Rabin is a new volunteer doing his first interviews. At his first volunteering session, he was not expected to go for an in-depth story. Instead he was tasked to do quick interviews with a random pick of workers in order to gain a broad familiarity with the issues and the kind of broken English migrant workers use. He managed to do four interviews in one evening, each quite substantial. Here’s what he learned (and is sharing now) about workers no. 1 and no. 2:

By Rabin Kok

Dusk descends upon Little India. A slight man sporting an oversized shirt with the sleeves rolled up, worn jeans, and curly hair is sitting in front of me. He has come to collect a free meal distributed by TWC2’s Cuff Road Project at the Isthana Restaurant. He is a migrant labourer, one of the thousands who come to Singapore every year in the search of a better life, and one of the hundreds I’ve seen on the trains, on the buses and the streets for as long as I can remember.

For the first time in my life, I am able to put a name to the face. Islam Din speaks very softly and sports a beaming smile that masks the pain of the past few years. Like almost all the foreign workers that TWC2 meets, Islam had to pay employment agents back home just to get a job – a chance to work in Singapore’s shipyards cost him 400,000 Bangladesh taka, or around $7,000. If paid in Singapore, such kickbacks would be illegal, but agents often take care to collect the sums before the men leave Bangladesh. It is a crushing sum, I think to myself, which would burn a deep hole in the pocket of the average Singaporean worker.

For Islam and his family, it almost certainly means years of debt.

Yet, Islam took the job, quite possibly out of desperation or a lack of better options. He was promised a basic salary of $16 a day (around $380 a month, before overtime) though he was told that $100 a month would be deducted for lodging. What he was not told was that there would be an additional deduction of between $30 and $50 per month from his wages for “water money,” which is how he describes a suspiciously high utilities bill. This is a hefty sum for Islam, substantially reducing what he can save and remit home. But at least, his company paid his salary on time, unlike others whom TWC2 have seen. And, with lots of overtime work, he is proud of the $100 – $300 he managed to remit monthly to “help sister brother study” and to repay debt.

Unfortunately, Islam suffered an accident in October 2014, and he has stopped contributing to his family. A platform he was on was not properly secured and gave way, sending him tumbling to the ground and leaving him with back and head injuries. In a way, he was lucky. His company paid paid his medical care and medical leave wages — which is calculated at a rate two-thirds of normal salary.  But, stuck on a Special Pass for the past seven months awaiting the settlement of his injury claim, he is not allowed to work. Yet, there is still the debt to service. As he concludes his story, his smile begins to fade.

Islam’s story is not the exception. I slowly learn this as I speak to more of the men at the meal programme, all of whom are on Special Passes. Ishaq (not his real name) was once on a Special Pass too. He sports a mischievous grin as he sits down to talk to me. He smiles coyly when I ask him how old he is, bashful although he’s still a young man of 22. Just like Islam, his smile leaves little hint that he’s seen better times. But as he coyly shows me an amputated finger, I realise that Ishaq’s last year in Singapore has been far from cheerful.

Having first come to Singapore as a shipyard worker, Ishaq suffered a terrible accident which led to the amputation. I ask him if he waited long for his injury compensation case to be resolved. “Ya… one year,” he replies. But Ishaq is one of the more fortunate workers. “Brother send money,” he says happily, when I ask how he managed to survive that period. It is a strange irony that the people he left home to support ended up supporting him instead. But Ishaq didn’t waste the money or the year in Singapore, instead completing a two-month construction course.

When his injury claim was settled, he went home to Bangladesh, but soon returned to Singapore, having secured a new job in our construction industry. Despite having taken the skills course, the salary in the new job is only around $400, significantly lower than the average in the construction industry. In fact, it’s lower than the old job, but as Ishaq says, “little job better than no job.”

Continued in Part 2