As the events were unfolding, TWC2 posted an update on Facebook. Our Facebook ‘friends’ responded with outrage. “I think every time the police throw any foreign workers who have just escaped from a fire back into the inferno should be heavily publicise by everyone on the Net,” wrote Sing Tay.
Gutless added: “Police in Singapore is useless and gutless!”
After suffering over 20 months of shortchanged salary and overtime calculations, Rashedul Haque Azizul Haque decided he had had enough. Countless requests to his employer to abide by the terms of the Work Permit application, which stated his basic salary to be $600 a month, and to calculate his overtime hours correctly, went unheeded. The last straw was when he was shouted at for trying to assert his rights and threatened with immediate deportation. He then went to the Ministry of Manpower on Thursday, March 8, 2012 to lodge a formal complaint.
Thus began a sequence of events that nearly ended in disaster for him.
It would be quite incredible that the police would act with malicious intent. And the fact is, they didn’t — which makes it even more stupefying that the near-miss was simply the result of following standard operating procedure. As one Facebook ‘friend’, Ng Kiat Kuan, guessed: “The police has standard instruction and always follow what is being written. They can’t do anything as they are just ordinary police who follow book.”
A closer scrutiny of the incident showed that what happened at the police station was intertwined with the way the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) worked (or didn’t work). So, with respect to both MOM and the police, disturbing questions are raised:
1. Why are standard operating procedures so badly and rigidly designed that they produce such senseless outcomes even in common situations?
2. Why are junior officers at both MOM and the police so disempowered or unconcerned about the effects of their work that they would blindly adhere to these procedures even when they clearly produce senseless results?
Thursday, March 8, 2012
Waking up at his usual hour and having resolved to use official channels, Rashedul chose not to take the company transport to work. Instead, he made his way to MOM, reaching there at about 8:30 a.m. He got to see a clerk who recorded the fact that he was making a complaint related to salary, giving him an appointment date for a week later, on March 14, at 10 a.m.
Rashedul does not know whether MOM contacted his employer soon after, but as later events showed, the ministry probably did, notifying them that a salary complaint had been lodged.
Subsequent events also revealed that the same afternoon, the employer did two things:
1. The employer reported Rashedul as a “missing” person.
2. The employer also cancelled Rashedul’s Work Permit, even though it had three or four months’ validity left. MOM then replaced it with a Special Pass — a temporary document allowing a worker to stay legally in Singapore in the absence of a Work Permit — but handed the Special Pass to the employer. Rashedul was not even informed that his Work Permit was cancelled, nor was he given the Special Pass, which should be for him to hold as a matter of right (just like Singaporeans are to hold our identity cards so that we can prove our status anytime). Furthermore, the Special Pass was only for 24 hours, a time period that appears to be at the request of the employer.
Curiously, the above does not appear to be consistent with existing procedures. This webpage from the MOM’s website says that if a foreign worker is missing and the employer has filed a police report on this, then:
If the missing Foreign Worker’s Work Permit has not expired at the time of cancellation, an employer will be given a grace period of one month from the cancellation date of the Work Permit to locate the missing worker for repatriation.
So why was Rashedul’s Special Pass — the one not given to him — for only 24 hours?
More perplexingly, why did MOM issue such a short-term Special Pass when Rashedul had already been given an appointment for March 14? TWC2 was later given to understand by MOM’s counter clerk that the passes department at MOM had no access to what the complaints department knew.
There was a third thing that the employer and the recruitment agent did that afternoon. They called and texted Rashedul on his mobile phone and issued threatening messages — though this too raises the question how he could be considered missing if they could reach him so easily. As TWC2 understood from Rashedul, the messages in effect said that if he did not do as told, i.e. return to his employer to be repatriated immediately, he would not see his family again. Rashedul recorded a part of the conversation on his cellphone.
“Are you challenging me?” Rashedul asked the other party.
The other side seemed careful to deny that it was a challenge or threat, but subsequently repeated that Rashedul would regret not co-operating.
Rashedul was not going to be intimidated so easily. He was intent on pursuing his salary claim.
Friday, March 9, 2012
Unhappy to be receiving such threats, Rashedul went to the Rochor Neighbourhood Police Centre to make a police report. The police constable checked his FIN number against their computer records and found that he was listed as a missing worker. Immediately the tables were turned: instead of being seen as a victim of a crime, Rashedul was promptly considered a perpetrator of an offence — a runaway worker. The police then called his employer, who hurried over with a few burly men whom Rashedul recognised as belonging to the recruitment agency that had done his original job placement.
Hearing from the employer that they had booked Rashedul on a flight home that same evening, the police prepared to hand the worker over to them. Despite Rashedul pointing out that he had a letter from MOM setting up an appointment the following week, the police refused to take that into consideration.
Rashedul called TWC2 straight away. “The police are detaining me, even though I came to make a police report. They want me to go with my employer to the airport to catch the flight later,” he said.
TWC2’s senior social worker Kenneth Soh rushed down to the police post. So did TWC2 treasurer Alex Au. Kenneth managed to convince the police to release Rashedul into his care, on the understanding that TWC2 would take Rashedul to MOM directly. The employer would also have to be at MOM to sort things out.
So, with everybody skipping lunch, the day’s Act 2 took place at MOM where the group was shunted from one counter to another. The company sent one of its office employees over with a file. But hovering within menacing distance (within the MOM building itself!) was also one of the repatriation “gangsters” — a term foreign workers use.
Kenneth saw him too, and later described him as more overweight than muscular: “An Indian guy with a gold chain.”
And still things didn’t work out
At MOM, the obvious thing to do was to extend Rashedul’s Special Pass to March 14 so he could attend the previously-set appointment.
Amazingly, the MOM clerk said she couldn’t issue the extension. The officer in charge of his case was not in the building that day. Come back on Monday, she said.
And that was where the matter stood as of the end of Friday. Rashedul became, technically, an illegal overstayer through no fault of his, but simply because one particular officer couldn’t be found.
Back at TWC2’s office, Kenneth shot an email over to a senior officer at MOM notifying him about this ridiculous situation. The officer promised to look into the case and said he was ready to help if any further complication developed on Monday.
Meanwhile Rashedul would have to hide indoors through the weekend and not venture out.
Monday, March 12, 2012, 11 p.m:
Rashedul obtained his Special Pass this morning at MOM. He also got a chance to speak to another case officer about his complaints of unpaid salary. TWC2 learnt that MOM was already investigating this company, based on other complaints received.