On this website, we used to carry a number of stories from workers who were lucky enough to escape forced repatriation. But that was several years ago. In the last 3 or 4 years, TWC2 received far fewer such cases. This reduction in cases could mean that attempts at forced repatriation declined, thus resulting in proportionately fewer escapes, or bosses got better at it, with fewer workers managing to escape despite as many attempts as ever. Since nobody keeps data on forced repatriation, not even the airport, we cannot be sure which way explanation applies.

One Friday night, we had new story. It’s about forced repatriation, but unlike our other stories, here the boss succeeded. The worker, Bala, didn’t manage to escape.

We got his story because he came back to Singapore four months later.

“At airport, I still wearing my orange overalls,” Bala recounts of that day (29 October 2018). Not only was he still in his workclothes, he didn’t get to retrieve his belongings from the dorm either.

Just hours earlier, at 8am, all seemed normal. By around 1pm, he was boarding a plane.

He had worked only four months at the company before his employment was cut short.

Bala was recruited from India by his neighbourhood friend Kumar, whose boss told him he needed more workers. Unlike some other cases where, despite being friends, the recruiter would still charge for the introduction, Kumar did not. “No agent fee when I coming,” says Bala.

With the boss happy to act on Kumar’s recommendation, Bala received a document known as In-principle Approval for Work Permit, stating a basic salary of $528 a month, and with that in hand, he came to Singapore in June 2018. However, from the very beginning of his employment, all sorts of funny things happened money-wise.

Inclusive of overtime pay, Bala estimates that he should have been getting “about $800, $900 like that,” each month. But every month, “pay less.” He recounts having to sign a piece of paper acknowledging an amount as salary, but after opening the envelope, he would find less in cash. The shortfall would be in the region of hundreds of dollars.

Did he approach his superiors about the matter? Unfortunately, Bala doesn’t have enough fluency in English to detail his communication with his boss or company managers, but he says that at some point, he was informed that there would be a deduction of $1,000 spread over three or four months. The reason was never explicitly stated, but anyone who is familiar with the experience of migrant workers will be able to guess that this was probably the employer’s “fee” for giving Bala a job in the first place. It is very common to hear of bosses making workers pay for their jobs in Singapore — an illegal practice that the Ministry of Manpower has not managed to stamp out.

On 29 October 2018, Bala went to work in the company lorry as he did for the months before. On reaching the worksite, just as others were alighting from the lorry, Bala was told to remain on board. He was told that he was needed at another worksite. The lorry then continued its journey, but not to any other worksite. It went to the company office where he was presented with a payment voucher and made to sign for it. Bala recalls that the figure stated on the voucher was over a thousand dollars, yet the actual cash handed to him was only about $430.

That was to be his final paycheck, but considering that it was nearly the end of the month, his basic salary ($528) and the overtime he had done to this point should add to more than $430.  That cash amount paid to him cannot be correct. Did the boss deduct the cost of airfare from Bala’s salary too?

Around the same time, three men he had never seen before joined him, and accompanied him all the way to the airport. Bala calls them “gangsters”. There must have been something in their demeanour that made it clear to Bala that they would do whatever was necessary to prevent him from fleeing.

The lorry got to the airport before midday and they checked him in for a flight to India.

At this point in our interview, your reporter tells him: “You could have approached one of the police officers standing before the immigration desks for help.”

“I didn’t know,” Bala replies.

Indeed, not every worker knows that the police there will help if they are being forcibly repatriated. TWC2 suggests that police or immigration officers, on noticing someone checking in for a flight but still in his industrial workclothes, should gently enquire whether the passenger was being made to depart against his will.

Even though he is back in Singapore now, Bala does not seem intent on lodging any claim against his employer. He still has a right to do so because the events to be complained about took place less than twelve months ago. But his equanimity is easily explained. He did not pay any recruitment cost upfront for his job. Despite being abruptly terminated from the job and forcibly repatriated, despite being paid less than he believed he should have been, Bala is not in a net loss situation. He is not in debt.

That said, he may yet change his mind after our conversation.

But why was he abruptly terminated? Bala does not know for sure. The only reason he can think of is that his employer wanted to get him out of the way after Kumar — the neighbourhood friend who introduced him to this job — lodged a salary claim against the boss.

The very precarious nature of migrant worker jobs is amply demonstrated by this. Even if one has done nothing wrong, one can lose one’s job — and be forcibly repatriated within hours — simply because a friend did something.