By YC Loh

For some transient workers, the option of spending their last days in Singapore calmly settling their affairs and buying gifts before returning home is far removed from reality. Instead, they are forcibly repatriated to their home countries when their employers are unwilling to incur the costs of giving them medical treatment or paying up their salaries.

Billal Hossain Abdul Samad, 35, was nearly one of them. Held in a windowless room on 19 June 2013, his back injury untreated, he was told that he’d be sent home without seeing freedom again. His only lifeline to help was his mobile phone.

The Bangladeshi worker was employed as a mover by a ship outfitting company, his job being to transport and arrange furniture on board docked ships. He started this job in early April 2013, and continued working until 12 June 2013 when he suffered a workplace accident.

The accident occurred as Billal and a colleague were carrying a wardrobe into a ship’s cabin. His colleague had entered the room first, with Billal following. As Billal entered, the cabin’s heavy automated wooden door closed behind him. Caught unaware and having no space to manoeuvre, he was struck on the lower back. Although in pain, Billal refrained from reporting this immediately to his superiors as he knew of a co-worker being dismissed when he requested for medical attention.

However, after returning to his dormitory, the pain proved too much to bear. Billal then reported the matter to his manager, whereupon he was instructed to seek medical treatment. The next morning, he went to Alexandra Hospital and was given four days of sick leave. At the follow-up appointment on 17 June 2013, his doctor advised Billal to undergo a CT scan, which his company would have pay for since that’s what the law says.

Upon explaining this to his manager, Billal was assured that he would be issued a letter of guarantee from the company; he would be able to take this letter with him to his CT scan appointment on 19 June 2013, at 3pm. Letters of guarantee are formal assurances given by employers to hospitals for paying medical expenses of employees.


A free ride

On that day, his manager came by his dorm at 10am and ushered him onto a lorry, saying the vehicle would take him to the hospital. Instead, to Billal’s shock, it brought him to the office of a repatriation company in Serangoon, his manager telling him, “Tomorrow, you will fly (back to Bangladesh)”.

According to Billal’s account, he was prevented from leaving the holding room by four “rabi” — Bangla workers use this word (which means gangster in their language) to refer to agents of repatriation companies. He described them as big and tall, towering over him. Throughout the day, they patrolled the office menacingly; there was always one of them obstructing the exit.

Billal recalls feeling “tension” during this episode, and of being “worried about (his) life… about being sent home”.

Fortunately for him, the rabi did not take his phone away from him. He was able to contact a relative who was in Singapore at the time, who then called TWC2 for help. After going quickly to the repatriation company the same afternoon to verify that a worker was being held in the office, TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce sent an email to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to report the matter.  MOM appeared to have acted quickly and by 7pm, Billal was able to walk free.


“By chance”

While glad for MOM’s swift action, Debbie feels that more can be done, and she “hope(s) that it doesn’t rely on (TWC2’s) intervening to stop repatriation.” In Billal’s case, it was only because he knew who to call that he was spared from being unwillingly repatriated.

As his case shows, TWC2 only knows of these cases “by chance”.  Debbie feels that MOM can be more vigilant in handling such cases — for instance by noting transient workers at the airport who depart without any luggage, a sign that they might have been coerced into leaving.

She adds: “There has been no deterrence (to curb such behaviour) at all… there is every incentive for an employer to send workers home.” She is unaware of any instance when an employer was prosecuted for such transgressions. But she is hopeful that MOM, having shown a willingness to move quickly in handling Billal’s case, has found new resolve to implement and enact policies that will better protect transient workers in the future.

After being released from the windowless room, MOM instructed Billal to come with his employer to the ministry the following day. Strangely, the ministry seemed to have left it to the worker to convey the message to his employer. Says Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president: “If what Billal says is correct, this is a rather unsatisfactory way of dealing with the situation. Is the ministry incapable of intuiting that the employee-employer relationship is now badly frayed? Doesn’t sending the worker back to the employer expose him to other kinds of retribution?”

While searching for his employer the next morning Billal encountered his former manager, who greeted him with angry silence, “(his) face like black… never talk anything”.

At the time of writing, Billal’s case is under investigation by the MOM as an instance of forcible repatriation. Fearing for his own safety, Billal has moved out of the company dorm to a bedspace in Desker Road. Ironically, it is but a stone’s throw away from the repatriation company’s office he was so recently detained in. He is not worried though. He is confident that the law is on his side.

But whether he gets the medical treatment he needs, that remains an open question.