By YC Loh
“Where do you stay now?” I ask Salim.
“Last night, sleep this table,” is his reply, pointing to an eatery table. “Night before, sleep minimart there,” indicating a bit of space under a tree at Little India’s ‘Bangla Square’.
He has been brought to this sad, homeless state through his agent’s duplicity and blackmail.
Salim Hossain Rony, 31, arrived in Singapore for the first time on 2 March 2013, on a tourist visa. His contact, Riaz, had told him there was work here. When Salim called Riaz after landing at Changi, he was instructed to meet the latter at Geylang and once again promised employment: “You wait, I manage for you a job.”
After staying in Geylang for a few days, Riaz told Salim to take a flight to Kuala Lumpur in order to extend his visa in Singapore. He left on 7 March 2013, and after a week, took a bus to Johor Bahru from where he re-entered Singapore. Salim called Riaz again to ask for work and this time was told that he would be given a job as a cleaner in Riaz’s Geylang houses. He was promised $1,000 per month, with free food and lodging, and started work on 22 March 2013.
It turned out that Riaz owned (or master-leased) eight properties in Singapore, subletting rooms and bedspaces at $220 per bed per month. The properties lodged a staggering number of occupants: the eight houses had sevens rooms each, and each room had an average of twelve people. This meant that there were about 84 people living in a single house, with only one toilet per house, says Salim. By my calculations, Riaz was making up to $147,840 a month from his enterprise. However, these activities were clearly illegal as, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) guidelines on subletting private residential properties, “the maximum number of occupants in a residential unit is 8.”
Overcrowding poses environmental health risks. At licensed dormitories, the ratio of people-to-toilets should not exceed fifteen, according to the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) guidelines.
Salim suspected that the houses served as a haven for illegal immigrants and activities. To my question “Who stays in those eight houses?” he replies: “Other company workers, illegal also have. Cigarette seller, illegal lady.”
On 25 March 2013, only three days into his job, Salim was made to pay Riaz $2,000 as agent fee but there was still no sign of the promised work pass. When his tourist visa expired on 14 April 2013, making him an illegal overstayer liable to be deported, he expressed his fears to Riaz. The latter assured him that he would take care of it. Salim would subsequently realise that he never did.
Salim continued in his job until 25 May 2013. Up till then he had not received any pay. When he approached Riaz to ask for the money, Salim was offered a job as an illegal cigarette seller. But he refused. “I no sell. (If) police catch, will be jail. So I say no agree.”
Riaz did not take kindly to this, and angrily told Salim to leave: “You go out my house. If you sounding, I call police to catch you.” In effect, Riaz was seeking to blackmail and exploit Salim over his undocumented status. Panicking, Salim fled, and after pondering over his situation for some days, he decided to seek the help of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 28 May 2013.
Salim’s case is now being reviewed under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA). He is worried about his future prospects in Singapore. Classed as an overstayer, he is likely to be barred from entering Singapore ever again. His only hope is if the authorities accept his explanation that he was duped into thinking that arriving here on a tourist pass, and then looking for a job and work pass, was the normal way by which foreign labour got to work here.