Kamal gingerly opened a window, hoping it wouldn’t make a noise. Heart pounding, he stepped out, trying not to look down. He was twelve floors up Block 601 Jurong West. With certain death should he miss a step, he made his way to the ground, never before so careful in his life.
Hailing a taxi, he fled to Little India. Feeling safe at last, he found a phone and called a former colleague Nazrul. “I just escaped from the manager’s apartment,” he said to Nazrul. “I was locked up there on the twelfth floor.”
“There are still two other men inside the apartment,” Kamal added. He asked Nazrul to call Alamin, who “will know who the other two are.”
When we at TWC2 hear Kamal Sheikh’s story, we name him ‘Spiderman’ for his feat. Kamal is only about 1.6 metres tall and weighs 48 kg. However, with muscles toned from manual labour, lifting his own body weight and hanging by his fingertips is apparently not too difficult for this 25-year-old.
When Kamal and seven other Bangladeshi employees of SBM Marine & Engineering decided to lodge complaints at the Ministry of Manpower in early December 2015, little did they expect to have to do daredevil stunts.
Their complaints centred around non-payment and short-payment of salary. They also told MOM that the employer was demanding payment for the ‘privilege’ of renewing their work permits. Taking money from employees is an offence under the law. MOM recorded their complaints and asked them to return the following day (10 December 2015) to be issued Special Passes.
However, when they showed up on the 10th, only Kamal, Hossain Tareq and Rahim Abdur were issued with Special Passes. The rest would not get their Special Passes till a week or more later (i.e. after the Spiderman event) for unknown, possibly administrative, reasons. Coming out of MOM, the men decided that the five of them who had not been issued with Special Passes should not return to the dormitory; it wasn’t safe to do so. They had heard of employers using gangsters to seize and forcibly repatriate workers. Kamal, Tareq and Rahim, armed with Special Passes, could go back to sleep in their own beds since this document would not allow them to pass through departure immigration at Changi airport.
Sleep they hardly enjoyed. At around 1am, their boss came barging into the dorm. With him were four other men: his brother-in-law, the company manager (“Tamil man, S pass holder”), a company superivisor and the driver (“both work permit holders”).
Kamal recalls of the moment: “Boss come to me first. I was on upper bunk. He ask me to come down. But when I halfway down the ladder, the brother-in-law kick me. I fall to floor.”
More punches and kicks fell on him, inflicted by all four of the boss’ henchmen while the boss himself held Kamal in an armlock.
The boss demanded that Kamal hand over all his documents. “He take my salary papers and time cards,” says Kamal. “He also take my phone and money, about $337.”
They also turned on Tareq. He tried to resist. When his documents were demanded from him, Tareq says he replied, “I give paper to MOM, why [must] I give you?” For his impertinence, fists rained down on him until he gave in and surrendered his documents. “They also take my money and mobile. About $430.”
Rahim slept in a different room, and that’s where the boss and his four enforcers went to next. Reports Rahim, “Boss ask me why I go MOM. I say because you not pay me.” Blows came, with the boss demanding that he hand over his salary documents and “punch card” (time cards). “Brother-in-law catch me by collar and push me down… My mobile he take, about $1,000 he also take.”
The three workers were bundled into a van and driven to an apartment in Jurong West they believed was the manager’s home. As they were pushed inside, Tareq and Rahim noticed the address, which they later passed to TWC2 for record purposes.
“At about 4am or 5am, boss come again,” Tareq says. “Boss say, ‘Your life is finished. Tomorrow send back.'”
Being sent back to Bangladesh was not at all what they would willingly accede to. Even though they were on Special Passes, there was still a possibility that the boss had another way of pushing them out of Singapore. They couldn’t wait till they were transported to Changi airport to test their chances. They needed to find a way to help themselves without delay since no one else even knew they had been taken to this place. Kamal said he had another $25 hidden in his trousers, enough to make his way to Little India. Workers, always at risk of being beaten up, know to stash extra money and even an extra phone under their clothing. Kamal volunteered to try an escape. That was the only way they could find help.
And so Kamal became Spiderman.
On getting Kamal’s call, Nazrul immediately contacted Alamin as requested. Alamin was one of the eight who went to MOM to lodge complaints. He quickly rounded up the other four men — they and Alamin, not having been issued Special Passes, chose not to return to the dorm and thus were outside — and went to Rochor police station to make a report. They told the police that two of their friends were being held against their will at an address in Jurong West.
The police showed up at the apartment around 11:30am. The first question the police asked Rahim and Tareq was, “Were you fighting last night?” as if fighting was a good enough reason to be held against their will. Rahim and Tareq adamantly said they were not. They were victims of their boss.
Section 340 of the Penal Code says “Whoever wrongfully restrains any person in such a manner as to prevent that person from proceeding beyond certain circumscribing limits, is said ‘wrongfully to confine’ that person” and the penalty is imprisonment up to one year, or a fine up to $3,000, or both. Penalties are increased if confinement exceeds three days.
Section 362 of the Penal Code also applies. It says, “Whoever by force compels, or by any deceitful means induces any person to go from any place, is said to abduct that person” and the punishment is up to seven years in jail. with possibly a fine or caning added.
Hearing Tareq’s and Rahim’s story, the police seemed to be satisfied that they were wrongfully held. However, instead of insisting that the men be allowed to leave, the officers took the boss’ word that they would be sent back to the dorm in an hour’s time. Recalls Rahim, “Boss say to police he will ask lorry to come to Jurong West to take us. Lorry cannot come immediately.”
Two to three hours later, they were still in the apartment, and so the police were called again. Once more, officers showed up at the door. Once more, the boss assured the police that the men would be sent back to the dorm. Once more, the officers left without ensuring that the boss did what he promised.
After the police left, the boss told Tareq and Rahim that he had reassigned other men to their previous bunks. “Then where I sleep now?” Tareq asked. The boss’ reply was that he didn’t care. They could sleep anywhere they wished.
They finally left the apartment at about 4:30pm, making their way — they still had their bus cards — to the dorm to collect their things. The Tamil manager and driver were there too and glared at them. After a bit of negotiation, Tareq managed to collect some of this things, but Rahim was denied entry.
That evening, all eight of them found their way to TWC2’s free meals programme. They had nothing but the shirts on their backs and nowhere to stay.
Not an isolated incident
Men with similar experiences come to TWC2 with depressing regularity. Every month or so, a group would show up at TWC2 telling us they’ve been beaten or confined or both. We do not think either MOM or the police treat the matter with sufficient seriousness. Laws are useless if not enforced. Quite possibly this is one area that falls into the cracks, with MOM thinking the police should be the ones dealing with it and the police thinking the opposite.
Nothing may change until there’s a dead body on a sidewalk.
The authorities may like to dismiss this as an ‘isolated incident’, but foreign workers know otherwise. Two little details in their story reveal how, on the ground, workers know that being seized and forcibly repatriated is a real risk. Firstly, the five men who were not issued with Special Passes after lodging complaints at MOM knew to stay away from the dorm. Secondly, Kamal had $25 stashed under under his clothes, and Rahim had a second phone hidden away too (after the boss took away his first phone). Why would anyone take such precautions unless they knew the risk was substantial?
How you can help
When men come to us for help in such circumstances, TWC2 needs to swing into action. Meals-wise they can eat at our Cuff Road Project. Sleep-wise, men can sleep on the streets if necessary though the police sometimes chase them away. They can shower and wash up at TWC2’s DaySpace, our drop-in centre. But donations of these things will help make for a better emergency response:
- Some old clothes which we pack and keep at the ready;
- Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, towels, shaving kits) which we can add to the emergency packs;
- Used mobile phones to replace those that have been taken away by the boss;
- Monetary donations to enable us to buy new underwear, phone cards and MRT farecards.
Stand with us in solidarity against such abuses.