It was time for Houraf (not his real name) to go home. The company bought him an airticket with departure time 4:45am. The person in the company office arranging such details then informed Houraf that the company lorry would pick him up at 5pm the day before to take him to the airport.

Houraf then replied in a WhatsApp message to point out that it would mean a 12-hour wait at the airport. A subsequent message he sent two minutes later said, “I go taxi myself”.

(TWC2 has seen the text messages but it has too many identifying details, so we’re not imaging them here. The overall tone that Houraf adopted in his messages was calm and non-provocative.)

To “I go taxi myself”, the response he got from the office person was a 13-second voice message via WhatsApp.  We have stitched together this cannonade of a  response with two other (much shorter) snippets whch Houraf received a little earlier. In the playback below, the three snippets are separated by double-knocks. The voice you hear has also been digitally altered (not too much).

The office person seemed offended that Houraf turned down the lorry arrangement in favour of his own solution.

Not uncommon

It is not uncommon for migrant workers to tell us that they get this kind of “communication” from their company seniors. We provide this example here not just about Houraf’s case, but as an example of the verbal abuse that is an everyday matter for many of them. That’s why we digitally altered the voice. We don’t have more examples to embed in this story only because most of the time the worker at the receiving end of the abuse isn’t recording the tirade.

Such behaviour reveals quite a lot about labour relations in these workplaces. Put simply, they are toxic.

Employers and their representatives seem to think it quite acceptable to shout at employees. They think that the mere expression by a worker of his point of view — in this case, that a 5pm pick-up would mean a twelve-hour wait, sleepless at the airport — is tantamount to rebellion. The raised voice is a reimposition of power, in order to put the (regarded as) lesser human in his place.

But it’s not just employers and their representatives. In September 2018, we had an article with an audio recording of a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officer speaking harshly to a worker. See: Listen as peeved MOM officer flames out in phone call.

It is all too common to cast abuses as individual bad-apple aberrations — be they cases of bosses taking kickbacks, inhuman housing conditions or sheer bloody-mindedness in refusing consent for a transfer even when an employer has already cancelled a (former) worker’s Work Permit — but when we see how regularly these reports come in, one cannot but ask if they are more systemic than exceptional.

Also systemic is the harsh and demeaning way many employers and their representatives feel entitled to speak to migrant workers.