By Suresh

At a time when employers are crying for shortage of workers in Singapore, a worrying trend of foreign workers hanging around with no work is seen on the rise. Their employers brought them in with valid work permits, and then disappeared.

Two workers from Bangladesh —  Rubel Hazrat Ali, 28, and Abdul Alim Abdul Latif, 37, — are in such a situation after their employer Sai Lilasha Engineering and Trading Pte Ltd stopped providing them work, wages and shelter. They say their boss is now uncontactable.

Despite working for the same employer, Rubel and Alim do not know each other as they were not housed in the same place, or sent to work (initially, when there was work) at the same site. They couldn’t even tell us how many workers Sai Lilasha had, nor what the status of the others is. The suspicion is that there are several more. This is because Sai Lilasha seems to be a manpower supply company — hearing from what Alim says “work here one day, work there one day” when asked where he was sent for work — and such companies would hardly operate with just two men.

Rubel (above right), who has been working here for five years, paid the Sai Lilasha boss $1,500 for the new job, as “transfer” from his previous employer. He started with the Sai Lilasha job in early November 2011 with accommodation provided by company. “I work only three month, after that no more work.” By March he had nothing to do except wait in his room. “Boss say job don’t have. He say, ‘You wait for me here. You cannot go outside work, you working for me only.’ So I stay and waiting for work from him.”

Rubel adds, “In September, boss say send back me to Bangladesh. He say he give me air ticket. But only one time he say like this. After, he no more talking like this.” It appears that the boss changed his mind about repatriation, or maybe didn’t have the money for airfare.

Through those months, Rubel sought help from his brother, who also works in Singapore, for his daily expenses. Sai Lilasha continued to provide lodging. But even that came to an end as the company stopped paying rent sometime in October and Rubel was asked by the landlord to vacate on 8 November. Rubel now has no permanent roof over his head: “Now, I sleep here, sleep there. All my bag I put my brother room.” He tells his plight of not being able to stay with his brother who stays in a commercial dormitory which has a pass card for entry. Rubel goes around with just the clothes he has on.

Finally, Rubel lodged a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 14 November 2012. TWC2 has advised him to ask MOM for a temporary job while awaiting settlement.

Alim’s trouble started much earlier than Rubel’s. Starting his Sai Lilasha job in September 2011, Alim (above left) found himself without pay and housing as early as in January 2012. Alim, who has close to 10 years of work experience in Singapore, says he paid nearly $3,000 as placement fee to an agent get this job. “First month I work full month and I get full salary. Second and third month, I work full month but I got only 150-200 dollars for a month. After that, no work,” says Alim.

When Alim lost hope and went to the ministry, “MOM officer call boss. Boss say, ‘No problem. I settle with Alim’. I believe boss. After that I call boss many times but boss phone always switch off.” He has since been waiting to hear from his boss.

When I ask him what he is going to do end this waiting game, Alim’s frustration is evident in his answer, “I don’t know lah.”

Alim too has a brother working in Singapore, who loans him $200 a month so he could get a bunk in a crowded room.

But why didn’t Rubel lodge a complaint much earlier like Alim did? Rubel says, “I one man alone at site,  other men from other company, I don’t know what company doing. Even [in the] house I stay, other worker are from other company.” He was isolated from other Sai Lilasha employees and had no idea that it wasn’t just him without work.

The plight of Rubel and Alim leads to a fundamental question: How does Sai Lilasha get such work permits which were ultimately wasted, at a time when the government is slowly restricting the number of foreign workers? Alex Au, Treasurer of TWC2 comments, “The misallocation of quota to employers such as Sai Lilasha who don’t really have any work for their men seems rather perverse. Perhaps a system needs to be designed that ensures employers who apply for work permits have real need of them, e.g. demonstrating that they have work projects in hand.

“This misallocation not only causes personal hardship to breadwinners, but also hurts other employers who are disadvantaged due to shortage of labour.”

A possible clue to explaining this problem may lie in the $1,500 and $3,000 figures — the amounts that Rubel and Alim said they paid Sai Lilasha or an agent for the job. There is money to be made in bringing in lots of workers if a company can get the necessary quota. Whether there is work for the workers is secondary. As Alex notes, “private motives in the black market may be undermining social and governmental goals.”