By Teo Yi Hui
Many people who have not heard Shobuj’s story would be forgiven for assuming that he is just like another of the many young Bangladeshi men in Singapore earning a living and getting on with life. His youthful appearance and smiling countenance betray nothing of the fact that not only has life for him come to a standstill, he is shouldering heavy burdens.
Shobuj is several thousands of dollars in debt to a job ‘agent’ and is also now without a job.
When I first meet Shobuj he is carefully cupping a brown paper package containing a meal sponsored by TWC2’s food programme. During the interview, he comes across as being articulate and thoughtful, and one cannot help but wonder how he had gotten himself into his present situation.
Speaking quietly, Shobuj recounts his experience in Singapore over the last couple of months to me.
In January 2013, a local company hired him to work with cranes as a signal and rigger man. In May however, he was unexpectedly informed that he would be constructing tent supports instead. This risky and hazardous job required him to climb his way to the top of flimsy metal bars some five metres high.
Knowing that a fall from such a height would result in injury if not death, and the consequences either would have for him and family, Shobuj bravely requested that he be allowed to wear a safety harness. His supervisor was not pleased with his request and ordered him to return to his dormitory. The next day at noon, Shobuj received a call from his boss informing him that his work permit had been cancelled and that his flight home had been booked.
Shobuj desperately tried to plead his case with his boss, telling him that he had only started work in January and still owed his agent a lot of money. He called his agent who informed him that nothing could be done to help him as his work permit had already been cancelled.
“Were you shocked and upset? “ I ask. Shobuj nods his head emphatically.
He then gave his side of the story to the Ministry of Manpower, which gave him approximately a week to find another company willing to hire him, failing which MOM would assist him in his job search, he says. A special pass was issued to Shobuj, ensuring that his stay in Singapore is legal in the meantime.
Shobuj appears optimistic about obtaining another job, and tells me that he is not so worried now. Even so, when asked about a wife, Shobuj laughs. The prospect of making enough money to marry is a far-off dream. He is currently responsible for supporting his parents back home, funding one sister’s education, and paying for the dowry of another.
And what about workers hired by the same company to take his place? I cannot help but wonder: what about their futures?
Editor’s note: Shobuj was interviewed by two reporters, both novices, the same evening. It’s a test case to see if a worker like Shobuj, with his heavily-accented, broken English, was understood, especially by rookie interviewers. If he wasn’t understood, the “facts” would come out differently in the two stories. As is apparent, the two stories (you can see the other one, by Low Guan Hong, at this link) are quite consistent, which gives us confidence that our recording of workers’ stories is reliable. You can also see the way in which a writer’s personal style comes through in the narrative.