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Mohammad Nazrul Asadur Rahman shows me his newly-minted Special Pass. It was issued just earlier today. But he has endured three months of hardship to get it. And it’s not over yet: his boss refuses to hand back his passport.
A lanky 40-year old from Bangladesh, Nazrul is highly skilled in welding and fitting and has been in Singapore for the last eleven years. But the last five or six months have been the testing period of his life. It’s a case of a friend turning into foe. Nazrul’s current boss — let’s call him Atom — was his ex-colleague as they both had worked for the same company and considered themselves friends. When that contract ended, Nazrul went back to Bangladesh to spend time with his wife hoping to take a break for a year. He had spent only 2 months home when he received a job offer in Singapore again.
While Nazrul was in Dhaka, Atom started a manpower company, coaxing Nazrul to come back to Singapore by promising him a nice job with a salary of $1,450 a month like the previous job. What more, he wouldn’t have to pay agent’s fees.
Nazrul trusted his friend, even when he received the In-Principle Approval for Work Permit (issued by MOM) that showed $750 as the monthly salary. The friend explained that away by saying that Nazrul would actually be making $1,450, but that he’d have to cut $700 each month initially for some reason. He promised to adjust the salary in future months.
But it would be an empty promise. From earning $1,450 a month as a skilled worker in his previous job, Nazrul was treated as unskilled labour and tasked with clearing garbage and cleaning toilets. Despite this pay cut, Nazrul hung in there as, he says, “I still work because he was very friendly in my last job.”
An incident in November 2012 showed the true colors of Atom. While Nazrul was at work in Jurong, he had a close shave with death when one of the two co-workers bringing down a huge 12-inch T-joint using a ladder lost his grip. Nazrul narrates: “Luckily one man caught [it], else I die already”.
He adds, “Normally, heavy T- joint are brought down using a crane,” explaining the normal procedure for lowering heavy equipment from ground level to underground.
But, as Nazrul tried to avoid to avoid being struck by the T-joint, he hit a wall and injured his back. When he reported his injury to his boss, Atom was “not serious” about it, said Nazrul. Perhaps Atom thought it was better to avoid the issue as this might expose the workplace lapse of not using a crane for transferring heavy equipment.
Nazrul continued to work with the help of over-the counter painkillers for his aching back, only to suffer another injury eight days later when a 2-inch pipe fell on his left hand between the wrist and thumb. The severe injury which left the hand swollen was not given any medical attention by his supervisor who happened to be Atom’s brother. Instead, he was forced to play a game of football that had been planned as a part of company event the next day, despite Nazrul initially refusing to play. Later that evening, he was again forced to attend the company dinner while he was suffering from fever arising out of his injuries and tiredness from the morning’s game. At the end of dinner, when Nazrul asked his supervisor what to do about his injury, he was told : “Don’t talk about back pain. Go to hospital for hand. If you talk about back pain, be prepared to go back home.”
Debbie Fordyce, an executive committee member of TWC2 thinks that compelling him to participate in the football match could have been a ruse. She explains her suspicions, based on her experience: “When the employer claims that the injury didn’t arise out of a workplace injury, both worker and employer are asked to provide proof to support their position. We’ve heard of employers repatriating witnesses, falsifying safety reports, manipulating time sheets, and making use of company doctors. This employer made sure that they had photographs to show Nazrul enjoying the company games which could discredit the claim that Nazrul was injured at the time.”
Nazrul went to a polyclinic at his own expense and was advised rest for two days. When he reported back to work after that, on 5 December 2012, he asked his supervisor whether he should go to a hospital as the pain in his hand had not subsided. The supervisor said that he would take him to hospital after lunch.
But not long after, the supervisor, with three hefty men, bundled him into a van and forcibly took him to his dormitory. He was made to pack his belongings.
They then took him to a bank to encash the pay cheque that had been given to Nazrul at the start of the month. As they left the bank, they took away the cash too!
Straight to Changi airport they went, for a flight back to Bangladesh.
Nazrul, who had been under the watchful eyes of the four men and the driver this far, recounts: “I was so hungry as I did not eat anything from morning. I ask them permission to order a burger in Changi Airport.”
He was allowed to go one floor down to the arrival hall where the burger joint was located. Nazrul sensed an opportunity to escape. He ran to the taxi stand, and took a taxi directly to the Ministry of Manpower. At MOM, a case officer opened an investigation with a couple of appointment dates to hear his story.
Meanwhile, Nazrul took treatment at Tan Tock Seng Hospital Hospital for his hand. He adds, “I pay hospital bill myself. Have spent 500 dollars already.”
While narrating the MOM enquiry that was held, with Atom attending, Nazrul says, “The boss tell officer that he does not know me.” When the officer asked the boss for Nazrul’s passport, Atom’s cold answer was that Nazrul has already taken the passport and run away.
MOM was at first reluctant to issue Nazrul with a Special Pass in the absence of his passport. It took intervention by TWC2’s Debbie, with the aid of the Bangladesh High Commission and a police certificate all the way from his home country to overcome this impasse.
There are many more in Singapore like Nazrul under the clutches of mushrooming manpower companies which lack the necessary credentials. It is time the government increases the level of scrutiny and tighten the approval of such companies. Singapore’s risk of losing its reputation as a preferred destination for skilled labour is evident in Nazrul’s reply when I ask what his future plans are. Pat came the reply from the braveheart, “Once I get my passport, I go back to Bangladesh and never return to Singapore. Money is not important for me.
“But I will make sure and leave only after I see that my boss is punished”. Hope someone is hearing this!
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