By TWC2 volunteer Lauren Ong, based on an interview in March 2021
On a typical weekday, Hossain Abjal wanders around the Jalan Besar area. His mind is filled with memories of his family and dreams about holding the son he has never met.
But “when I call, they all ask me about money,” he says.
Abjal is one of thousands of migrant workers from Bangladesh. But unlike most, he has nothing lined up in his daily agenda.
He came to Singapore in July 2018 to work with a contractor at a shipyard. He was promised a base salary of $540 per month. That’s about $20 a day. Thinking he could pay off his agent fees of $5,000 in about a year, he left his family behind and flew to Singapore.
With overtime and work on Sundays, Abjal could earn up to $900 a month, and while it still seems not to be a lot, considering the lengthy hours, it was still something to pay off the debt.
For the first few months on the job, that seemed within reach. That is, until he got injured a mere five months later, in November 2018.
With injuries to his shoulder, back and leg, he was put on medical leave and his work permit was cancelled by the employer. He was left with neither employment or income. Since then, Abjal has been stuck in limbo living in a shared room in the Jalan Besar area with little to occupy his time except anxiety over a looming debt.
He had paid his agent fees with money borrowed from a moneylender back home, with interest. The loan is still outstanding. Leaning on the edge of the table, Abjal stiffens up while telling me, his voice cracking subtly, “I thought I could earn enough to cover.”
Abjal’s worries seem hard for him to share. He speaks in a way that feels like he is trying to mask his frustration. But oddly, that also carries a sense of resignation. Maybe it’s a story he has become tired of repeating, each time with no solution.
Aside from his family and four siblings who are also dependent on him, he also thinks about the hefty agent fees that got him into this financial situation.
Abjal had gotten the shipyard job through two middle men. His friend of 26 years, Giash, had told him about the opening and was the only person Abjal dealt with. Giash, who was then working in Singapore, liaised with the second middle man, named Ali. Ali was the key man — the fixer — who had the connections with the employer.
Giash told Abjal that $5,000 would be needed to secure the job. Abjal sent Giash the money after borrowing it from the moneylender. With an additional $500 spent on an air ticket and immigration paperwork, Abjal’s total investment was about $5,500 before he even left Bangladesh for Singapore.
Sometime after starting on the job, Abjal learned from his workmates that the company boss typically took $2,500 for giving employment. Assuming that was also the case with Abjal’s job, Abjal wonders about the other half of the money.
Did Ali the fixer pocket $2,500? Was this shared with Giash? Whichever way it was, there is nothing much he can do about it now.
His financial situation mirrors his daily routine: nothing much to do except a call home to talk to his family. That unfortunately brings up one palpable feeling: “Heartache.”