By Rabin Kok
“When I small boy, I watching Singapore on TV. That time I thinking, Singapore very nice place.”
Rashid Harun Or is a well-built man with ruddy looks, scraggly long hair and a grin which seems chiselled onto his face. He looks contemplatively into the distance, and his voice trails off for a moment. The low rumble of hundreds of migrant labourers in neighbouring shops and streets chatting with friends, laughing over dinner or making anxious calls home merges with the irritated but mild chaos of Little India’s traffic. A police siren sounds in the distance.
When migrant labourers appear in the news, it’s often to highlight a problem they face – injury claims, salary issues and sometimes deaths. Sometimes, coverage focuses on a small group of migrant workers who give the rest a bad name. In the process, the human stories of men like Rashid are unwittingly lost to limitations on column inches and their voices unintentionally drowned out by the din of press conferences and political debates.
I ask Rashid simply to tell me about himself, his life, how he came to Singapore and what he thinks of the place we call home.
Rashid describes life back home in Bangladesh, a life without frills but nonetheless a happy one. “I living in village, doing farming,” he explains. “Electricity three days on, four days off.” I ask how daily tasks, like cooking and heating, were carried out during outages – was gas used, I asked? “Firewood,” replies Rashid.
Like most of the workers I’ve spoken to, Rashid attended school before coming to Singapore, completing the equivalent of his ‘O’ Level certification (many workers complete their ‘A’ Levels or even degree courses, but are still unable to find jobs in their home country). “In school time, I very naughty. I many time fighting,” explains Rashid with a mischievous grin while making a rotan motion with his hands. He also tells me he was quite the sportsman. “I playing cricket, winning many prize. Also swimming.” I ask him what the public pools in Bangladesh are like. “Swimming in river,” he clarifies.
Again, my developed-world assumptions are turned on their head.
Rashid explains that most Bangladeshis practice Islam, and Bangladeshi society is relatively conservative compared to Singapore. As a result, some separation is often maintained between men and women in public. “School time, have one long table. One side girl, one side boy,” Rashid recalls. His usual mischievous smile slowly re-emerges. “In school, I have girlfriend also. Long time together.”
“Last time, my father is teacher in village. When I wanting to come Singapore, he very angry. Family not happy,” says Rashid. “”No, no, you study finish, then can go” – my father saying like that. But many people say Singapore nice country, many money can put inside pocket. I go Singapore, my life settled,” he continues, with his trademark starry-eyed grin as he tells me how he left school early to train for a job in Singapore. Unlike many other migrant labourers, he came against his family’s wishes in search of his fortune.
“In Dhaka, many many training school have. Welding, fitting, wiring – all also have.” Before construction workers are allowed to come to Singapore, they have to take a basic skills course. “I training, but family very angry,” he continues. “So I asking teacher to help me go Singapore – that time, my wish is Singapore.” Rashid’s teacher helped him to secure a job at a cost of $9,000 in ‘agent fees’ — as almost always is the case the trainer doubles, lucratively, as a job agent. $9,000 is about average for the money that almost all aspiring workers must pay to these dubious ‘agents’ in Bangladesh (and possibly Singapore) just to secure a job. Such abuses are so widespread that the men do not question the practice but take it as a fact of life. I’ve yet to come across anyone who didn’t have to cough up such a sum.
“23 April 2013, I coming Singapore. One day, $16 basic salary.” Rashid smiles before adding: “That time, I don’t know $16 is how much money, very little or very much.”
How different was life in Singapore from back home, I ask Rashid? “In Singapore, working day cannot going outside, cannot do anything,” he says with a sigh. What an interesting comment. Was he expecting otherwise? As with many workers, he was shuttled from his dormitory to his workplace and back again daily. “But Sunday I many time go Marina, Sentosa, very nice. Fun fun all,” Rashid quickly adds.
From the start, things didn’t go exactly as planned. “I not happy because in Dhaka, I learning electrician. But here, electrician no give. Boss give me pipe fitting.” Rashid was not given the job he trained for by his new employer. Then, a few months into his job, Rashid’s luck ran out. “25 September, I having accident. I carrying pipe, ten kilo. That day, many raining. Wet wet. My leg slip, then pipe hit knee. Bone breaking.” Rashid suffered a knee fracture, that left him unable to continue working and unable to continue paying down his debt.
More misfortune awaited Rashid as he embarked on the long road to recovery. “Doctor give me six day MC [medical leave]. But manager say no and tell doctor one day MC only. Boss say I fall down in toilet, not staircase.” Not only did Rashid’s employer try to persuade the doctor to reduce his medical leave, his employer was also trying to avoid paying compensation for the accident by claiming that it happened outside work. “I thinking: who doctor? Manager, or doctor?” adds Rashid with a laugh.
Soon after, Rashid’s friend, having overheard one of his employer’s conversations, warned Rashid that he was about to be taken from his dormitory where he was recovering to the airport, to be forcibly repatriated. This is not uncommon among injured workers here, and happens when employers want to avoid paying them compensation. “I very scared, my heart going thump thump,” recounts Rashid animatedly. “My family give many money to come Singapore, if I send back, then how?”
It turned out that fortune hadn’t abandoned Rashid completely. “My friend help me. I call taxi, go Mustafa shopping centre. That time, I don’t know Singapore law, so big brother tell me to go MOM, MOM helping. I go MOM, then TWC2 coming, also many many help.” He is hopeful that his compensation case will be resolved soon to his satisfaction. Rashid pauses before adding, thoughtfully, “I praying God, He protecting me.”
Rashid has been through a lot since the days he first saw Singapore on TV back home. In spite of everything, though, it seems that those dreams are far from dashed, when I ask him what he plans to do now.
“Singapore good country. Other country, no,” he goes on to explain. “Here, you seeing people fighting, you call police. Police always coming. Another country – my friend go Dubai, Kuwait – many people fighting. Many people see, no people take care. In Bangladesh, you never watching money, other people take.” He pauses, reflectively. “Singapore good country, only I kena bad man. But God – God watching me.”
As a momentary silence falls between us, I suddenly remember that Rashid has a girlfriend back home, and I ask him how things are now.
Rashid looks away. “My village last time, I have girlfriend,” he says wistfully, as if forgetting my question. Until 2014, still together.” He pauses, before adding sadly, “last year, she marrying another person already.”