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By Jiang Zhi Feng, based on an interview in October 2017
For ten years as a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Singapore, Hossain Awlad has only been back home three times. He misses home. He misses his wife, his mother, and his relatives. The last time he saw them was in 2013. He calls his wife every night except when his “mobile [phone] money not enough.” However, his longing for home is currently the least of his worries.
His distress started when Hossain’s employer refused to pay his hospital bills for his two injuries. He only started working with an engineering and construction company in late 2015 and had only just managed to earn back his $4,400 in agent fees when the accident happened. For Hossain, this sum was “difficult to pay back.”
He suffered from back pain after falling one meter from ground while working. His left thumb was severely injured after it got stuck in a machine. He lamented that his employer “no pay,” medical bills. “Both bills did not pay. I pay myself.” Paying his hospital bills has meant that he does “not [have] enough money” to remit back to his wife and mother back home. Furthermore, his financial problems are compounded by his employer’s refusal to pay for his accommodation and his “makan money”. There is a sense of anguish in him when he mentions that the “house owner me to pay” for his accommodation – a room that is shared with twelve other migrant workers and a single toilet shared with around twenty workers.
Despite such problems, Hossain still wants to come back to Singapore to work once he has recovered. This desire to work in Singapore as a migrant worker has both economic and non-economic reasons.
Many presume that migrant workers, like Hossain, come to Singapore solely for economic reasons. Earning a higher wage is definitely one of the primary reasons. Hossain says he can earn three times more in Singapore as compared to working in Bangladesh. Based on his working experience in his home country before coming to Singapore, wages in Bangladesh are too “low” for him. Although the money is sufficient for basic necessities such as food and clothing, it is “not enough for him to build his house”.
However, while such economic reasons are crucial, they only tell part of the story on why Hossain comes to Singapore. He mentions that he “like Singapore” and insists that working abroad is “not just for money”. He adds that he “does not really want to stay at home” for too long a period of time.
He likes Singapore’s “culture”, he says, and that Singapore is a safe place with “no crime.”
But TWC2 volunteer Alex Au saw more than that in Hossain’s next statement, where he mentions that he has village friends working in Saudi Arabia and Japan. His brother is a migrant worker in South Korea.
“With so many people working abroad, and with these persons demonstrably earning more than those who do not go abroad,” observes Alex, “it may have become a badge of social honour to be abroad.”
“A man who isn’t working outside Bangladesh may suffer from the social suspicion that he is a failure in life,” Alex adds. If so, that’s the push factor that keeps men like Hossain away from their families and wanting to return here despite injury and bad experiences.
I ask him if Hossain is angry about his present, unfortunate situation, which has left him feeling helpless. Does it translate into anger? I wonder. He calmly says, “I don’t angry because I cannot do anything. Angry no point.”
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