By Rabin Kok
I am happy for Ishaq. However, Nitai Chandra Sarker, my next interviewee, reminds me that many workers are far less lucky. Nitai does not sport a smile – only a blank, wistful look. Like Islam, he too paid 400,000 takas (about S$7,000) just to secure a job in Singapore on a salary of $15 a day (with inevitable deductions for lodging and other expenses incurred by the employer). He worked two years in Singapore before renewing his work permit and for an additional year. He then suffered a shoulder dislocation.
I ask him who secured his job for him. “Big brother find agent,” he says. I ask him to tell me more about his family, but he simply stares into the distance as if he never heard my question. I change topic, asking him how treatment for his injury is going. He mutters something I cannot hear and looks away again, distressed.
What happened to Nitai? How was he injured? And what of his family back home? I do not know, and perhaps his story is so terrible that he wants to forget.
The interview doesn’t go any further. Asking him about how he ended up working and injured in Singapore seems to bring on pain, pain I do not wish to inflict.
Perhaps the most tragic story I hear this evening is Ramesh’s. Balsani Ramesh is from Andhra Pradesh in India. He paid 150,000 Indian rupees (around $3,200) to secure his job in Singapore and with it, the promise of better life.
Ramesh’s story – just like Islam’s, Ishaq’s and Nitai’s – has turned out to be one of promises broken.
His employer promised him a salary of $380 per month in his In-Principal Approval (IPA) letter, a document issued by the Ministry of Manpower to all workers before they leave home for Singapore. He was not told of the $120 that would be deducted every month for board and lodging, nor of the $30 taken monthly by his employer for his “savings money.” This left him with about $210 in salary per month. In the end, he saw almost none of this amount. He fell from a support and fractured his foot after just one-and-a-half years of work. This means that he was likely rendered unable to work long before he was anywhere near repaying the debt he was mired in. He has spent four months with no job but plenty of worries, and it shows in his clouded expression and furrowed brow.
I ask him what the source of his anxieties is. “One and a half year, no cleared,” he replies, referring to the lack of resolution with regard to his injury compensation claim. “Salary, MC money, anything no clear.” His employer has not paid him the balance of his salary for a long time, nor the money for his treatment. He cannot even contact his employer any more. “Employer see me one time after injury. Today [still], many pain. Cannot go anywhere,” he recounts.
Did his employer help him? Bring him to the hospital, I ask?
“Never come again,” he says mournfully. Ramesh’s friend brought him to the hospital, where he received treatment but was left in limbo. I have no idea how he will pay for the treatment, and he does not say.
Just like many other migrant labourers in Singapore, Ramesh (pictured above) feels cheated by his employer and left with a burgeoning debt and an injury. As TWC2’s Alex Au explained to me, employers are aware that their workers are forced by economic circumstance to accept jobs with high risk and extremely low pay, and take full advantage of this fact. The low salaries are often justified by the belief it is better than anything they would have been able to obtain back home. Yet, as the system of exploitation which entraps the workers is made real to me on this evening in the faces, voices and stories of the four men I have met, I wonder if this new life is truly any better than the ones they left behind.
“What now? Don’t know. Don’t know,” stresses Ramesh before we part. “[Do] you know?” he asks me what else he can do.
I have no answers for him.