We at Transient Workers Count Too spend a lot of time talking and counseling men who are desperate to stay and work in Singapore, trying to find out how their cases are progressing and what can be done to help them come to terms with an often brutal bureaucracy. Regular readers will know how painful this can be — firstly for the workers, but also for the people who have to look them in the eye and tell them that all avenues have been exhausted.

I did that with Mohamed and Bilal this week. They had come to TWC2’s soup kitchen on Rowell Road last week, with just a few days left in the city. According to them, their employer Super Building Construction, had serially reneged on its government levy payments, and has now been sanctioned by the Ministry of Manpower. As collateral damage, 56 men have had their work permits cancelled.

Packed off by batches, the men are being sent home. On Monday, April 9, it was the turn of Mohamed and 13 of his fellow workers to fly out of Singapore.

Neither Mohamed nor Bilal have paid off the debts that they amassed in opting to move to Singapore in the first place. Mohamed paid $4,600 to an agent, Bilal $3,300 and out of the 10 months they’ve been here, they have had regular work for just six of those months.

Their employer supplies workers to construction companies in need of labour. They were both paid $18 a day, six dollars less than what was promised before they moved from Bangladesh. They work a shift which requires them to get up at 5.30am to start work at 8am.

They were only 10 months into their two-year permit, when the company in question attracted the attention of the ministry for failing to make levy payments over a three-month period.

“If we get sent back, for me I’ll die… we don’t have money and we can’t afford to live,” says Mohamed.

Company bosses do somewhat better. In TWC2’s experience, lots of companies that fold after failing to pay government levies are resurrected under another name.

As is often the case in these situations, the phone call back home to the family was greeted with near hysteria. Mohamed told me his wife sobbed and wailed when she heard he was flying home — the debt he has amassed still hanging over his head.

Mohamed has a daughter and son, aged four years old and six; Bilal has two daughters – just 14 months and 3 months old. Their concern is now for their livelihoods.

“My wife says to me ‘how can we look after our daughter now’ – how can? How can Singapore? She will die if this happens,” Mohamed tells me.

A lot of cases we see are outright breaches of the laws that govern the welfare of foreign workers, but in some of the cases it is just that the law isn’t right. Innocent victims of other people’s wrongdoing are routinely penalised in Singapore.

Mohamed and Bilal would have liked a second chance, especially as they haven’t done anything wrong.

See also: a video of Mohamed’s and Bilal’s accommodation, in Welcome to our private hell.