7 am on Saturday, 7 July 2012. Two heavily-tattooed Chinese men walked into a company dormitory and demanded that Md Mustakim Khan pack his belongings right away.

“They say to me, ‘Today your flight go home’,” recalled the worker from Bangladesh.

He protested that he had only just been given a 19-day medical certificate for sick leave by his doctor at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital with a follow-up appointment. The twelve other workers sharing the same dorm also spoke up. Said Mustakim: “They say to gangster, ‘this man have MC’.” Foreign workers use the word ‘gangster’ to refer to repatriation agents who use tough tactics.

To that chorus of protest, the Chinese men told the other workers that Mustakim was a  “problem worker”  and that “he come [to Singapore] five month, and one month MC.”

Mustakim described the two men, one lean, the other more stout, but both taller than him, as “very dangerous” in looks and “angry-angry talking” in behaviour. “All very tattoo,” he stressed several times.

That might explain why there was no further resistance.

Mustakim was bundled into a car and taken to a place he called the ‘gangster house’. Till today, he has no clue where he was.  Although he had his mobile phone with him and could have called for help, the Chinese men anticipated that and told him: “You call police, I don’t care.” Mustakim took that to mean that such a move would not frighten them and quite possibly he would have to suffer for it.

Through the rest of the day, “I scared, all time,” said Mustakim. “My heart also pain, and I thinking, how [what] do I do?

He had paid $8,000 to his recruitment agent in Bangladesh for a chance of a job here. How would he recover the money now? He had only worked a few months, at $550 a month. “I cry,” he admitted to this writer.

26-year-old Mustakim had suffered an injury on his right leg and ankle while on the job. To your writer, it looked quite serious, with a 10-cm scar. He walked with a slight limp too. After the accident, he was given 25 days of sick leave (“MC”), and when he went back for a follow-up hospital appointment on 6 July 2012, he was given a further 19 days. That afternoon (6 July) he informed his employer that his sick leave had been extended and then went back to his dorm to rest. The very next morning, the tattooed men were at his bedside.

In a Facebook posting by then-Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin, dated 13 July 2011, he wrote:

We will not put up with the wrongful confinement of workers or their forceful repatriation without settling of salaries and other legitimate claims. When such claims are surfaced, we investigate both the repatriation companies and the employers who engage them. Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, employers must give their foreign employees reasonable notice of their repatriation.

In parliament on 21 November 2011, the then-Minister for Manpower Tharman said the same thing:

Any act to wrongfully restrain or confine foreign workers is criminalised in the Penal Code.  . . . The government takes seriously all cases where members of the public, workers or NGOs claim that repatriation agents may have breached the law. If the worker is confined, MOM and the Police will ensure that the worker is not confined against his will and that his issues are addressed in a timely fashion. Possible labour or Penal Code offences are thoroughly investigated by MOM and Police respectively, against both the repatriation companies and the employers.

Clearly, the practice has not been eliminated.

The issue is not just that of injustice to the worker involved. Being witness to such employer-authorised ‘capture’ of a colleague has an intimidating effect on fellow workers, making them less likely to complain, whether it is over shortchanged salaries, or failure to provide decent accommodation, medical care, or respect for any other rights that workers should have. It is important that the Ministry of Manpower and the police  deal harshly with such attempts, to stop the practice once and for all. That such practices continue, as in Mustakim’s case, only points to the inadequacy of the ministry’s response so far.

After pulling Mustakim out of his dorm, the repatriation agents took him to the bank where he had his savings account. They showed the bank teller the work permit that they had taken from the worker, saying the work pass had just been cancelled and so the account should be closed. The teller did as requested and withdrew the remaining $1,000 in cash, passing the money to Mustakim.

That evening, he was taken by the same two men to the airport. The men had his air ticket ready and checked him in for his 10:55 pm flight. With them close beside him, he had no choice but to do as told. “At airport, I also very scared.”

However, the tattooed men couldn’t go through immigration with him, and once past the glass door that led to the immigration counters, Mustakim saw his last and only chance. He spoke to a policeman on duty, telling him, “I injury man, I still have MC.” He showed the police officer the medical certificate he had from his doctor and the appointment card of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

“Immigration officer, he check computer and he say today my work permit cancel,” said Mustakim. “He give me 3-day Special Pass and say I must go police and MOM to report and settle all.”

By then, it was past midnight. He had missed his flight, but he had also missed all available public transport. All he could do was to call his friend Sawray Khan Ajgar Khan to let him know what happened, ask if he could crash over in his room in Little India for the next few days, and sit out the night at the airport.

7 am on Sunday, 8 July 2012. As the dark skies gave way to the soft light of dawn, Mustakim was on the train to Sawray Khan’s place. There were many things in his mind: no job, no foreseeable income, no clear idea what would happen when he would walk into MOM on Monday to lodge a complaint, but perhaps thankful that he was at least free now and that the last traumatic 24 hours were over.