By Kimberley Ng
Kept in a windowless room with three company representatives patrolling outside and the imminent threat of forced deportation looming over his head, Molla Shahjahan called TWC2 for help.
At 11 on the morning of 7 June 2016, Shahjahan had just been discharged after three nights’ stay at Alexandra Hospital following a debilitating lower back sprain and a thumb injury at his construction site. While waiting to board a bus back to his place of residence, he was approached by two men who said they were from his company, Capstone Engineering Pte Ltd.
“He say, ‘You follow me.’” recounts Shahjahan over a dinner of rice and curry that he picks at and abandons after a few bites. The men showed him a newly-minted Special Pass that was only valid till the next day. Shahjahan continues with his account: “He say, ‘expire tomorrow, tomorrow you must go back.’
“I say, ‘I complain to MOM first, go home and eat and shower first.’”
The men said no to that, a refusal that is against the law. All workers have a right to lodge complaints with the Ministry of Manpower. Essentially, his employer was attempting to do what many an unscrupulous boss has done in Singapore: forcibly repatriate an injured worker in order to avoid footing costly medical bills.
Just then, a nurse from inside the hospital called him on his phone to tell him he had forgotten to take his prescriptions with him. Shahjahan turned around to go back to the hospital. The men then manhandled him and shoved him into a vehicle, not allowing him his medication. They drove him to his company’s office in the Toh Guan area, where he was given a talking to by other company staff. Subsequently, he was driven to his windowless room that served as his quarters.
The staff permitted him to roam around in his room and visit the washroom, but refused to let him set foot off the premises. For four hours “whole time in pain, sleeping, lie down all in pain.”
Was he scared? “Of course scared!” Shahjahan exclaims. “But inside the room, got this paper,” he adds, referring to a leaflet distributed at one of TWC2’s Sunday outreach sessions that has our phone number on it. He requested that a friend contact TWC2 on his behalf.
That’s how TWC2 heard of the matter, around 2:30pm. TWC2 called Shahjahan directly to confirm with him his situation and location. Without delay, TWC2 sent caseworker Rashiqa and an intern to a police station to request assistance from the police. But disappointingly, the police told the TWC2 team to go down personally to Tuas to locate Shahjahan before calling them in.
Meanwhile, Shahjahan languished in his windowless cell. Having worked in Singapore for the tiling company for three years and nine months, he faced the worrying prospect of sudden repatriation and an indeterminate period of joblessness. Would TWC2 show up? Would he be forced onto a plane the next day?
Then his company manager — said to be the son-in-law of the company owner — showed up to pay him his final salary. It looked like the end was near.
With only piecemeal directions and approximate landmarks to guide them and no time to waste, TWC2 rushed down to the site. “Near Tuas South Avenue 6,” Shahjahan whispered into his phone to guide us in without alerting the guards outside his door. “Have glass factory near[by].”
The location — 35, Tuas View Walk 2 — was a former factory converted into a small dorm.
Shahjahan recalls the relief he felt when he saw the two TWC2 persons walk into his room, accompanied by two policemen and his company manager.
Back at TWC2’s office, another caseworker stood ready to contact MOM. As soon as Rashiqa signalled that she had found the location — by then it was nearly 5pm — a call was placed to MOM’s Joint Operations Department. We explained the matter to the officer we managed to reach, and gave him Rashiqa’s number so he could talk directly with her and the worker.
He called Rashiqa immediately, and also spoke with the company manager. Shahjahan does not know what was said, but a senior volunteer tells me that the MOM officer clearly instructed the manager to release Shahjahan promptly. The policemen and company manager also negotiated for over an hour in Chinese — Shahjahan cannot tell me what was said — and the police took some statements, before finally letting him go.
At about the same time, MOM fixed two appointments for him to be interviewed tomorrow. The first will be about his workplace injury, and the second will be about this attempt at forced repatriation.
Despite years of hard labour, Shahjahan has paid dearly for his stint in Singapore’s factories, having paid $7000 in training fees, and an additional $1500 for renewals of his work permit. It should be noted that it is illegal for employers to charge workers for renewal. He intends to bring this up at tomorrow’s interview with MOM.
Shahjahan is finally brought to TWC2’s free meals station in Little India at 7:30pm where I meet him for the first time. He has not had any food since the previous night. He is hungry, but is too distracted by the fact that he has not taken a bath in two days. Feeling unclean, he does not feel like eating. His back still hurts. Every time his shifts in his seat, he winces in pain.
It looks like a long, long road ahead.