By Bill Poorman
“No work.” Those were the worst possible words that Masud could have heard. Like all foreign workers, he had come to Singapore to put in long hours and make a better life. In Singapore, he could earn a higher income than in his home country of Bangladesh. But when he arrived here in September of 2016, his boss told him that he didn’t have a job. No work. What could he do?
I met Masud one March evening at the restaurant below the offices of TWC2 in Little India. Among other services, TWC2 runs a meal program. Three nights a week it’s at this restaurant, which serves Bangladeshi food. Two nights a week it’s in a different restaurant that serves South Indian fare. Workers who can’t afford their own food can get a free meal. Some are out of work because of injuries. Some, like Masud, have been cut off from their jobs. All of them are trying to have their claims addressed by the Ministry of Manpower, with the help of TWC2. That evening, I started to talk to Masud outside the restaurant about his situation, but then the 24-year-old revealed that he hadn’t eaten all day — something about the dorm (where his employer puts him up) not providing regular meals. In fact, he had been living on one meal a day for at least a month. The interview could wait.
Once Masud had his food and had taken a few bites, we talked some more while sitting at a table inside the restaurant. It turns out he had paid $8,600 to an agent back in Bangladesh to get to Singapore. He was promised $20 a day. At that rate it already would have taken him more than a year just to start getting ahead. The job started uneventfully enough; he was issued with a proper Work Permit. But thanks to some sort of mix-up, the work never came through, and more seriously, he hadn’t been getting any salary for six months. He’s not alone. TWC2 has recorded seven other cases of workers from the same employer. All are stuck in Masud’s predicament.
It’s unclear what Masud’s options are. For now, he can stay in Singapore on a Special Pass while the problem with his former employer — or what was supposed to be his employer — is sorted out. But a condition of the Special Pass is that he is forbidden to work. That means no income for an indefinite period. Nor food. And coming up the weekend after we spoke, he wasn’t going to have any shelter, either. Fortunately for Masud, his brother also works in Singapore. He plans to move in with him for the time being. But that place costs his brother $250 per month. On top of this family already having paid out thousands for a job that never came through, now it has to pay out even more for housing.
Masud is ready and able to put in the gruelling hours of a foreign worker in Singapore. He was promised a job, paid the cost to travel here, and followed the rules. But through no fault of his, events have turned against him. Now he’s struggling to get by. Something is broken. No work, indeed.