By Darrell Foo, based on an interview in November 2018

At TWC2’s Cuff Road Project where free meals are distributed to destitute foreign workers, almost all the men’s “makan cards” (meal eligibility cards issued by TWC2) state “injury” or “not paid salary” as their problems. My guess is that 99% of them have one of these two issues that caused them to lose their jobs and led them to rely on charity.

Hayder’s [not his real name] card was unusual and caught my eye because of that. It said “overstay”. Seizing a rare opportunity to interview an overstayer, I started a conversation with him.

Overstayers are of two kinds: those who overstayed social visit (tourist) passes, and those who overstayed work passes or Special Passes. Hayder is of the latter group, and as he tells me about what led him to make that fateful decision, a profile of a man in desperation comes through starkly.

“I first time coming in 2011,” he begins. That was when he paid a skills training centre in Bangladesh the equivalent of $7,000 to acquire a basic skills certificate after a short three-month course. This was followed by another $7,500 to an agent to get him a job in Singapore. The total outlay of $14,500 was 24 times the monthly basic salary of $600 that the job provided.

“My family sell land to get the money,” was how he managed to raise the sum. “Now they move to Dhaka, live in one room.”

I didn’t ask for more details — it might be too painful — but in my eye, I could see his father, once a farmer tilling his own plot, reduced to being a hired labourer pulling a cart through the streets of Dhaka, just so his son could go to Singapore.

Although that job lasted two years, Hayder could not save enough to fully recover the sunk cost. There was overtime work and therefore some extra pay on top of the basic salary, but even so, he had to pay for his daily needs and send some money to support the family. What was left over just didn’t add up to the $14,500 invested.

There was a hiatus after the end of the first job. Hayder was back in Bangladesh and it took a while to find a new job. This time, it cost him $7,500 again for “agent money”, an amount borrowed from family friends. But this job barely lasted one year before the boss told him “no more work, so go back.” Needless to say, Hayder had not earned enough to discharge the debt.

For the third job, his agent charged him $4,500. More money borrowed to pay for that. Six months into the job, the boss gave him the same dreaded news: “No more work, so go back.”

Hayder couldn’t face his creditors. “How can I go back? I die.”

By that time, he had heard that there was demand for informal workers in Singapore. Small employers with a need for extra workers but unable to get a foreign worker quota from the Ministry of Manpower might be ready to hire overstayers. It would be illegal of course and the jobs would be unstable; nor would there be any insurance coverage. But it was certainly better than going home to social shame.

Hayder didn’t take the flight home on the appointed day.

It’s not clear how successful he was in getting informal work. Hayder seems a bit evasive. Maybe he doesn’t want to incriminate himself or his contacts, or maybe he was also unsuccessful in finding informal work but is too embarrassed to admit it. In any case, it is moot because he was caught by the police just 20 days after overstaying.

The police raided the rooming house where he stayed. Everyone in the place was rounded up and had their documents checked.

He was charged with an immigration offence and the court fined him $1,200. “I no money to pay,” Hayder tells me, and so he served four days in Changi prison in lieu of the fine.

After release, he was given a Special Pass. This legalises his continued stay in Singapore, but a condition of the Special Pass is that he is not allowed to take up employment. So he relies on TWC2 for his meals. As for his accommodation and other daily needs….

“Don’t go there,” advises my webmaster and editor. “There are some things we don’t want to ask.”

Hayder is depressed enough as it is. He is stuck in Singapore but unable to work legally and is kept by our authorities in limbo. He doesn’t want to return to Bangladesh either. “How I go back, I die,” he repeats.

He is no longer in control of his own life. “No future,” he adds.

“My mother say I good boy. I try hard to make money for family, but so many problem…” His voice breaks; he tries not to cry.

This story raises two pressing issues: Special Passes and recruitment costs. It is not clear from the story why Hayder is being kept in Singapore on a Special Pass and not repatriated. Apparently our writer tried to ask but Hayder himself did not know. It is inhumane to keep someone in Singapore and not allow this individual to seek work. People have to eat; they need a roof over their heads.

It could be argued that doing so might create a ‘backdoor’ circumventing our work permit rules. But it is entirely possible to put some restrictions on Special Pass work, e.g. a limited period of time, to distinguish it disadvantageously from normal work permits.

Yet, whatever improvement we make to the situation of Special Pass holders is still treating the symptom, not the disease. The key issue is indebtedness arising from high recruitment costs. The Singapore government tends to take the view that if these were paid outside Singapore then the matter is outside our jurisdiction and there’s nothing we can do about it. Such a stance is short-sighted. What this case shows is that the trap into which workers fall creates problems and costs for Singapore: policing costs, court costs, prison costs, let alone the social problems of illegal working without any protection of law or insurance whatsoever. We shouldn’t through neglect let a desperate underclass to develop; it is well past time to address the issue of recruitment costs.

We will be publishing a policy brief on this soon.