By Ng Zuxiang, based on an interview in July 2018
You have a carefully trimmed goatee. You are 26 years old. You have come from Bangladesh to Singapore as the job opportunities and pay here would likely be better than at home. You came to earn a living on which your family back home can depend. You have parents in their mid-fifties doing small jobs to get by and a younger brother of 20 who is still studying. You have dyed your hair brown and like to wear clothes that casually reflect your youthful exuberance and confidence.
You were, in your first job, with an employer who treated you well so you came back a second time, but found the new work/leisure balance a little too skewed towards work, and you took it up with your employer hoping he would understand. He understood, to an extent, and agreed to let you transfer to another job. That you did, for a hefty price of $4,000 to the new employer, an illegal practice called a kickback. It was unfair, but you paid anyway because it meant you got to work at a better-paid job. Little did you know that your third employer would cause much more trouble; withholding two months of your pay eight months into the job. Then things got worse.
You learned that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had revoked all the work passes of this company’s employees. Boss must have done something wrong to earn MOM’s ire. And now you’re out of a job. Boss made an offer that would keep you in work: he could arrange to transfer as many of the workers as are willing, to yet another company. Sounded like a good solution, except that the catch was to pay the boss another $1,500.
You begrudgingly paid in order to stay in work. But no transfer materialised.
You then heard from your friends about volunteers operating out of a small diner in Little India, who could give you free advice, so you stopped by. They helped you by listening to your story and giving tips about how you could take your case to MOM and claim the salary owed to you. You followed their advice and eventually got back $1,900 in owed salary.
You thought things would return to normal, but instead found yourself in another tricky situation. MOM wanted you to to help with investigations as you had also complained about the third boss taking a total of $5,500 from you. Now you can’t look for another normal job. MOM has restricted you to temporary jobs of six months each. You get onto one; it bores you to death and you’ve just quit. Even if you stayed, that job wouldn’t have lasted. Every six months, you’d be out in the cold looking for a new six-month temporary job.
You came to Singapore hopeful for stable and secure employment, yet now you stand on a shaking ice sheet that has broken off from a large glacier, hopping from one ice sheet to the next every six months looking for a place to stand, all while surrounded by icy cold waters of government bureaucracy.
You are left stranded in the cold as MOM has taken your passport and your personal liberties along with it. You are not allowed to leave the country to go on holiday or go back home. You try asking them when the ordeal will be over but they fail to give a straight answer, so you are becalmed in bureaucratic seas for an indefinite time. When you were treated as production digit in your earlier employment, at least you were paid. Now you’re treated as a prosecution lever and they don’t pay you for your value. You’re just a young man who just wants to move on with your life.
You are now between jobs. You’re confident that you can find stable work but, alas, you cannot apply for such jobs because your hands are tied by MOM’s regulations. You are confused and perhaps a little scared about your future because it seems so out of your own control. But you do not betray your confident demeanour. The volunteers from TWC2 are still giving free food and a listening ear, so you visit regularly to talk and feel at home, and now you are talking to this new volunteer who is writing your story down which will perhaps be read by other people so they know what you are going through. You have finished telling your story and the senior volunteer whom you like — who is friendly and jokes with you — tells you that you can go but you hesitate for a moment, not wanting the happy moment to expire, and feeling maybe a little scared after recounting your story. You laugh to brush away your vulnerability. Yet, you are feeling hungry so you take a meal token from a volunteer, collect your food and sit down to have a meal with other men like you. Men with their own stories of injustice, whose fates are not theirs to decide, who are left dangling not really knowing what to do.
You are Rana Mohammad Masud.