Murad holds his new passport

By TWC2 volunteer Heidi M, based on an interview in October 2020

If a friend tells you that his boss confiscated his passport and locked him out of his accommodation because he found a new employer, you would surely be shocked. Perhaps you may be aware that such abuse of power meets certain strong and medium indicators of labour exploitation as defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the European Commission — and more (see footnote 1).

The indicators, first published in March 2009, can be used to assess the possibility of human trafficking too. There are six main elements of the definition of trafficking in persons:

  • deceptive recruitment,
  • coercive recruitment,
  • recruitment by abuse of vulnerability,
  • exploitation,
  • coercion at destination and
  • abuse of vulnerability at destination.

The indicators can be used as a guide by organisations whether or not the case has been or will ever be prosecuted as such.  ILO’s operational indicators complement the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (known as Palermo Protocol for short), part of the United Nations’ Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Dhali Md Murad Hosen’s showing up at TWC2 was one of those instances when many of these indicators flashed, if not red, at least amber.

Murad, who has worked in Singapore since 2011, had two issues to deal with in the third quarter of 2020. He had found a new job and although the Ministry of Manpower issued an In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (see explanation in Glossary), effectuating the transfer proved to be a problem.

Our records are not very clear how he managed to get out of his current contract and look for a new job, but whatever the preceding events, the difficulty was that the current employer was not happy he was moving to a different company.

The second issue was that his passport was nearing expiry too, and his transfer to the new employer would be stuck unless he had a valid passport.

The current employer then leveraged his control of Murad’s passport in an attempt to deny him the new job. Employers of foreign workers in Singapore routinely retain their employees’ passports even though it is against the law. There is insufficient action on the part of the authorities to stamp out this practice.

Soon after Murad applied for a renewed passport, he was informed by the Bangladeshi High Commission that the new document was ready for collection. However, Murad would have to present his old passport for cancellation.

According to Murad (and validated through a WhatsApp conversation TWC2 had with the boss) the current employer would only release the old passport to Murad if he signed some sort of agreement surrendering himself for repatriation. This would of course prevent him from taking up his new job.

In a bind, Murad contacted TWC2 on 12 October 2020 for help.

According to the Passports Act, it is an offence to keep or withhold any passport which does not belong to you, and a webpage at the Ministry of Manpower’s website says that employers should not retain their employees’ passports.

“Confiscation of documents” is considered a strong indicator of coercion according to ILO Indicators of trafficking of adults for labour exploitation.

“Abuse of vulnerability” has been mentioned among the bullet points above. In this case, the current employer was trying to exploit Murad’s need for his own passport to damage his chance at going over to a new job.

TWC2’s attempt to mediate did not succeed. The boss became even more agitated, not only threatening to send Murad back home but (as Murad later told us) also short-paid his salary for the days after the dispute arose. “Withholding of wages” is in the checklist as a medium indicator of coercion.

Murad anyway went to the Bangladesh High Commission to get his new passport. Since he didn’t have his old passport with him, he had to sign a letter of indemnity instead. However, he was afraid that should he return to his dormitory with the new passport, the employer would confiscate it too. So he asked TWC2 to safekeep it for him. That we agreed to do.

He had reason to be afraid of repercussions from going to the High Commission. Although his dorm was not under any quarantine or isolation orders, he had been “warned” not to leave the accommodation without permission from his boss. This checks another indicator. “Isolation, confinement or surveillance” is a second strong indicator of coercion, and coercion raises suspicions of labour exploitation. According to the ILO recommendation, two strong indicators would result in a positive assessment for human trafficking.

As expected, he got into trouble when he tried to return to the dorm later that evening after entrusting his new passport to TWC2. He was locked out of the dorm and faced the possibility of having to sleep rough. Fortunately, the boss relented after a while, but the brief lock-out only served to demonstrate the unreasonableness of the employer’s attitude.

TWC2 then advised Murad to go to MOM to raise his issues. That he did, and the employer was told to cancel his Work Permit and return his old passport.

Some days later, we passed him back his new passport, and heard from Murad that he was happily in his new job.

1. See page 4/8: Indicators of trafficking of adults for labour exploitation: INDICATORS OF COERCION AT DESTINATION