By Elizabeth Zhou

Sagor Mohammad and Abu Bakar (pictured above) are Bangladeshi nationals working as construction workers in Singapore. Not their first time here, both work permit holders are seasoned and familiar non-citizens[1] of Singapore with a close and allied network of friends and “family” — relationships they have forged and accrued over the years. Each time a job and a project comes to an end, these workers leave for their village in Bangladesh to visit their families, before returning to their lives in Singapore city to work in a new job. It is a familiar rhythm and ritual that migrant workers here are accustomed to. Depending on the sector, each Work Permit is typically a one- or two-stay stay.

Today, as I speak with him, Sagor Mohammad, 28, has a new ipad in his arms. It’s the eve of his departure to Bangladesh. His boss, after a seven-month delay, has finally bought him an air ticket home, and he is cheerfully telling me how much he likes Singapore: it’s clean; the people are nice; money good; everybody is same, you know. He smiles and nods hesitantly when we ask him if he would like to come back.  But the twinkle in his eye, and the excitement in his frame already betrays his strong yearning to return.

Abu Bakar Siddik Islam Uddin, 30, did return, and (unusually) to work for the same boss. He had in his previous job formed such a good relationship with the boss that he was called back to work on a new project, though in a new company the latter had set up. This enabled him to bypass the hefty (albeit illegal, and unethical) agent fees migrant workers often have to pay to obtain jobs. Abu Bakar too brightens, and nods readily when asked if he likes Singapore.

“Do you like the coffee shop aunties here? Are they very friendly to you?” Alex asks Sagor Mohammad cheekily, pursuing his thesis that there is something about coffee shop aunties. Perhaps it is in part the joking and teasing tone of Alex’s voice; Sagor laughs heartily, and starts speaking very quickly and animatedly about a coffee shop auntie he often bought drinks from, and then adds weight to the thesis: “She very friendly, speak Bangla also!” The crinkling around the corner of his eye, the wide smile with teeth exposed, let drop an experience that must have been meaningful to Sagor. Indeed, beyond the temporary Work Permit, and other bureaucratic scripts that detail and legitimize the quotidian work at JJ Engineering Development, migrant workers like Sagor live and lead their lives here too. Over time, they have built positive, meaningful — and negative — relationships, and have forged lasting affective bonds with our city.

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construction_4803aStriving to fit in

Even in the workplace, migrant workers aren’t just here on endeavours that can be reduced to the pragmatics of “business”, neither can their labour be accounted fully by algorithmic timesheets marking the hours at work, and the dollars and cents made, and the wages correspondingly deserved. Apart from these visible forms of hard labour, migrant workers strive to fit in and gain acceptance both in the workplace and in the community. Leaving their home in Bangladesh for Singapore not only means leaving the warmth of a familiar network of relationships, but crucially, intruding into another’s. Positioned as outsiders, their welcome is contingent on Singapore’s perceived social and economic value of the labour their bodies are capable of performing, and its return on investment. A stranger’s smile cannot be easily taken for welcome. If it is hospitality, it is hospitality that expects to be served, and its aspirations mechanistically serviced, and obediently supported in return. If it is a supervisor’s praise for good work done, it comes not from admiration or respect, but from a wolfish self-satisfaction that one’s authorial word has been followed to the letter in the worker’s deed.

While I learnt this through the stories of Sagor and Abu Baker, they had learnt this first hand. Both had laboured to meet the expectations of their bosses. This meant not only following strict rules and regulations as well as formal and informal codes of conduct set out for migrant workers in the workplace, but also rules that take precedence above and beyond simple job descriptions, such as the rules in the dormitories, and public spaces like Little India. These are rules and regulations that migrant workers are culturally unfamiliar and unaccustomed to. For instance, this recent article, Little India: A Surveillance Landscape shows how migrant workers’ social and cultural practices come under close scrutiny from authorities, while a separate article corroboratively details the ‘cleansing operations’ against foreign workers in Singapore. Together, they highlight the cultural subtleties and complexities of the impositions made on the migrant worker. Where the freedom to find a space to rest and relax is for some of us an easily negotiated one, for migrant workers acutely conscious and conscientious of not losing their work permit, their labour consists too of figuring out these less than clear-cut rules that demarcate the spaces they are allowed to be visible in, and the spaces they should avoid for fear of any altercations they cannot possibly surmount.

Understanding these difficulties makes it easier to appreciate how hard Abu Bakar must have worked to toe the line in order to show that he was a trustworthy and good worker, before he could have earned his boss’ favour, and be subsequently rehired on a new project. All bosses like compliant workers who make no trouble for them.

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From smiling to snarling

Like Abu Bakar, Sagor too followed the rules and regulations expected of him, and in return even earned multiple praises from his boss for being an amiable and hard worker. “Yes, Boss very happy, always smiling at me — last time”, says Sagor in indignance at the memory of a past relationship he had once believed in and held dear.

Sagor Mohammad

Sagor Mohammad

The last time he had seen his boss smile was more than seven months ago. That was before Sagor met with an accident, through no fault of his, in which he injured his left thumb.

His work permit was cancelled immediately.

“Then, boss many many time insult me in Korean language. I no understand. He like this stand up, very angry, like want to hantam (hit) me.” Sagor stands stiffly and aggressively to show us through body language what words fail to convey. “He] keep saying I stupid. ‘You stupid. Why so stupid.’ First time I go to his office, he is at the computer and he see me and say, ‘Stupid boy, come here. You are very problem’.”

The company had an insurance policy that would have picked up the tab for Sagor’s treatment and compensation. The company should not be out of pocket as a result of this incident. Even so, Sagor’s boss refused to buy his injured employee an air-ticket back home to Bangladesh, the worker whom he once ostensibly praised for being hard-working and amiable. This refusal, at the very end of an already long injury resolution process, may well be the proverbial last word the employer insists on having, a final demonstration of power which the Work Injury Compensation Act, with its requirement that employers provide due care, had denied them.

“I have to go company office to ask many times,” recounts Sagor. “He insult me again. I say please if I do something wrong please excuse sometimes. This is accident.”

Sagor had to undergo a further torrent of verbal abuse at the office before his ex-boss would hand over a Tiger Airways ticket out of Singapore scheduled for the very next day.

“And no luggage!” Sagor adds bitterly. The ticket didn’t come with any baggage allowance.

The lesson is clear: hard work, commitment, loyalty, compliance, and effort, are far from virtues. Rather, their value is contingent on the extent to which the worker’s body is fit, abled, and obedient. Without which, it is worthless. The crime imputed to “stupid” Sagor, was his “inability” to prevent himself from injuring his left thumb. The consequence? The cancellation of his work permit. Adding salt to his wound as if to drive home the crime was the petty denial of the privilege of check-in baggage.

“Boss say, ‘So many money you lost. I take your money. I complain you. You stupid boy. I make black mark on you. You trouble’.” — verbal punches that Sagor repeatedly suffered from his ex-boss and which he now repeats to us. “Then he say, ‘You cannot come back anymore’,” — a final threat of a lifetime ban. [2]

“You know, I have so many nightmares after he scold me,” Sagor confesses, before confirming (for the umpteenth time) with Alex that there is no way that he can be blackmarked and restricted from entering Singapore in future just because his employer is angry with him.

Such attitudes conjure the scene of a classroom where a teacher is left at her wits end when accosted by a rebellious student who cannot get his way. Except, the power dynamics is the opposite here – Sagor’s accident, one he alone had experienced, felt, and ultimately bore the visceral brunt and physical burden of, had called his boss’ economic productivity chain to an abrupt halt. Like the rebellious and unreasonable student who cannot get his way, Sagor’s boss too could no longer have his way with Sagor. Sagor had slipped from his grasp.

Several concluding questions can be posed here: does an unforeseen accident warrant such abusive intimidation? Perhaps all Sagor’s boss requires is better emotional management skills? Wasn’t he just throwing a tantrum? To what extent is this a trivial incident – after all, didn’t Sagor eventually receive an air-ticket home, as is required by law? Might Sagor’s boss be operating under the pressure of a highly competitive industry where tenders are won and lost by wafer thin margins, and where the cost of insurance policies exponentially increases with each reported workplace incident?

Indeed, the injustices experienced by migrant workers can easily be brushed aside with practical and quotidian explanations, such as the pressures of the market. Yet such stories should give us pause to consider the differences in power, place, position and most significantly, the consequences such actions impinge on non-citizens like Sagor and Abu Bakar. Their stays here are ultimately contingent on permission, and permission is ultimately contingent on favour. Even laws designed to assure them a few rights, such as the Work Injury Compensation Act, do little to mitigate this harsh and unjust reality.

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Same employer response for Abu Bakar

Like Sagor, Abu Bakar’s employment was terminated when four pieces of timber fell on his back. His work permit was cancelled as soon as his medical leave came to an end, but before he could be officially assessed for permanent disability.  This mandatory medical assessment ascertains the severity of a work-related injury and the employer’s insurer is to compensate the worker accordingly.

Unlike Sagor’s boss, this injustice of a termination was dealt stealthily and silently without any verbal abuse and with little fuss. [3]

With no clear route to justice, Abu Bakar turned to one of the few but strong friendships he had forged, his “big brother”, who then assisted him in engaging a lawyer. The lawyer is now in the process of filing a claim. Technically, migrant workers do not need legal help to file claims, however, not being fluent in English, the lingua franca of Singapore, nor acquainted with their rights, migrant workers often turn to lawyers to do so. These lawyers then take a cut of their injury compensation money as a fee. The exact amount charged is seldom agreed in advance with the worker/client.

Abu Bakar’s case is not yet over. He has been put on a Special Pass while he waits for closure. In fact, he complains that nothing much seems to be happening. He sits quietly and solemnly, keen only to hear the advice Alex has for him: “If lawyer don’t do anything you must ask him why. You pay him, you know. Lawyer must do work for you. If lawyer don’t do work for you, why you pay him, I ask you?”

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One is mad at his employer, the other meek

These two stories are of two different Bangladeshi workers, with two different responses – one with rage and anger, the other with meekness. Yet their stories aren’t so different after all. At the heart sits a logic in which kindness, praise, respect, and trust, usually affective indications of good reciprocal relationships were extended to Abu Bakar and Sagor only when they could serve the purpose of being obedient functions of labour in a tight(ening) labour market. These hospitable feelings were immediately retracted when they sustained injuries that rendered them unable to work. It seems a bit unfair that while foreign workers are expected to, and do indeed labour to understand and respect cultural boundaries, the same appreciation of their humanity and economic circumstances is denied to them the moment misfortune befalls them.

security_checks_3689aMoreover, we create boundaries that tacitly ask that they exclude themselves from spaces marked by a middle class Singaporean lifestyle while demanding that their bodies build middle class luxuries. For example, while the streets of little India are filled with Indian and Bangladeshi nationals like Abu Bakar and Sagor, the void decks of the housing blocks in the same area  — housing blocks there were by Sagor and Abu Bakar’s comrades — are regularly swept clean of foreign workers by patrolling auxilliary police. The comfortable housing blocks sit like temples of aspirations with no entrance.

Despite these terrible experiences, migrant workers continue to affirm their liking for, and allegiance to Singapore. Perhaps it is the shiny ipad in Sagor’s hands that masks the injury on his thumb, ameliorating the pain. Or the responsibilities he has to his family in Bangladesh. Or perhaps what sustains are happy memories of the relationships, new friendships, and encounters (with coffee shop aunties) he has shared, made, and experienced here that quickly dulls the nightmares, fading the incessant scorns of “you stupid boy”.

[1] Non-citizens are people who are very much a part of the Singapore society although ideologically and by law, they have less rights to make against the state or to receive its protection.

[2] Employers have been known to try to bring employees to heel by claiming the power to ban them from ever working in Singapore again. This is false. They have no such power. Only State authorities can issue bans. In Sagor’s case, Alex was quick to reassure him that it was a hollow threat.

[3] There is no need to rush to terminate a worker’s job after an accident. Many workers recover fully and can soon return to work. In fact, many employers exercise patience this way.