Among the one million medical tourists spending some one billion dollars on medical services this year was the Bangladeshi Minister of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment. His ministry was established in December 2001 for the purpose of ensuring the welfare of the expatriate workers and the enhancement of the overseas employment. The minister’s visit was personal, and so the interests of millions of Bangladeshi migrants working in foreign countries would have to wait.
During the minister’s visit, he did not have the time to hear the stories of any of the Bangladeshis who are compelled by the grossly inadequate salaried positions in Bangladesh to travel to Singapore to find work. If he had listened to any of these men, he might have considered that in encouraging remittances from work overseas, his ministry is driving migrants into the unscrupulous hands of Bangladeshi agents and their Singaporean accomplices.
He might have, for instance, been able to talk to Asadullah, and hear how his employer hired gangsters to abduct him from the workplace to repatriate him before he could lodge a complaint with the Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM). He might have heard from Asadullah’s co-workers how they were enduring the same predicament, and how they continue working without a peek out of fear of being sent home. Such incidents occur daily, even on International Migrants Day, 18 December, when the international community should be standing in solidarity to protect the interest of the world’s rapidly growing migrant population.
Working twelve hours a day
Asadullah’s circumstances are not unusual. He arrived in Singapore in May 2011, to promises of $700/month as basic salary, overtime at 1.5 times the hourly rate, and Sundays and public holidays at twice the hourly rate. It sounded good: the agent fees of over $4,000 could be covered within six months, he and his workmates assumed.
Every day the men worked a full twelve hours, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. With an hour for lunch, this would be three hours of overtime. Yet they received only about $450 a month for the first four months.
The difference is explained partly by the deduction of $200 from each man’s pay for the first four months. As recounted by one worker, the boss said the agent in Bangladesh didn’t pay him his full cut, so he had to take it from the salary. The employer attempted several times to force the men to sign a paper saying that they’d taken a loan of $800 so that, if necessary, he could explain and prove this deduction was the return of a personal loan.
In addition to the $800 that the employer extracted from at least the 22 workers who spoke to Transient Workers Count Too, he also deducted $60 each month as a savings scheme. This is a common scheme that sounds beneficial to the worker, but is often hard to prove and impossible to recoup. Singapore regulations require the worker to lodge a salary complaint within one year of the money being withheld, so if the men are to continue working for two years, they have little hope of recovering the deductions that are more than a year old.
Although the men are given time sheets showing the hours they work, they aren’t given proper recording of the salaries which makes it difficult for them to understand how the amount enclosed is calculated. These men received their salary in cash in envelopes scrawled with a few barely-decipherable numbers. The written amounts didn’t necessarily match the cash enclosed, and there was no indication of the days or hours worked, or the reasons for the deductions.
One man had $2,000 deducted when two small engines went missing during his lunch break; another man had $2,200 deducted when a camera fell into a manhole. The Employment Act states that the deduction shall not exceed the loss caused to the employer by the neglect or default of the employee, and except with the permission of the Commissioner shall not exceed one quarter of one month’s wages. These two deductions were far in excess of the value of the items lost, and were three to four times more than the men’s monthly salary.
Fruitless visit to Ministry of Manpower
After seven months of this, realising that the repayment of the initial placement fee would take longer than expected, the men decided to appeal to MOM. On 9 December, 22 men went to MOM’s headquarters to discuss their situation. Two men were allowed inside a small conference room to talk to the MOM officer while the others waited outside. The female officer told them not to be frightened of the boss, whom the men called Ah Tee. However, the MOM is always keen to resolve differences as agreeably as possible and so called the employer to persuade him to resolve the issue. He promised to pay all outstanding amounts, and the men agreed not to lodge a formal complaint.
More economical than making the promised payments is eliminating the group leader. On 12 December, as Asadullah returned to the dormitory from work, a group was waiting to apprehend him. Asadullah noted that they were from the A Team Repatriation Company. Three or four tough-looking men bundled him into a car and, without allowing him to gather his personal belongings, drove him straight to the airport. Because the employers generally hold the workers’ passports, there was no need for Asadullah to make a stop in the dormitory.
Possibly because the lorry returning the men from the worksite that evening had been delayed, Asadullah and his escorts arrived too late for the flight. The A Team men took him that night to a room above a motorcycle repair shop where he was locked up without his handphone until the following day when they went again to the airport.
The government might like to think that forced repatriation does not exist because any worker can contact the police at the airport and inform them of outstanding medical or salary issues, and the police will ensure that the man is allowed to lodge a claim with MOM. In practice, this depends on the worker knowing that he has this right, having the confidence and language to take this action, believing that the police will assist him, and possessing the money to return to the city and find a safe place to stay the night.
Having spent one night and one day with the A Team men, Asadullah was reluctant to notify the police before he passed through immigration. He didn’t want to exit the passenger terminal to find them waiting for him again. He waited for some time before contacting the police who listened to his story and allowed him to leave the airport. Fortunately he had the resources to return to Little India and find lodging for the night.
Too trusting of employers
The following day, 13 December, he visited the MOM branch that deals with salary issues where he wrote out his statement.
After calling and talking to Ah Tee and Guna (the workers’ supervisor), the MOM officer told Asadullah that he couldn’t help him because the work permit had been cancelled and the employer had purchased the air ticket. The officer said that the employer had made new arrangements for his repatriation on the 16th and that he would call the police if he absconded. On this basis, Asadullah was given a special pass to legalise his stay for exactly those three days to the 16th.
This didn’t make sense to Asadullah, still concerned that neither he nor his fellow workers had received the correct amount. But MOM may again have been looking to resolve this issue by trusting the employer to pay outstanding monies before sending him home.
A recent newspaper article advises employers to treat their workers fairly. They are admonished to look after the welfare of the migrant workers and treat them fairly, “even as they tighten their belts in anticipation of the economic downturn.” The Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin would like to hold the employers more accountable for the basic human rights and welfare of the workers. This looks laudable in print, but in practice employers have long exploited opportunities for extracting money from workers, often entirely aside from what they gain from work performed.
Thugs waiting right outside the ministry
Looking to the Bangladeshi High Commission for support, Asadullah also visited that office to state his claim, and received a letter from them addressed to the MOM explaining his complaint. When he presented this letter to the MOM on 16 December, he was assured that he had the right to this unpaid amount and should not board the plane unless he received it. Yet as he left the MOM office, he was met again by the company lorry and their toughs who relieved him of his handphone and drove him again to the airport. They had been lying in wait outside the ministry building itself.
Fortunately, a friend saw Asadullah being bundled away and quickly informed TWC2. Nonetheless, Asadullah remained uncontactable as the clock counted down to his departure. While TWC2 brought the matter to MOM’s urgent attention, repeated calls by MOM to Asadullah’s number got no answer.
Fortunately again, the repatriation agents returned the handphone to Asadullah before he approached the ticket counter for the boarding pass, and it was then, before he entered the transit terminal, that the MOM officer managed to reach him, telling him not to leave without the money he was owed. Had the toughs not returned the phone to Asadullah as he entered the passenger terminal, he might have been frightened enough to continue and board the plane.
On getting the phone call from MOM, Asadullah informed the company thugs that he had MOM’s support, and returned a second time to the city, pleased to have escaped this second attempted repatriation, but worried that without a special pass he might be apprehended by the police as an illegal overstayer.
Stand-off at the dormitory
The next evening Debbie Fordyce from TWC2 and A K Mohsin, a friend of the organisation wanted to discuss the matter with the other men from this company. Asadullah led Mohsin and Debbie to the company dormitory at Tagore Lane.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath and Nobel Laureate for whom this area is named, visited Singapore in 1927. Tagore’s great contributions to Bengali literature and music are recalled in disturbing contrast to the large number of Bangladeshi workers who are miserably housed in this far corner of the island. Would that people in positions of influence such as the visiting Minister of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment take the same interest in the social and political milieu of Singapore as did Rabindranath Tagore.
The men from Asadullah’s company engaged Mohsin and Debbie in informative and animated conversation, showing the shabby envelopes that contained their meager pay, explaining the various deductions and odd salary calculations (see header image). They described how their employer arranges for them to work in non-construction jobs for other bosses, allowing him to take a hefty cut of the salary while they receive the pauper’s share. While the men were caught up in this, one of the company supervisors caught wind of the visitors to the company dormitory and notified the police, summoning six officers who arrived to investigate. The Singapore police are concerned that all gatherings of people be managed properly. Had this gathering taken place in the street outside the premises, it might have constituted an illegal assembly. Had the visitors been inside the dormitory, they might have been trespassing. Fortunately, they were somewhere in-between, in the courtyard outside the building and open to the street. But unfortunately for Asadullah, he had no papers showing a legal status and was detained by the police.
The MOM officer assured TWC2 two days later, on 20 December, that no action would be taken against him. He was repatriated to Bangladesh that same day this time with the $2,000 that was at the heart of the dispute, but still poorer than if he had never set foot in Singapore.
The other men will have to consider whether they wish to make complaints of their own.
Some of the workers have received reimbursement for previous deductions, a hopeful sign, but it remains to be seen what they will do, having paid so much for the job and still desperately in debt, yet responsible for their families. Although many are outspoken in their assessment of the situation, they hesitate to take action. “I scared to talk to MOM. I talk to boss he say, ‘You do this one. If never do, I send back.’ Boss send back, then how?”