Khan has worked in Singapore for most of the past fifteen years, having first come here in 2007. He has been employed at eight different companies in that time, with each job lasting an average of one to two years. Between jobs, Khan returned home for anywhere between six months and a year to spend time with his wife and child.

Given these number of years under his belt, he is considered an experienced worker, particularly in the plumbing line in which he had received formal training. He also holds a truck driving licence.

Khan has two stories to tell, both connected to his latest job, his eighth. In his first story, we can glean how he managed to parlay his years of experience here into no-fee recruitment and a relatively good salary. In this, he is not unusual. TWC2 has come across similar stories from other experienced migrant workers.

In his second story, we see that, however experienced he may be, some things have not changed – the hostile behaviour of an employer once he is displeased with an employee.

Getting the job

Before Khan first came to Singapore from Bangladesh in 2007, he underwent three months of vocational training at a training centre in Dhaka. He paid 350,000 Taka (roughly $7,000) for his training and his first job. This amount likely included the cost of the flight ticket as well. The basic salary for this job was approximately $400 a month.

He worked for two years in Singapore before returning home to be with his family.

The second time Khan came to Singapore, he paid $4,000 to an agent and once again worked for roughly two years.

For his latest (eighth) job, which began in January 2022, Khan did not engage any agent at all, even though at that point in time, he was back in Bangladesh. How Khan got this job was through a friend who said that the company he was working in had a vacancy. The friend introduced Khan to the boss. The boss then interviewed Khan over the phone (audio only), and subsequently offered him a job.

The employer applied to the Ministry of Manpower for a Work Permit, and when an In-Principle Approval (explained in Glossary) was given by the ministry, this was sent via WhatsApp to Khan.

Khan then set about getting an exit permit from Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), contacting a travel agent to purchase a flight ticket and organising other pre-departure formalities. In total, Khan estimates that he spent about $700 – a far cry from what an agent would have charged.

The friend who introduced him to the job did not ask for any fee.

The job was that of a multi-role worker, involving plumbing work as well as driving the company truck. The basic salary was $1,600 a month.

What are the factors that made it possible for Khan to escape the clutches of recruitment agents? There are four main ones:

  • Khan had acquired enough experience to be a desirable employee;
  • Having spent a long time in Singapore, Khan had a network of friends and spoke well in English;
  • Technological advancements since 2007 have enabled easy transfer of information and documents across borders;
  • The employer was hands-on in doing its own recruitment.

Work injury

Khan may have dodged the agent problem for his current job. However, after eleven months with the company, he approached TWC2 for assistance with an injury claim. He had suffered an injury to his back six months prior, i.e. roughly four or five months into the job.

At first, he was treated at a general practitioner’s clinic. The doctor told him to rest for a few days and he should recover after that. However, the problem persisted and two months later, he returned to the clinic. This time, the doctor issued him a “light duties” order so as to allow the injury to heal. The doctor added that if there was no improvement, Khan should go to a hospital.

This was where issues began to arise with his employer. Ignoring the doctor’s order, the boss still tasked Khan with heavy work and his injury worsened. Khan then took the doctor’s advice and visited a hospital two months later. The doctor there ordered seven days of medical leave for his injury and gave him a follow-up date for a consultation at the end of those seven days.

Treatment blocked

On that seventh day, when Khan attempted to visit to the hospital, he found that the door to his room was blocked by two men. The first man he recognised as a workmate. The second man he did not recognise, but who (Khan said) later claimed to be a partner in the business. Both men attempted to stop Khan from going to the hospital, saying he must go to the airport instead, as his work permit had been cancelled and his ticket bought. This would constitute an attempt at forced repatriation.

Khan resisted and told the men he was going to the doctor, come what may. When Khan got into a taxi, so did the two men.

During the ride, both men tried to intimidate Khan and dissuade him from continuing to the hospital.

At the hospital the second man (whom Khan did not know from before) told the receptionist that Khan’s work permit had been cancelled, and produced evidence to that effect. This move was intended to deny treatment to Khan.

Having lived in a Singapore for long enough, familiar with how Singapore operates, and with a good grasp of his rights, Khan called the police and explained the situation. The police directed him to head straight to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). As soon as Khan got the police involved, the second man fled the scene, leaving Khan’s workmate to try and stop him from going to MOM.

When Khan hailed a taxi, this man – workmate turned boss’ enforcer – physically tried to stop Khan from boarding the vehicle, but failed in that and Khan got in. The man got in as well, and told the driver to take them to the airport. Confused about conflicting requests from his passengers, the taxi driver sought the help of a police constable on station nearby. After understanding the situation, the constable directed the taxi driver to go to MOM.

At the ministry, an MOM officer separated the two. Only Khan was allowed in to speak with the officer. After getting the facts from Khan, the officer helped him lodge a formal work injury claim. Once this was done, the employer would not be able to arrange repatriation for Khan until the claim process was concluded.

What the incident shows

There are two features of this story that stand out.

The first is that an experienced migrant worker like Khan had both the knowledge of the Singapore ‘system’ and command of the English language to defend his own interests in the face of intimidation.

The second feature is in how the doctors, police officers and MOM officers handled their roles well.

Despite these positives it is concerning that such blatant attempts at denying access to healthcare and injury compensation (through forced repatriation) could happen in broad daylight. In Khan’s case, the employer and his henchmen did not succeed, but if it involved a worker who was less experienced or self-confident, they might well have.

How does an employer feel unafraid to even try to do so? A sense of impunity comes from the simple fact that there are no ramifications for such attempts.

The point that can be extrapolated from this is that even when laws and policies are clear and officials diligent in their roles, letting parties get away with trying to beat the rules is no small matter. Inhuman or unlawful unlawful behaviour must be dealt with too, or else there will be persistent attempts to undermine workers’ rights.