In his nine months since arriving in Singapore, Habibur (not his real name) has been scolded – verbally and physically – threatened with his life, exploited, beaten and forced to lie to the MOM.
As a teacher in his native Bangladesh, Habibur could expect, on top of regular work, a modicum of respect.
He arrived in Singapore expecting to pay off the debts he had accrued to get here with the end goal of earning enough money to support his family – a wife and three children – back at home. He paid his employer $3,000 directly while in Bangladesh, not through an agent, and after being made to wait some 8 months, was then required to pay a further $2,000 before starting work. On top of that he paid for his own flight and “manpower service charge” totalling $1,000.
He started work in Singapore on August 6, 2011.
The job Habibur secured was with a catering company that specialised in “Bangladeshi food for Bangladeshi people” – that is, preparing food for migrant workers. There are Chinese and Indian catering companies operating in similar ways here. Before such catering companies began to spring up in Singapore, foreign workers used to cook their own food in their quarters, but the government banned this due to safety hazards. That decision led to a boom in catering companies providing food directly to dormitory operators or employers.
Things didn’t look right from the very beginning. Firstly, Habibour found himself working unforgiving – and illegal – hours. His 18-hour work day comprised a first shift that would start at 9 am and finish at 5 pm; followed by a second shift from 8 pm until 5 am.
Secondly, although by law companies that employ foreign workers have to provide proper accommodation, Habibur slept on a rice sack in the kitchen where he worked; he would pull a blanket over himself and curl up hoping to get a full four hours’ sleep. But there was a lot of noise outside the kitchen. If he did manage to doze off it would never be for more than two hours per night, and even then the sounds from the outside would still wake him. Habibur says he was told that under no circumstances could he tell an MOM officer about his sleeping arrangement – if asked, he should tell them that he lived in a dorm or a room, just like the other migrant workers.
The unreasonable hours could have been justified had his salary reflected the hard work the man was doing, but his pay was doctored every month – and this was the third problem. To begin with, he was on an Employment Pass, which as at mid 2011, required a salary of at least $2,800. Habibur was told he’d be paid $3,500 per month when he took the job, but after starting work, he found that his first month’s salary never arrived – it was withheld, illegally, as a ‘deposit’ – and for the subsequent months, he received just $800. To cover the company’s back, his boss instructed Habibur to sign a document that confirmed he had received his full salary, making it impossible to him to officially complain otherwise.
According to Habibur, the company had serious cash flow problems; workers were occasionally asked to give their salaries back.
The financial rorting was nothing compared to the physical abuse that was dished out. Violence in the form of beatings were frequently used on the workers at the catering company. He says he’d often get dizzy from the long hours he endured. At 44 years old Habibur is a bit older than some of his compatriots; the work load and long hours were too much for him. But if he complained, bombs of hot curry in plastic packets would be thrown at him. His arms and neck would suffer scalds and his shirts stained.
One time he was fined $200 by his employer for burning some rice; Habibur says the accident happened because the equipment they used was too old, but payment of the fine was enforced. He was given until April 7 – the day he finally decided to leave and officially complain about the company – to pay or he would be visited by a Tamil ‘gangster’.
“I ask them, ‘Why this my fault? I don’t understand. Why you do this to me?’” Habibur says. “They reply: ‘If we kill you, there won’t be any witness.’”
At the MOM-mediated session held between him and his employer in April following his complaint, the company boss produced a document Habibur said he was duped or forced into signing, that showed – wrongly, he said – that he was receiving his full salary.
With such evidence, the company may not have a case to answer, but the fact that, based on Habibur’s story, they have been able to circumvent the system should be a concern to authorities. Not only are they able to bring in workers illegally using false documents, they mistreat and physically abuse them without much concern about reprisals or enforcement. Habibur once had a knife pulled on him. Migrant workers are afraid of losing the only means of income that they have. Complaining, in most cases, is not an option.
So desperate was he to keep paying off his debts, Habibur even tried to return to the job on April 7, but then thought better of it. “I worry that if I go back this time, they will actually kill me,” he says.
As we were finishing the interview, Habibur asks me if I can help him find a teaching job through contacting the MOM. I doubt I can. He has three teenage children at home and has to pay for their education.
Habibur thinks if he stays in Singapore he may be able to pay off the debts he amassed in coming here.
Back at home he was respected as a teacher. He’d like a little respect again.