It was Sadhin who first saw her. She was crying, lost in a foreign country, knowing nobody. All she knew was that her tourist visa was about to expire and she would soon be an illegal overstayer. Broke and with no means to purchase a flight home, she could soon be spending time in prison.
Workers helped by TWC2, like Sadhin, often keep an eye out for other workers who may need assistance. Even though he was Bangladeshi and she Nepalese, they managed to communicate. Sadhin helped her lodge a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower, and then brought her plight to the attention of TWC2.
Very briefly, Shresthra Dev Kumari’s story was that she had been recruited by an agent to work in Singapore, assured that after arriving here on a tourist visa, it would be converted into a six-month Work Permit. She took up the offer, flew in, and paid the pre-agreed fee to a certain “Mr. Hamza” the day of her arrival.
Despite assurances, no job materialised, and it was not long before Hamza became uncontactable. As her 30-day tourist visa ran out, she became desperate, yet had no one to turn to.
After making the report at MOM, she expressed a strong wish to go home. She didn’t want to stay in Singapore a day longer than absolutely necessary. She didn’t even care about staying to assist the investigation — such was her distress. TWC2 paid for her return ticket.
A day later, Bohara Bahadur Singh (pictured above) walked through our door seeking help. We didn’t at first make the connection, but merely thought it was a rare coincidence to have two Nepalese coming to us merely a day apart. It was only after taking his story that we realised the two cases were intertwined. Being the calmer of the two, Bohara gave us a far more detailed chronology. It is worth recording here, as it shows how syndicates who prey on job-hungry people from poorer countries operate.
Ganesh, the recruiter who approached him in Nepal told him that jobs were waiting for hardworking men like him in Singapore, particularly in restaurants and hotels. Ganesh (Nepal phone number 9848 709 237 and 9848 741 570) explained that how the system worked here was for workers to first arrive on tourist visas, secure a job within the first few weeks, and then the new employer would apply for a Work Permit. The tourist visa would then be converted into a Work Permit before the 30 days of the tourist visa ran out.
Having no access to other sources of information, Bohara took him at his word and forked out 200,000 Nepali Rupees, equivalent to about S$2,000. It is likely that part of this was used to buy the airticket, with the balance pocketed by Ganesh.
What Bohara didn’t know was that it was one big lie. That’s not how the system worked: it is not possible to convert a tourist visa into a Work Permit. Jobs must be arranged and Work Permit applications approved by MOM before the prospective worker flies into Singapore, not after.
Just prior to departure from Kathmandu airport, early January 2015, Bohara was handed a piece of paper on which was listed seven names with passport numbers alongside. His own name was among them. Shresthra Dev Kumari’s name was there too; in fact, that was the first time he met her. Where were the other seven persons? He didn’t know. Perhaps they were seated elsewhere on the plane or maybe on a different flight altogether. All he could judge from the names on the paper were that they were male.
What was this piece of paper? From the very faint copy that TWC2 glimpsed, it appeared to be a letter of sponsorship, meant to assure immigration officials at Changi airport that there was someone in Singapore who would act as their guarantor of sorts. In addition. Bohara had in hand a return airticket, the better to convince immigration officials that he was a genuine tourist.
Bohara and Kumari were not met at the airport, but they had a Singapore number to call: 9438 6004. When they called that number, the person who answered identified himself as Hamza, who then instructed them to make their own way to Mustafa Department Store in Little India. Bohara and Kumari did as told.
Hamza came soon after (“He drive car coming,” said Bohara) and led them to a restaurant opposite the department store. Bohara describes Hamza as “Malay, not Chinese”– he could tell the difference since he had previously worked in Malaysia. At the restaurant. Hamza repeated the promises about getting them jobs: “hotel job, salary $1,500 – $2,000 per month. Work Permit can extend to one year” — as Bohara recounted to TWC2. He then asked for payment upfront for his services. Bohara and Kumari had been told by Ganesh to have the cash with them, and thus this request came as no surprise. Bohara handed over $2,630. Kumari also paid up.
Hamza then arranged for them to stay at a cheap hostel in the area. Being of different genders, Bohara was in a separate dorm room from Kumari.
As the days passed, something was clearly wrong. There no indication of when they could start work. Initially, Hamza remained contactable, though his answers were evasive, usually along the lines of “Wait, just wait. I will definitely find job for you,” recalled Bohara.
About a week on, however, he stopped answering calls, and soon the number was cut off altogether. Bohara then tried to reach the recruiter Ganesh in Nepal, but his phone was cut off too. Fearing the worst, Bohara then rang the Kathmandu travel agent, who gave him bad news: the return leg of the airticket had been cancelled and the refund had been collected by someone (most likely Ganesh).
Now Bohara was stuck in Singapore, without the means to purchase another ticket home.
Hoping against hope, Kumari and Bohara stayed on till the end of the 30-day tourist visa. Perhaps Hamza could find jobs for them at the very last minute. But as the deadline approached, the bitter reality sank in. It was all a scam.
TWC2 helped Bohara lodge a police report on 9 February 2015. Hamza’s phone number is contained there. We also helped him lodge a report at MOM.
In addition, we sent an email to the inter-agency Anti-trafficking Task Force drawing their attention to this case, and the possible implications of a syndicate operating to transport duped persons into Singapore and then leaving them stranded here. TWC2 isn’t saying that this was clearly a case of trafficking — such a determination is best made by agencies with investigative powers — but obviously something unsavoury and criminal is going on, however one labels it. It should be worthy of official enquiry.
For several days, we had no response whatsoever from any of the agencies. We had no reply from the Anti-trafficking folks. Neither MOM nor the Police issued him with a Special Pass, which meant that his immigration status lapsed into illegality.
Eventually, we understood from MOM that they would not be pursuing any investigation into the matter, and/or that this was not an employment-related issue under their purview, and perhaps for that reason, chose not to provide him with a Special Pass to extend his stay.
The Police called back about six or seven days after the date of the police report, asking us to take him down to the Immigration and Customs Authority. Our intern Maya accompanied Bohara there. Bohara was told that he had committed an offence for overstaying, for which he would have to pay a compound fine of $100. This seemed to be the chief concern of the police and ICA — catching the small guy for overstaying. As for the police report Bohara had lodged, we were given to understand that the police considered it to be a case of alleged cheating, but they would not pro-actively investigate.
What about Hamza’s mobile phone number given by Bohara in the Police report he lodged? Wasn’t that a good lead to commence an investigation? Wasn’t it interesting that Kumari also reported the same number?
What about the person who signed the sponsorship letter that was presented at immigration? Wouldn’t that be another useful lead? What about the fact that there were seven names on that letter? Does it not suggest an organised crime of some sort?
With a heavy heart, we paid Bohara’s fine for him so that he wouldn’t be traumatised further by being locked up. The ICA then issued him with a one-week Special Pass so that an orderly departure could be arranged for him. As in the case of Kumari, TWC2 paid for Bohara’s air ticket home.
We can only assume that Hamza and his associates are still at large, enjoying their ill-gotten gains.