It was peak dinner time at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project on Thursday 16 July when Sheikh Md Hasan showed up for the first time, with a friend. Hasan needed the friend to translate because he hardly spoke a word of English though, watching the body language between the two of them, it was less a case of him bringing a friend and more a case of the friend dragging him here and there.
Throughout the interview, Hasan looked like a rabbit caught in headlights. It wasn’t even clear to us if he even understood what TWC2 was. Other workers have come to us thinking we’re part of the Ministry of Manpower, or some sort of law firm.
The friend described Hasan’s problem: He desperately needed a new job. The job that he came to Singapore for had fallen through.
This was Hasan’s first time in Singapore. Last year, he signed up for a plumbing course at a basic skills training centre in Dhaka, which cost him 120,000 taka (about $2,000). After passing the exam, he approached a placement agency (or so they claimed to be) and paid them 800,000 taka (about $13,300) to find him a job.
Unusually, he had a photo of the agency’s name card — and as can be seen from the image below, it’s a travel agency.
Hasan’s “job agent” on his phone
Nonetheless, licensed or not, Altaf Hossein, the man whose name is on the card, found Hasan a job with Kim Yuen Electrical Engineering Pte Ltd in Singapore. A document called an In-principle Approval (IPA) (see explanation in Glossary) was handed to Hasan in January or February 2020, and he arrived in Singapore on 8 March 2020.
150 cases of Covid-19 cases had already been detected by then.
About fifteen days after arriving here (i.e. on or around 23 March 2020) the supervisor — another Bangladeshi national — mentioned to him that the boss was not converting his IPA into a Work Permit. Conversion should be routine. Without a Work Permit, Hasan would not be able to continue working for the company.
Ethically, it would represent a reneging of contract between employer and prospective employee. Considering how much Hasan had paid the “agent” in Bangladesh, it would also be financially ruinous for him.
TWC2 volunteers’ first thoughts on hearing this story was “bad boss”.
Or maybe the company had no more work because of Covid-19?
Through his friend who translated, Hasan begged TWC2 to help him find a new job. Or at least to help him get a letter from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) permitting him to look for a new employer. Such a letter was important, because without this prior permission, no interested employer could even apply for a new Work Permit for him. Hasan was tied to Kim Yuen Electrical unless released.
What Hasan didn’t know was that he might be at risk of being arrested by the police for overstaying. The dates he had given us were cause for alarm.
Having arrived on 8 March, the entry stamp on his passport would have expired 30 days later, on 6 April 2020. Unless he had a valid Work Permit by then, his immigration status would have lapsed into irregularity. Under the Immigration Act, overstaying is an offence, and if one overstayed by more then 90 days, the penalties would be severe — imprisonment and mandatory caning with at least three strokes (Immigration Act, Section 15 (3)(b)).
By the time Hasan came to us, on 16 July, his entry stamp on his passport was more than 90 days old. Unless he had in hand a Special Pass issued under the Immigration Act, his presence in Singapore by this point would be in contravention of the law.
“Do you have a Special Pass?” we asked him.
“No,” the friend replied for him. And good that he did, for we weren’t sure if Hasan himself even understood what a Special Pass was, not having had one in hand. Special Passes are usually issued by MOM when a worker has a reason to remain in Singapore.
“Have you ever gone to MOM to file a complaint?”
We could even bet that he had no idea where MOM was located even if he had thought of going there.
Although Hasan might have thought his chief issue was that of getting a new job, we could see that an even more pressing matter was getting his immigration status sorted out before he bumped into a police officer and got arrested. We can’t blame him for not knowing how dicey his situation was; he’d hardly know the first thing about Singapore’s immigration law.
Immediate plans were made to find a volunteer to take him to MOM first thing the next morning to ask for a Special Pass. But since he couldn’t speak English, we also had to have a Bengali interpreter standing by to help our volunteer.
Still, Hasan went on and on about needing help to get a new job. He was in a huge financial hole having sunk in over $15,000. It might have been the family’s life savings.
We had to give him some hard truths. He had no English, no work experience, and with Covid-19 and an economy in recession, the chance of finding a new job now was remote. Even if we managed to get him a Special Pass and MOM gave him permission to look for a new job, the chance of actually landing one might be very poor.
He looked depressed. We felt really sorry for him. He was yet another victim of the exploitative recruitment system faced by migrant workers. It’s bad enough that the Kim Yuen job didn’t materialise, but he shouldn’t have had to pay over $15,000 for it.
Friday morning: No entry to MOM
We knew that in all likelihood, Hasan and our volunteer might be denied entry into MOM. From our other cases, we had a sense that it was ‘by appointment’ only. However, since Hasan first came to us after office hours on Thursday evening, it was not possible to make an appointment with MOM for Friday morning, so we instructed our volunteer to make an attempt anyway.
As expected, the volunteer reported around 9:30am that they were turned away at the door. So we swung into Plan B.
“Bring him to our office,” we told her. She and Hasan arrived a few minutes later.
Debbie Fordyce, the current TWC2 president, mused: “I don’t think he even knows where he is being brought to. He won’t connect our office with our meal station from last night.”
Notwithstanding his bewilderment being moved from one building to another, we would keep him with us and not let him wander the streets until we sorted out his immigration status.
Immediately, we sent an email to MOM explaining the situation and requesting a Special Pass for him. At the same time, we spoke with the employer, and through him, we also got to speak to an employment agent. We had a chance to interview Hasan in greater depth too regarding the background to his case, something that had not been possible at peak dinner time the evening before.
The fuller story
The first thing we learned was that despite telling us last night that Kim Yuen failed to employ him, Hasan had in fact started work with Kim Yuen Electrical. He worked eleven days in March. This information indicated that the employer genuinely intended to hire him.
As for why his IPA was not converted into a Work Permit, we didn’t manage to get a clear picture. There was something about another worker’s permit which Kim Yuen originally intended to cancel but for some reason, they didn’t cancel that permit. So, having hit the quota ceiling perhaps, they couldn’t take Hasan on.
Then the employer went out of his way to find an alternative job for Hasan. We were told that he even paid the “agent fee” of $3,000 — though we couldn’t verify if this was true.
But Hasan didn’t want that job because he feared that it had nothing to do with plumbing, the trade he had trained for. He heard that in the alternative job he would be tasked to do work relating to steel reinforcement bars, which many workers consider to be brutally hard.
TWC2 spoke to the agent who had arranged the alternative job, and the agent confirmed that it was still open to Hasan. The agent added that he couldn’t formally apply for an IPA for Hasan all these months because Hasan was not in possession of a Special Pass.
It turned out that the employer intended to get him a Special Pass — and here we’re referring to late March. But by that time, his Malaysian administrative staff had become stuck in Malaysia, unable to come to work in Singapore. Malaysia’s Covid-19 lockdown began on 16 March and Malaysian workers could not commute across the causeway to their jobs in Singapore. Without his administrative staff, the employer didn’t know what to do.
By that time too, flights back to Bangladesh were fast evaporating, so even if it was intended to repatriate Hasan, it would not have been possible. That being the case, MOM adopted the policy of automatically issuing Special Passes to any worker stuck here because of Covid-19’s disruption to travel.
Apparently, MOM was aware of the fact that Hasan’s IPA had not been converted into a Work Permit within the allotted time. So why didn’t they automatically issue a Special Pass to him?
We learned from the many calls we made on Friday that MOM was waiting for the employer to pay a fine of $300 before they would issue Hasan with a Special Pass. However, without his Malaysian administrative staff, the employer didn’t know how to get that done.
Nothing unusual here. Just one more example of bureaucratic comedy in our encyclopedia of “this is how Singapore works”.
April and May were months in which much work was suspended. Hasan slipped unknowingly into irregular status.
“Where were you staying all this while?” we asked him.
“Are you still staying there now?”
“How many men in the same room?”
“Are they all workers with the same company (Kim Yuen Electrical)?”
“Are they working workers, or not working too?”
“After 23 June, they go back to work.”
With that, the picture changed completely. The boss had continued to house him. He had been fed. The company was a going concern. As mentioned above, the boss even paid $3,000 to get him a new job. Our first thought on Thursday evening was “bad boss”. By Friday, it was quite the opposite.
Special Pass finally issued
After sitting in our office virtually the whole day waiting for a response from MOM, things were solved around 5pm. Hasan’s Special Pass came through via email and we printed it out for him. We could see on the paper itself that the employer had paid the fine of $300. The MOM officer must have been on the phone with the boss to get him to do so.
Another Bangladeshi worker, Kamal, then explained to Hasan in his native language the importance of keeping this piece of paper properly.
Kamal (left) explains the significance of the Special Pass that Hasan (green shirt) is holding in his hands.
Once more, we reminded Hasan that the alternative job his boss had found for him was still open. Now that he had a Special Pass, the agent could go ahead and apply for a new IPA for him.
“Do you want to take that job?”
“You want to go home instead?”
All that’s left to do is to liaise with the employer to get him an airticket. Repatriation flights have resumed to Bangladesh, though seats are in short supply. Nonetheless, it can be arranged.
As for what would await Hasan on return, with a huge loss of over $15,000, we can hardly imagine.