TWC2’s Alex Au interviews M and Z (backs to camera for their own protection)

Text and video by TWC2 volunteer Gan Chong Jing, based on an interview in August 2020

A Saturday night in January.  The road is empty and dimly lit, and a man is running for his life. He has no money, no possessions, not even any clothes or shoes, save for a lungi that he clutches to his waist and a phone grasped in his other hand. 

All it took was one day for his life to fall apart.

The day before, a Friday,  the man — whom we’ll call M — was working at a construction site when he accidentally slipped and fell, hitting his back and head on the road.

Saturday morning, his employer takes him to a small clinic. M’s employer, along with the company lorry driver, are there in the consultation room; they didn’t ask M for his consent. The driver positions himself close to the doctor, almost like a looming threat over him. The doctor, upon determining the extent of his injuries, says M will need five or six days of medical leave to recover, but the employer insists that the doctor reduce the medical leave to just one day — if not, “the company will have problems”.

They walk out of the clinic with only a one day’s medical leave for M.

Drowsy from medication, but rudely awoken

Painkillers cause drowsiness. M goes to bed early, but is rudely awakened by the arrival of his boss at the dormitory. It is not abnormal for his boss to visit the dorm, but this time he is not alone. Three strangers arrive with boss. They are all of large physical build, and M’s roommates follow them warily with their eyes. Instinctively, they feel uneasy, as does M. They whisper to him: gangsters.

The silence of the night is exploded with the gunfire of harsh words. As M recounts it, “the gangsters, they coming, then fast shouting (at M), ‘You no good. You tricking boss. So your permit cutting already’.” They surround him and with raised voices, intimidate him. They tell him that his work permit has been cancelled, and order him to pack up all of his belongings within the next ten minutes. He has to leave.

M realises now, with a stab of fear, that they plan to take him to the airport and repatriate him back home. He can either cooperate or they will force him to. And instantly, he knows that he has to escape.

He asks for twenty minutes to shower and pack his things; after all, having just woken up from his sleep, he is only wearing a lungi. The gangsters and his boss, probably realising that an unwashed, half-naked man will attract attention at the airport, grant his request.

M heads toward the toilet, but knowing that it will arouse suspicion if he tries to put clothes on before going to the toilet, leaves everything else but his phone behind. His gambit works. They let their guard down and let him go unaccompanied, forgetting that on the way to the toilet, M will pass a small gate that exits the dorm. He ducks through it and flees.

Five hours frantic searching

Eight months on, I meet M and his friend (we’ll call him Z) at TWC2’s free meals programme. Z now picks up the account of the night’s events. Once the boss and the gangsters realise that M has disappeared, they begin to scour the entire dorm, inside and out, hoping that he is hiding somewhere. Unable to find him still, they go back his room and yank open his personal storage box. Rummaging through it, they find his wallet, with money inside, personal identification, and a multitude of medical documents. They take them all, says Z.

The gangsters remain at the dorm for five hours, Z estimates, before they finally give up and leave. Tthe boss, perhaps fearing that M is heading to a police station to make a police report, calls the police himself in an attempt to establish first contact with them. Z overhears the boss tell the police that one of his workers has gone missing. 

Meanwhile, M runs to a neighbouring dormitory, where he asks fellow Bangladeshis for help. They are startled to see a half-naked man running in, without even sandals. Hearing his story, the workers there give him clothing, footwear and some cash, enough for M to make his way to a house where one of his friends is staying.

The safety of a Special Pass

Even now, as we listen to his story, M hesitates at key points. The events still seem vividy traumatic, and he has to gather himself before going on with the story.

A day or two after having to flee, M got a call from his boss, asking him to come to the company office. M consulted Z and Z advised against doing so. It’s surely a trap, Z said. Indeed, Z later observed that the gangsters were there waiting in or near the office. When M did not show up, they left.

M made his way to a hospital to get some proper treatment for his injuries. Then he filed an injury claim at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). In lieu of the cancelled Work Permit, the ministry issued him a Special Pass — it’s standard procedure when a worker has filed a claim, enabling him stay on in Singapore till the matter is concluded.

More importantly, the pass cannot be used for departing Singapore — which means that M’s boss can no longer forcefully repatriate him.

M returned to his accommodation a few more days later, but his things were all gone.  To this day, the money taken from his box — M estimates it would have been between $500 – $600 — has not been returned. 

Months after the incident, M remains shaken with fear. He has no job and no income; idling by while awaiting the finalisation of his injury claim.

M is only one of many foreign workers who have undergone a similar ordeal. There are black-sheep employers who think, once a worker is injured, that the guy is nothing more than a broken tool, a liability to be disposed of as quickly as possible, even by the most unscrupulous of means.

From insisting on a minimal duration of medical leave to hiring gangsters to coerce the worker into going home, M’s boss appears to be this sort. The fact that he did this within just one day of M’s injury suggests no other explanation. One sees brutal calculation rather than a decent regard for the humanity of employees.

While M was able to escape his tormenter through quick thinking and luck, TWC2 now assures him and all other workers that such tactics of forced repatriation are no longer to be feared. After a spate of such incidents in previous years, the airport authorities have been informed and are ready to assist any worker in need. Rather than trying to resist and flee, it is safer to play along until one has arrived at the airport. Whether or not a worker has a Special Pass, once he informs a member of the airport police that he is being forced to go home by his employer, the police will give him an opportunity to stay on a bit more to file a complaint at MOM. Then it is up to MOM to decide whether the complaint is genuine.