By Jean Law

Debesh* is going back to Bangladesh after a mere four months working in Singapore. He is leaving much poorer than if he had not come at all.  This is because his money was taken from him in an illegal transaction that was not brought to justice. He tried to get the police and the Ministry of Manpower to investigate but neither agency seemed interested in getting involved.

His story provides a detailed look at how foreign workers like him are recruited — all in the shadows of the law.

The cheating ‘agents’

The story starts in January 2016 in Bangladesh, when Debesh was seeking a job in Singapore to support his parents and two sisters. He had worked here before, and in fact, it was a former co-worker, Liton, who responded with news that he knew of an available job.  At the time, Liton was still working in Singapore. Liton asked Debesh for $3,600 as the price of the job, a request that effectively put him (Liton) in contravention of the Employment Agencies Act.

Section 6 of this law says:

6.—(1)  No person shall carry on an employment agency unless the person is the holder of a licence from the Commissioner authorising the person to carry on such an agency.

(2)  Subject to subsection (3), no person shall perform any work or activity in Singapore —

(a) for or in connection with the employment of one or more persons in any capacity, whether or not those persons are to be employed within or outside Singapore; and

(b) on his own behalf or on behalf of an employment agency which is carried on outside Singapore,

unless he is the holder of a licence from the Commissioner authorising him to perform such work or activity.

The penalty for a first offence is a fine of up to $80,000 or imprisonment of up to two years. The high penalties indicate that it is a serious offence. By asking for money, Liton behaved like an agent and broke the law.

Debesh couldn’t possibly have known about the law; in any case, he accepted and paid a sum of $2,800 instead of the asked-for $3,600. The money was wired to Singapore via B-Cash. According to Debesh he had a hard time raising $2,800; $3,600 was out of his reach.

It is not clear if Liton accepted a reduced rate of $2,800. He might have, because he then sent to Debesh via email the In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA). Thereafter, Liton became uncontactable. There was the matter of the airticket and some other formalities on the Bangladesh side but no arrangements were made. Debesh, upset, says at this point, “This man forget me.”

About a month later, Debesh was surprised to get a call from a stranger called Humayun. The call came from Singapore, as Humayun was working here. In fact, it turned out that Humayun’s boss was the one needing an extra worker — the very job in question.

“Why you not coming?” Humayun asked. Debesh explained that he had had no further contact from Liton. Then Humayun turned to the question of money, saying that he had yet to receive the $3,600. Debesh said he had sent $2,800 to Liton earlier.

Then the story gets exciting.

Humayun arranged for a posse to go “catch” Liton. Exactly what happened was beyond Debesh’s English vocabulary so it’s hard to detail what really transpired. Just to be clear: all this was occurring in Singapore. At first, Liton denied receiving any money from Debesh, instead urging Humayun to tell his boss to cancel the IPA that had been sent earlier. But eventually, Liton admitted receiving money from Debesh and passed $1,000 to Humayun.

At this point, by receiving the money, Humayun too contravened the Employment Agencies Act.

Humayun then told Debesh that he had received only $700 from Liton, and that he needed $3,600 more from Debesh to seal the deal. This was somehow bargained down to $2,200, and with great difficulty, Debesh raised this extra sum and sent it to Humayun in Singapore.

At the same time, Liton tried to insert himself back into the cashflow. He told Debesh that if Debesh would send him another $1,500, he (Liton) would tie up all loose ends and bring him to Singapore. But it was too late, for Debesh as already in direct contact with Humayun and there was no further role for Liton.

Once the $2,200 was sent to Humayun, Humayun flew to Dhaka and two days later, brought Debesh on the same flight to Singapore. That was April 2016.

The sleeping agencies

Debesh was understandably furious about being swindled. Once in Singapore, he managed to locate Liton and dragged him to a police station, in order to make a report about cheating. Liton flatly denied it. The police claimed to be unable to offer further assistance and directed Debesh to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

When Debesh reported the case to MOM — this time, he could not get Liton to go with him — an official told him that they required the Work Permit numbers of Liton and Humayun in order to take further action. Debesh understandably did not have those details, but he offered to give the officials their telephone numbers. In spite of this, the officials stated that there was insufficient information to start a case against Liton and Humayun; as far as Debesh knows, there’s been no further investigation.

“I give him everything [I know],” says Debesh in frustration, but “MOM [officer] say telephone number cannot [be used as investigative lead]”.

It is surprising that the officials would take such a stand as the personal information of all SIM card holders are registered in Singapore and can easily be retrieved with the phone number of an individual. Even if Humayun has terminated his phone number, the archival records can be used, through which the Work Permit numbers of the workers can be found. Nonetheless, because of the reluctance of the officials in pursuing the case, Debesh is unable to seek justice in Singapore.

Moreover, since the total sums of $5,000 were sent electronically through B-Cash into Singapore jurisdiction, this should be quite an easy complaint to investigate.

This is far from an isolated case in Singapore, where there are many workers who act as informal fixers (or “dalals” in Bengali slang). As noted above, under the Employment Agency Act, it is illegal to perform the role of an employment agent without an employment agency license.

Illegal does not mean that it rarely occurs, however. I understand from other TWC2 volunteers that employers often eschew agents and request one or two of their own trusted employees to find men to fill a company’s ranks. Naturally, these trusted workers then leverage the opportunity to make money. Sometimes, a cut of the profit is provided for the boss — which is also illegal.

The victims are the large numbers of workers desperate for jobs. Like Debesh, they start their careers in debt and under huge financial stress. Knowing that they are vulnerable, bosses may think that they can get away with the unreasonable and exploitative, e.g. demanding excessive overtime, providing poor accommodation, or arbitrarily reducing their salaries.

MOM needs to take further action in tightening the enforcement and the execution of the Employment Agencies Act. Allowing the status quo to persist would mean that we condone the exploitation of workers and non-enforcement of laws.

Worse soon befell Debesh. He suffered an ankle injury in August 2016 and has been unable to work since. His Work Permit was cancelled and he has to return to Bangladesh after completing medical treatment. In his four months of work, he says he managed to save only about $1,000. That’s $4,000 less than what he paid for the job — money that was illegally taken from him but no one seems to care, not even the agencies charged with enforcing the law.

*Real names have been replaced by pseudonyms because the victim may be exposed to physical harm by the perpetrators