By Joyce Wong
Where is next month’s money going to come from?
Sitting in front of me is a very young, clean-shaven man. He is neatly dressed with his hair slightly touching his collar. Some would call him good-looking. He is here for his dinner at TWC2’s soup kitchen when we ask to interview him. And so in a shy, soft voice and barely understandable English, this young man tells us his plight.
At the age of nineteen, Shekh Mohamed Sujon is already the sole breadwinner of a family of four: his grandmother, his mother, his fourteen-year-old brother who is still in school and himself. If he had been born in a family with a good household income, he would probably still enjoy his study and have fun with his friends. Instead, this young man left his family behind, took a six-hour bus journey from his hometown in Magura District, southwest Bangladesh to Dhaka airport and flew to Singapore.
He was promised a construction job with a monthly pay of S$600 in Singapore. Getting it however would require paying the agent a fee of 500,000 Taka (approximately S$8,000). The family used up their hard-earned savings to pay it.
TWC2 vice-president Alex Au ask Sujon if this is his first time in Singapore.
“Yes,” he says, smiling shyly, commencing his story. He arrived in Singapore on 6 July 2013. He was sent for his medical check up and it came back okay. Though he was sent to (and has completed) a safety course, his employer didn’t send him to MOM to do any “thumbprint” — which is how workers refer to the step of converting the In-principle Approval for Work Permit (IPA) into a proper Work Permit. Under MOM rules, the employer has to complete this process within fourteen days.
By this time, quite a number of workers are gathering around us, listening intently to our conversation. Some even help translate our questions and Sujon’s answers. He seems more relaxed and keen to talk than in the beginning.
“What happened next?” Alex asks him.
Sujon tells us he worked for a month and received his first pay. It was S$700 including his overtime work, he announces with a bright smile. Then suddenly, his employer told him he has to go back to Bangladesh. He paused. He can’t go back home just like that. His family needs the money and he has paid his agent fee. At a loss, he came to TWC2 for help. He was advised to report his case to MOM, which he did.
On 17 October 2013, Sujon stepped out of MOM with a Special Pass, no job, and no place to sleep. All alone in a strange country where its people speak strange languages and with little money, he was bewildered. What has happened and what is going to happen to him and his family?
Somehow, he managed to get himself a bedspace costing S$200 a month. Then he started looking for a job going through a list of job agents given by MOM. The MOM officer also told him if he could find himself a temporary job, he would be given a six-month temporary work permit. But luck was not with him in this.
Sujon smiles as he says this.
We notice he smiles often throughout our chat. Is this a reflex to cover his nervousness in speaking to strangers? Does it boost his own courage as he shares about his situation? I wonder.
Now, to save some money, he travels daily to TWC2’s Cuff Road Project for free meals. Once a week, he has to take a bus to MOM to get an extension stamp on his Special Pass. And every day he waits for someone to tell him what really happened at the old job and when he can start working again. More urgently, the money for his next month’s expenses: the bed, the bus fares to and from MOM, food for his family, his brother’s school fees and so on. Where is money for all this going to come from?