By Keith Wong
I asked four friends when we were having a Friday night out whether they’d prefer to use a moving company that employed Bangladeshi workers or one that employed ex-convicts. There was no contest. All made it exceedingly clear they would choose the company that had Bangladeshi workers.
“They’re very hardworking,” one said. “And probably cheaper,” said another, though I am not sure if the second response is as positive as it sounds.
Unanimously, my friends felt there would be a trust deficit should a moving company send ex-convicts into their homes. “Who knows, they may even be casing our new home for their next job,” Vinod said, sounding a wee bit … “And I’m not being paranoid,” he was quick to add, reading my mind.
It’s a well-known fact that there is a shortage of home-grown labour in Singapore. Finding locals to do what is essentially an unskilled, physical job, especially one with low pay, is every employer’s perennial headache. For movers, hiring retirees is not an option. They need physically fit men. Often, I am told, moving company bosses are left to choose between ex-cons well-decorated with tattoos and foreign workers working illegally.
Illegally — because, as far as I know, moving companies are not eligible for work permit employees.
For three years, Rasheedul was a mover. He overstayed his social visit pass, finding a job that paid $60 a day. It’s not that much when one considers that he had to pay for his own accommodation, nor did he get to work everyday. “One month, have work for about twenty day,” is how he puts it.
His family needed the money, but they couldn’t raise the fee demanded by job agents in Bangladesh — about $9,000 for a first-timer. However, without going through these Shylocks, he couldn’t get a legal job here. So he took a risk. “My friend — he come already to Singapore — ask me to come also,” says Rasheedul, describing how it all began.
Rasheedul might even have been part of the crew that came to help my friend Shuying pack. “It was an entirely Bangladeshi crew,” she recalls. “And they were all very nice.”
“One was particularly sweet,” she adds with a smile as she recollects a moment. “My younger son was agitated when he saw his toys being put into boxes, but this guy patiently explained to him that he needed to do this because they were all going on holiday together, otherwise they might get lost.”
Then one night, the boarding house where Rasheedul and his friend stayed were raided. Caught for overstaying and working illegally, they were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment.
But it’s been six months since. Why is Rasheedul still here? Might it be because they can’t get his employer to buy him an air-ticket home?
“I buy myself. Buy already. I show ticket to ICA”, he tells me, referring to the Immigration and Customs Authority by its initials. “But still waiting for ICA to say whether can go home or not.”
It’s got something to do with them investigating the illegal employer, Rasheedul believes, but couldn’t say for sure what’s going on exactly. All he knows is that he is stuck here, forbidden from working by the terms of the Special Pass he is now on, and yet has to survive. I avoid asking him how he survives, though it’s not hard to imagine when Singapore’s underground economy is so desperate for labour.
I try to ask if he has any regrets, but am met with silence. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the word. Perhaps and more likely, among those whose lives do not have the luxury of options, it is a risibly pointless question. I feel quite embarrassed myself to have even asked.
Then he ventures: “My backside now not nice.”
“How many strokes?” I ask softly.
Shuying reacts with shock. “He was caned?”
She’s reflecting on that moment of sweetness when the mover won the trust of her son and soothed his fears. She must be seeing the man again in her eyes.
Which begin to tear.