Most men from Bangladesh dress quite conservatively. Compared to his compatriots, Sohel, standing at our front door, flashed a lot of skin. Your writer remarked to himself: This guy is halfway to becoming Singaporean. When Sohel opened his mouth, more proof flowed. He was fluent in Singlish.
It turned out that for the better part of a year, he had been in the service industry, interacting with Singaporeans on a daily basis. The money was good, but it was all illegal, of course. However, now he wants to go back, yet “MOM don’t let me go home. Can help or not?”
“Sit down,” your writer invites him, “and tell me your story from the beginning.”
Sohel Rana, 28, came to Singapore about two years ago to join M-Force Engineering Pte Ltd. For three months, this work permit holder toiled away at a construction job. “Then one day, my boss — his name John — said no more work. All workers must go outside and find own work.” Each worker was also told to pass $750 to John monthly so that the foreign worker levy could be paid on time.
Work in Singapore’s shadow economy isn’t hard to come by. “Find work is not a problem,” he says, and the salaries in the informal sector are at least twice the going rates in the formal sector. To the question: did you earn enough?, Sohel replies, “Can, lah.”
However, workers in illegal jobs have to pay for their own accommodation, transport to work and perhaps meals. Netting off these expenses and the $750 to John, what’s left is not a lot different from what a worker takes in from a legal job. Further, illegal workers are not covered by medical and injury insurance — which can turn out to be a huge problem if the unfortunate happens.
Even so, when a boss tells his employees there’s no more work to be had, there’s not a lot a worker can do except to take the suggestion to find work in the shadow economy. The employee can lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), but since a boss is free to terminate a worker at any time however early in the contract, what exactly can he complain about? His grouse would likely be waved off by officials, and he’d just lose his job, be repatriated and unable to earn back what he had paid as agent fees. Once home, there may be money-lenders to contend with. Realistically, going out to look for illegal work is the only option.
As Sohel puts it, “How to go back after only three months? Not yet earn back, so no choice, mah.” Good ol’ Singlish again.
After a few months of trying this job and that, he found work with JJ Budget Movers. He stayed with them for close to a year, working on average 28 days a month.
Then he was caught in August 2013, his work permit cancelled and replaced with a Special Pass, a condition of which was that he must not work. The investigation took a few months and he was given a stern warning in December 2013. Yet he wasn’t allowed to go home. “I don’t know why. MOM never say why.”
“Then some more, they change my investigating officer,” he adds. “Now, I don’t even know who is my investigating officer. Don’t know who to ask.”
At TWC2 we have seen enough of such cases to be able to make an educated guess: The ministry is considering prosecuting both the legal employer as well as the unofficial employer, and may need Sohel around for that. Of course it will strike any reader as outrageous that the State can confine someone in Singapore for months and months for its own purposes without letting him earn a living, yet provide no income support. It is impossible to believe that public servants can’t see the absurdity and inhumanity of the situation; the lack of any action to rectify this incongruence can only speak to the callousness of policy-makers.
And the hypocrisy.
Do we seriously think that workers on Special Passes are going to dutifully obey the “You must not seek employment” commandment, curl up and starve on our sidewalks? Of course not. They will go out and find illegal work. Again.
That said, your writer didn’t ask Sohel this question. At TWC2, we make it a point to avoid asking potentially incriminating questions, especially when it is the State that locks them into these Catch-22 situations. Perhaps Sohel has a wealthy uncle who sends him money. Or he’s been a rich Singaporean divorcee’s toyboy.
19 March 2014 — the day he shows up at our door: “My mother now sick. Can you help me go home?” he asks.
Get the doctor to email us a note certifying that, we advise him.
That is obtained within a few days. Meanwhile, we write to MOM to explain his situation. His case officer is quick to respond in the positive, saying he can go home “by the end of this week”. We give Sohel a copy of this email so he can see for himself the official decision we got for him.
A week passes, and nothing happens. We phone Sohel: Did MOM tell you anything more?
No, he says, frustrated again.
Tuesday, 1 April 2014. Sohel has to go to MOM to extend his Special Pass and once again asks the counter staff what’s going on with his case. Why has he heard nothing when a decision has been made? The MOM officer says to him something to the effect that “You cannot go back. Your case not yet settled.”
Sohel phones to tell us this, now truly exasperated.
We write to his case officer again, who once again replies saying the earlier decision has not been rescinded. Sohel is free to go home, except that MOM is having trouble getting (or finding) the employer to buy him an airticket. Discussing this development with TWC2 social worker Karno and the possibility that Sohel may want to consider buying his own ticket, your writer wagers, “Money is not a problem. I know in my bones that this boy has the means.”
Five minutes later, we tell Sohel what MOM has told us about the trouble they’re having with locating the employer, but Sohel also tells us that he’s just been contacted by MOM directly and he’s been asked to see his case officer the next day.
As soon as that meeting is over, Sohel gives us the run-down on what transpired. “MOM say they want to email employer, and give employer two weeks to buy ticket,” he says. Naturally, he didn’t want to wait — like us, he may have thought it ridiculously indulgent towards the employer when the mother is ill — so he asked MOM if he could buy his own. Yes, MOM said.
Friday, 4 April 2014: Sohel buys his ticket.
Saturday: He goes home. At last. Mommy will be happy to see him. She will be in tears.