By Max Ang

Dawn on 10 July 2013, and the men file out of the Woodlands dormitory to wait for the company bus. A phone rings. It’s a co-worker from the Tuas South dorm with alarming news: ‘gangsters’ have showed up and taken fourteen men away. More calls come in, confirming the same. Word zaps around like electricity.

It’s clear to the men that ‘gangsters’ could show up at Woodlands anytime. Not wishing to be sent home when they haven’t received the last few months’ salaries, Mansur, Kabir and others decide not to risk their freedom by waiting for the bus any longer. It would be wiser to put some distance between themselves and the dorm.

‘Gangsters’ is the term foreign workers use to refer to heavyset staff from repatriation companies.

Supervisor Hossain Mohammad Arif (pink striped shirt in picture above) was among the unfortunate employees of Prosper Oceanic pulled away at Tuas South.  They were boarding the company bus to head to work at a shipyard when men from a repatriation company stormed it. Fourteen names were called; Hossain’s was among them.

“What for come down?” he demanded to know, but it soon became obvious. The fourteen were ordered to pack their belongings and to wait for another bus. It would take them to a windowless, miserable room devoid of furnishings at the repatriation company’s office along Serangoon Road.

Meanwhile, Elias Miah was at Alexandra Hospital getting treatment for an eye injury sustained from welding work. When he got a call from his Woodlands room mates, he knew he was probably on the list too. Like the called-out ones from Tuas South, he too had not received his salary for a few months. Elias took a cab to meet up with the rest, but none of them had a clue what they could do to protect themselves. There was a growing sense of helplessness.

Later in the day, a representative of their employer showed up at the repatriation company’s office. All the fourteen men’s work permits were taken away; they would be cancelled, the men were told. Some amount in compensation was offered, and twelve of the men accepted the offer. Hossain and one other did not. The offer was too little, they said.

They had not been paid for the months of May and June 2013, he explains to TWC2. With a basic salary of $650 a month, he would have earned over $1,000 monthly inclusive of overtime. These men work up to twenty hours per day with an additional two to six hours of overtime work each day. It is a tough and relentless job that subjects them to constant danger and the merciless weather.

As for April, Hossain and Elias say they received only half the salary due to to them. However, they report that they and other workers were made to sign payment vouchers for the full amount. They claimed they were under some coercion; if they didn’t sign, they feared they’d get nothing at all and be sent home immediately.

As evening fell, Hossain was allowed to leave the repatriation company’s office. Joining up with those from the Woodlands dorm, they made their way to TWC2’s free meals station in Little India where they sought advice.

TWC2 explained what they needed to do if they have a grievance over salaries: Go to the Ministry of Manpower the next day to lodge a report, producing whatever documents they may have to support their case.

As for those from Woodlands who left their dorm in a hurry, their employer may make a police report of runaway workers. They should therefore take the trouble to inform the Ministry of Manpower and the police of their phone numbers and new addresses (if they can find new accommodation), and to make it clear that they are not in hiding.

But for tonight, they are homeless. They have lost their jobs. In just one day, their lives are suddenly and dramatically altered.