By Ashley Frois
We’re barely under the eaves. Rain, like troubles, pours down mere inches from our seats. Everything is damp.
Two seats away and drier, a fellow volunteer is interviewing another construction worker, Rahman Sadequr. That worker is speaking morosely of his money problems.
My interviewee, Musfiqur (pictured above), is strangely upbeat. He too owes thousands of dollars to people back home in Bangladesh, his hand is injured and he is jobless. Yet, he is laughing and joking as if he has not a care in the world.
Maybe the difference is that this is (or was) his second job. He knows from experience that he will survive. Life goes on.
Rahman Mohammad Musfiqur, 24, first came to Singapore just a few years ago. He had paid $9,000 to a Bangladeshi agent to get a place in a skills training course and to secure his first job here, but that job lasted only a year. He worked at a site related to the expansion of the MRT rail system — these tend to be big, long-duration projects. Yet, the company terminated his employment after one year, citing employment quotas as the cause.
Musfiqur thinks the claim is dubious. He suspects that the employer is getting kickbacks from the agents in Bangladesh. “Company take new man, taking $9000,” he says, though it is unlikely the agent passed all $9,000 to the employer; the agent would keep a portion for himself.
With that job gone, he had to return to Bangladesh where he spent eleven months. He eventually found another agent, and had to pay another $3,000 to secure a second job. He returned to Singapore in March this year.
Unfortunately, just after three months of work, Musfiqur was involved in a workplace accident. He and a few colleagues had been tasked with moving some large flowerpots at a job site, but in the process of moving one of them, his grip slipped and the pot crushed three fingers on his hand.
“Three finger inside metal rod have,” Musfiqur says as he traces out his injury, “one [of the] finger inside two metal [rods].” He seems almost delighted to explain the amount of metal in his fingers. I ask if he can still move his fingers after the injury, and he answers that he can, but it hurts when he does.
Thankfully, Musfiqur’s employers have been diligent in fulfilling their responsibilities, having promptly paid for all his medical expenses so far. “All money company pay,” he says. “Salary very good,” he adds with a smile, when asked if he was satisfied with his job before the injury.
He appears quite pleased with his employers and how they have handled this incident, despite the fact that the company does not wish to retain him. “Boss [want] to send [me back to] Bangladesh,” Musfiqur explains, but he does not fault his employer.
He understands their point of view, and he too does not wish to continue working given his current injury. However, this will ultimately mean that Musfiqur will not be able to earn the $3000 he had paid the agent, as well as the living costs he now incurs while waiting for the case to be closed.
“One year working only [earn] $6,000,” he says, describing his first job in Singapore, “$9,000 lost, now $3,000 lost. How to pay back?” Sadly, this venture to work in Singapore has proven to be an incredibly costly affair for Musfiqur.
Amazingly, he maintains a cheerful disposition, despite all he has been through. He smiles and laughs throughout the whole conversation we have, but he is visibly frustrated with the system of agents back in Bangladesh. “Many money take! $8,000, $9,000, alibaba centre!” he interjects into a conversation between Alex and another worker, who is in a similar predicament involving agents.
‘Alibaba centre’ is his way of describing a nest of crooks.
As of now, Musfiqur has completed all this medical appointments at the Singapore General Hospital. He’s also gone for an assessment of permanent disability and is currently waiting for a report from SGH, on which the amount in compensation will be based. Once these administrative details are settled and the case is closed, the employer will be asked by MOM to issue Musfiqur with an air ticket back home.
Musfiqur is looking forward to being with his family again.
When cautioned by Alex that this whole process might take up to three months, Musfiqur laughs and jokes that he will go to the hospital every day to rush them since he has nothing to do anyway.
The problem that Musfiqur highlighted with his first job is depressingly common: Men who have paid close to $10,000 in the expectation of continuous employment, are terminated after only a year through no fault of their own. To get a subsequent job, they have to pay job agents all over again. Moreover, Musfiqur, like countless other workers, is telling us that agents pass at least a part of the placement fee back to their employers.
Singapore regulators have a moral responsibility to address this problem, but there is only incremental movement.
TWC2 has long argued for allowing workers to stay on in Singapore to change jobs; they should be given 60 days to find a new employer. We should also have a better way of matching workers with employers directly (especially if they are already here in Singapore) without the need for agents, but at the same time, there should be a restriction on employers hiring directly from abroad, so that workers already here have a reasonable shot at securing a new job.
Overall control over the numbers of foreigners working in Singapore can still be exercised through controlling the numbers of foreign workers each employer is allowed.