“If I not work, how I live?”
Injured worker Md Milon Samsul Haque is telling me why he is now under investigation by MOM for working illegally. But his story has a twist: It was his illegal employer who reported to the authorities that Milon was working underground.
“He think he Singapore man, so he think he can report, and I [would be] scared,” is how Milon describes the showdown he had with ‘Gavin’, who manages a vegetable farm near Khatib. “Near Nee Soon army camp.”
“But I say [to] him, ‘You want complaining, then you complaining, lah.'”
Milon’s dispute with Gavin was not over any injury, it was over salary. Milon’s injury didn’t arise from the illegal job, but from the proper job he used to hold with P.D. Door Pte Ltd.
Gavin had promised him $50 per weekday and $60 for work on Saturday or Sunday, according to Milon. There was also the understanding that he would be paid in cash at the end of each day. “But after working eight day, he only give me $150,” Milon says, which made him decide it wasn’t worth continuing. The illegal employer didn’t provide accommodation, so Milon not only has to continue paying $250 per month for a flea-infested bedspace in Little India, he also has to incur daily transport costs to get to Khatib.
On the ninth day, Milon chose not to go to the farm. Gavin called to ask why he didn’t show up. Milon told him, “You not give me my money, I not coming.” In response, according to Milon, Gavin threatened to report his illegal work to MOM. “He talking: ‘If you no coming, I complain MOM.'”
TWC2 vice-president Alex Au points out to me that such a threat parallels what the United Nations has laid down as an indicator of human trafficking: attempts to keep others under subjugation by threatening to report their illegal status to authorities, especially where the illegal status was first created by the controlling person or his associates.
Milon wasn’t afraid, though. He felt he was in the moral right.
“I also find it hard to understand why the illegal employer would want to cut off his nose to spite his face,” says Alex. “I hope it’s not because such illegal employers know from experience that they enjoy a certain impunity.”
Indeed, impunity lies at the heart of this story. For why was Milon seeking to work illegally in the first place?
The reason is that Milon is in a trap created by our government’s policies: a trap in which a foreign worker is required to stay on in Singapore, but not allowed any realistic means of livelihood. That said, if we go by the letter of the law, the former employer is supposed to provide ‘upkeep and maintenance’ — to use the cold words of our laws that liken human beings to cogs in machinery — “but in the several years that I have been with TWC2,” says Alex, “I have yet to see a single case where the Ministry of Manpower has enforced this rule.”
So, the employer doesn’t provide. MOM doesn’t make the former employer provide. Out of desperation, the worker goes out to work in the shadow economy. He is caught working. He is punished for trying to survive. The former employer goes scot-free despite not living up to his legal obligation. The impunity lies here.
Milon was injured on 21 September 2013 while working with P.D. Door. He hurt his right hand and his back and nine months on, is still undergoing treatment. He shows me how his right hand is still swollen; the back of the right hand is thicker than that of the left. “This hand no power,” he says.
He was on medical leave for “six month, fifteen day”, but not any more. P.D. Door has paid him most of the owed medical leave wages (“still have about one month not pay,” says Milon) but since he is now ‘off MC’, he isn’t entitled to any further income. Anyone in this situation would want to look for work wherever he can find it.
And that’s what Milon did.
“Gavin, he many time come to Little India to look for worker,” Milon explains how he came upon this illegal job. But even so, the recruitment process was quite colourful, almost cloak-and-dagger.
After a brief conversation in Little India itself, Milon was told to go to a certain Chinese restaurant in the Yishun area. “In front have big tank, with big fish. Can eat one.” He was first interviewed by a Chinese man, who gave him an all clear and who then passed him on to another man for another brief interview. The second man then told Milon to go into a back room where he saw Gavin again. It sounds as if the farm is owned by the owners of the restaurant, while Gavin (who is reportedly a Singaporean of Indian ancestry) merely supervises it, though this guess is not verifiable.
However, all that is history now. Milon just wants to go home. “I want case faster close. I want assessment [for injury compensation] faster come. What insurance they give, I take. I don’t want common law, I want go home.”
He may not get his wish granted so soon. The injury treatment and compensation process grinds slowly. Meanwhile the dilemma remains: Milon must stay on in Singapore, but his Special Pass (which legalises his continued stay) expressly forbids him from working. So, back to question #1: What’s he going to live on?