Shamim (above) recounts a meeting he had at another coffee shop

By Troy Lee, based on two interviews in October 2017

Shamim paints a picture of how he got his latest job. In the second half of 2016, while he was happily in his previous job, “I meet his man, Basir, at a coffee shop Mustafa near.” Mustafa is a well-known departmental store in the Little India district. There are plenty of cafes in the vicinity, mostly frequented by tourists and migrant workers from South Asia.

“He just talking friendly,” recounts Shamim of the fellow countryman from Bangladesh. “Then he also say he has a company, and he say, ‘If you want a new job, I have job.’ ”

Basir indicated a basic salary of $25 per day.

Shamim kept Basir’s number. When, after a few months, his then-job came to an end, Shamim reached out to him again. Basir confirmed that he was still looking for workers, but now said the salary would be $16 a day on paper, $22 a day in reality. Shamim does not explain why there needs to be difference between ‘on paper’, i.e. on the Work Permit application and ‘in reality’, nor what happened to the earlier figure of $25 a day. Unsurprisingly too, Basir now said the fee for giving Shamim a job would be $4,000.

Thinking it better to have a job nicely lined up before going home — and the rules then were such that Shamim had to go home to Bangladesh first before he could take up a new job, transfer being out of the question — Shamim agreed. $4,000 was handed over in cash, in Singapore.

The In-principle Approval for a Work Permit came through as promised, and Shamim was back in Singapore again by February 2017 to join Basir’s company.

Shamim noticed that the company had a lot of workers. While he can’t say how many exactly, Miah Saddam, a colleague from the same firm, estimated about 48 men.

Your writer can’t get the picture out of his head: of a well-dressed Basir, sitting comfortably in a coffee shop every weekend, making small talk with migrant workers on their days off, offering future employment. He might target workers nearing the end of their contracts, flush with money but concerned about where to find the next job.

48 workers thus recruited, multiplied by $4,000 each, means a windfall of $192,000. I don’t think our tax man knows about it.

Later in 2017…

At first, there was work. Shamim found himself to be a general worker, supplied as labour to other contractors. He was seconded to various projects, “many places I go, all short time working.” That’s typical of a ‘supplied’ worker.

Salary till August 2017 (paid in early September) wasn’t a problem. It was paid on time.

But even in August, Shamim could see uncertainty ahead. Some fellow workers didn’t get work assignments. Through September, Shamim too was ‘just waiting in my room, boss not give any work.”

Calls to Basir went unanswered. Finally, in early October, one of the men suggested they should check if their Work Permits were still valid. Shamim thought it was a good idea, and he went to a shop which provides such a service. As did Miah Saddam. They both found that their Work Permits had been cancelled.

Off they went to the Ministry of Manpower, to lodge complaints. They were then issued with Special Passes allowing them to stay on in Singapore while the matter is investigated. Singly or in small groups, other workers from the same company did the same. And soon came to TWC2 for advice and free meals.

“Where is Basir now?” I ask Shamim.

“I think he quickly go home [Bangladesh]. But I am not sure. Phone cannot get [him].”

According to Miah Saddam, he recently realised that the actual boss of the company was a Singaporean man. Basir wasn’t the boss, though he did seem to be operationally in charge.

“I think Basir [was] also a work permit man,” speculates Shamim. “He working for same boss.”

It is not clear whether it was the employer who cancelled their Work Permits or MOM who revoked them (usually because monthly foreign worker levies had not been paid). But either way, the fact remains that the men are out of employment. They have no more income. MOM may want them to stay on as potential witnesses in the event that a prosecution case (possibly over kickbacks, or acting as an employment agent without a licence) can be launched. But unless Basir can be extradited back to Singapore, it’s not terribly clear how things will unfold.

I ask Shamim and Miah Saddam whether MOM has mentioned anything yet about allowing them to look for new jobs. They say no. Nothing like that has been mentioned.

Says Shamim, “MOM never say can get new job. Only say must go for meeting on this date and that date.” Neither he nor Miah Saddam have any idea what lies ahead. All they know is that — not different from what happened in the last few months of employment, now they’re just expected to stay in their rooms and wait.

TWC2 has long observed that the service mindset in MOM is not fully developed. The priority seems to be enforcement of rules rather than assisting the public. Without doubt, MOM will go all out to investigate the crime that has been committed, and clearly they know what they have to do to keep potential witnesses in Singapore should they be needed. But one would have thought that equally high in priority would be to ensure that these complainants and witnesses aren’t made to suffer in the interim. Straight away, avenues for re-employment should be opened for these two men. Leaving them in limbo is not the best that can be done.