 — he was still in Singapore. Why MOM wouldn’t let him go home, Shah Alam could not explain. One possibility was that MOM was considering prosecuting the Chinatown cleaning contractor and might need Shah Alam as a prosecution witness. But he is left with neither work nor money nor housing again. With his cousin no longer here, he’s sleeping on the streets.
What happened to the injury compensation? TWC2 asked.
“Have already. Got one percent. About $1,000.” Sometime in the last few months, the permanent incapacity of the thumb was assessed and compensation was paid out.
Now his daily routine is get meals from TWC2 and to look for a dry place to lay down for the night. And count the raindrops, thinking of home.