Asadullah tells his countrymen to be careful about taking jobs in Singapore
Situation of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore
Article by Debbie Fordyce
Two years ago, in October 2009, I wrote a letter about Bangladeshi Migrant Workers which was presented to the Labour Minister, Mr. Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, during his visit to Singapore. That letter appears beneath this piece, and immediately below is a review of the situation now in October 2011.
The situation of the Bangladeshi workers in Singapore October 2011 is no better now than it was several years ago. More regulations have been enforced, some transgressions recognized, some loopholes tightened, but the methods of deception and the desperation to find decent paying jobs have increased in scope and complexity. The media in Singapore rarely expose the depth of the problem, preferring to concentrate on issues that can be handled by the employer and the Ministry of Manpower so that the level of profit for the employer is satisfactory and the level of risk for the worker is acceptable.
Singapore now hosts 1.3 million foreign workers, with Bangladeshis a sizable chunk of that number. Several years ago, 2008 and 2009, thousands of work permit holders were lured in to no-work-no-pay situations. They were restrained during the day to prevent them from lodging complaints, and when they did eventually reach Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the numbers were overwhelming and they were sent home with a token amount of money, $50 in many cases. Without having actually worked for their employer, many did not even realize that they ought to have received a basic salary for months they spent at the company, though all returned with a huge sense of outrage and injustice.
From 2003 to 2009 a large number of men arrived on tourist visas expecting to receive legal work and work permits after arrival. At that time visitors were not finger printed, and a tourist visa is easier to obtain than an in-principal approval for a work permit, because it doesn’t involve negotiations with the Singapore employers. When men realize that they must resort to illegal work, several options are open. Stolen work permits are available for purchase, counterfeit special passes, work permits and other identification will suffice with the employer. The man's own passport and return ticket can also be resold to others ready to return home. With willing young men eager to try their luck, many Bangladeshi men traveled to Singapore to make their fortune. Some were truly shocked to find themselves abandoned at the airport or at coffee shops in Little India after giving their passport and return ticket to the 'agent' to arrange work. Others knew full well that illegal work would be their means to supporting the family.
Many of these men were sent back by immigration authorities before stepping out of the airport on the Singapore side, and many more wound up on the streets when they realized they’d been hoodwinked and no jobs awaited them. Whether the extreme hardship of jail and caning for overstaying the tourist visa makes the visit worthwhile depends on how long the man was able to evade the police and how much he earned during that time. As painful as caning and incarceration is, the illegal work can pay 2 to 3 times as much as the legal work. The worker exchanges job security and insurance for the higher pay of illegal work, often with a counterfeit or stolen work permit.
For the men arriving now in 2011, we still find ‘agents’ using systematic methods to hire Bangladeshi workers and place them in companies that don’t provide jobs, or offer unacceptable working conditions continues. The power and reach of the agents and recruiters gives a wag-the-dog imbalance to the process.
The term ‘agent’ suggests someone with an office with reputable connections and procedures, which obscures the nature of their work, and the destruction they cause to ordinary lives. Rogue agent, or swindler would better describe the deception they use in exploiting the trust of the man and destroying his and his family’s livelihood. For clarity, I’ll use ‘rogue agent’ instead of the respectable sounding ‘agent.’
Training centres are an important part of this deceptive process. The more elaborate the process of the application and the grooming of the worker, the greater his expectations and his belief in the eventual rewards of the job. An entire business is established to swindle the men into believing they can become rich from this deal. When the man fails in this attempt, his debt forces him to try again.
More and more Bangladeshis are becoming permanent residents and Singapore citizens, and are setting up companies to employ Bangladeshi workers. It used to be that the recruiters relied on Singaporean employers to provide the company that issued the IP. Now the employers are increasingly likely to be Bangladeshis, who have a more intimate relationship with the men who recruit workers.
The rogue agents themselves are work permit holders and yet do none of the physical work. Their responsibility is to control the other workers, which often means finding reasons or excuses to send them back. As long as workers are not sent back in large groups, or too many at a time, the MOM finds nothing unusual about the repatriation of workers.
So desperate are men to believe that the Golden Deer exists in Singapore, and so sweet are the words to convince them of this, that they will even pay rogue agents in Singapore for job opportunities for relatives still in Bangladesh. The victims are not necessarily men who’ve never left the village, but men who should know the dangers of handing large sums of money to strangers. Rogue agents can persuade men to part with huge amounts of money without offering any of their own personal details, and victims are cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars with no way to trace the person who stole their money. It’s not possible to make a police report without the full name, passport or work permit details, address and employer.
Those tactics are sometimes similar to internet scams or phone scams. Once the victim is willing to pay a portion of the money, the rogue agent knows that he’s likely to continue to pay rather than extract himself from the deal. One rogue agent saw how easily he managed to get a man to pay the $8,000 for the job, and so convinced him that 19 more men were needed before the company could begin the project. In that way, the would-be worker suddenly became a recruiter himself, pressuring his friends and relatives to each pay $8,000 for work he later realized was a scam.
This level of trust might have been appropriate when people knew their neighbours and trusted the authorities. The collusion between recruiters and hundi wallahs and government officials is well-known but difficult to trace.
The immediate victim is the man may who was cheated out of his money, his family’s land, his children’s or his younger siblings’ education, medical bills for sick family members, but the long-term victim is the whole of Bangladeshi society when large swathes of society are torn apart and impoverished by this filthy business.
(Letter presented to the Labour Minister, Mr. Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, during his visit to Singapore)
The situation of the Bangladeshi workers in Singapore is deplorable enough to be considered abhorrent if not criminal. From the mainstream media we read of the kinds of incidents that one might expect to find in construction and shipping industries that employ foreign workers: insufficient safety measures, work site accidents leading to permanent disability or death, unsatisfactory living conditions, unpaid or underpaid salary, no days off, unauthorized deductions, inability to switch jobs or resign without penalties, etc.
While these problems need to be addressed and minimized, more problematic is the systematic and institutionalized method of hiring Bangladeshi workers through agents and placing them in companies that are unable to provide jobs. Singapore now hosts over 1 million foreign workers, with Bangladeshis a sizable chunk of that number. The media reports indicate thousands of workers without jobs or salary, though groups working with foreign workers believe the number could be tens of thousands. Workers from both reputable and disreputable companies estimate that over 50% of the Bangladeshi workers who come to Singapore return no richer than they came.
Bangladeshi agents are responsible in large part for this debt burden. The unlicensed agents who provide workers to the companies that employ them but have no proper work for them demonstrate a thorough knowledge of employment laws that enables them to avoid scrutiny and criminal investigation. The intimate yet hazy relationship between agents and the company owners protects both parties and allows money to flow freely and largely undetected while workers enter Singapore with work permits.
Each worker is asked to pay S$8,000 to S$9,000 to cover the range of fees for training, medical exams, passports and certificates, insurance, the foreign worker’s levy and security bond, and finally for expediting the process. Once in Singapore and granted the work permit, the workers may be held for months with promises of work to and training programs to look forward to. The deplorable facilities to house the workers, paucity of equipment, professional training, food, medical care, proper contracts and salary slips suggests the company was set up with the purpose of collecting fees from workers rather than providing them with work. The utter lack of work confirms this suspicion.
These men may be given work through deployment to other worksites, which is illegal and also enables the employer to take a huge cut of their earnings. This practice seems aimed at convincing the workers to wait longer still for steady work and to refrain from bringing complaints to the authorities. The threat of being sent back with nothing is a more convincing reason to withhold complaints. Men who have already paid so much are in no position to challenge the decisions of the boss. Even the well educated and competent are often kept in a state of fear, which prevents them from questioning company rules or demanding proper documentation.
While labour agents see the fees as profit, there is substantial proof that these fees are shared with employers. Employers take money from workers in return for giving them work permits, and then fail to provide them with work. A monumental scam is taking place in bringing workers from Bangladesh, a scam the scope of which is not seen in the employment of other nationalities.
Without a doubt agents are bringing in thousands if not tens of thousands of workers and placing them with companies that have no actual work or facilities. Investigation into the companies ought to be made before the in-principal approval (IP) is provided by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Protection of workers and enforcement of the employment act for the benefit of both employer and employee is the writ of the MOM. Indeed this IP is checked and signed off by the Bangladeshi High Commission before the papers are sent to Bangladesh. Rather than conducting an investigation or even glancing at the record of the company seeking to employ workers, the Bangladeshi High Commission simply affixes an approval on applications, and the Singapore Ministry of Manpower likewise fails to exercise diligence in looking into the company. The MOM states they can’t be expected to check on every company since the system by and large serves Singapore well. One might assume negligence or financial incentive in the manner the Bangladeshi High Commission approves the IP.
Transactions are in cash and so difficult to detect, and workers are rarely given receipts. The workers are aware soon after their arrival in Singapore that they have been cheated and may never be granted the work or the salary promised. The remittances to Bangladesh from workers with well-paid jobs may appear to add to the GDP, though the remittances may actually be fact be little more or less than the amount that leaves Bangladesh to secure the job.
The Ministry of Manpower employment act list numerous protective measures such as prompt payment of salary, limiting overtime work, calculation of pay for overtime work, rest days, sick leave, unauthorized deductions, termination of contract, housing, and compensation for injuries. The MOM does assist when the company is willing to comply, but with the errant companies the MOM tells the workers to work out the problem themselves.
Migration has transformed the lives of the people of Bangladesh. A job in Singapore has become the ultimate dream for those who have never been outside Bangladesh. Yet many migrants end up in a situation worse than the one they left.
The poverty and lack of salaried jobs in certain areas of Bangladesh and the lure of countries experiencing rapid economic growth like Singapore are the impetus for men to seek work abroad. Debt incurred can be paid off only with two good years working with a reliable company in Singapore. When the company turns out to be exploiting workers for the money they pay for the job rather than employing and paying them for their labour, the workers future and that of his family is ruined.
Many sell or mortgage the family land, borrow from relatives and loan sharks, and use family savings meant for sisters’ dowry or investment in education. The entire family depends on the man who travels abroad to work, and he himself is encouraged and valued by family for his risk-taking and fortune seeking. When so many futures are lost to these unsuccessful job ventures, the families who provide the backbone of the country’s agriculture, who offer hope for the future of Bangladesh become dysfunctional and powerless. Those who gain are the agents and recruiters, the illegal and unlicensed middlemen, the Bangladeshis with undocumented personal relations with company owners, and the money-lenders.
For the sake of the workers, their families, their communities and their future, please listen to the tragedies the men face when they come to Singapore. Pay attention to the numerous articles in the Singapore media, the online media, the Bengali paper Banglar Kantha published in Singapore, the NGO’s who assist and advocate for the workers in distress, and the workers themselves. Tens of thousands have returned in tears, ruined and wracked with fear at their inability to repay loans, severely distressed at having provided nothing for their families and lost everything. Their voices are compelling, heart wrenching, and articulate. Listen to the people who champion the rights of the workers and to the workers themselves rather than those in power who stand to gain from their losses.
They pay with their past and future - and get nothing
Migrant workers are exploited: that's a fact. If everything turns out well for them, they go abroad, work, and have something to show for all their sacrifices by the time they return. Even so, they know that they got their jobs in a foreign country because locals would not do them for the pay on offer. There are worse deals. In every country where migrant workers are recruited, it is common for them to be told lies about the conditions they will face: work abroad is made to sound appealing and the truth about real pay levels, costs and conditions only comes out when it is too late to turn back.
But there is worse. If this is exploitation, what is it called when it is not the fruits of a worker's present day labour that go to other people, but the products of his past labour and maybe those of his family too? This is the bogus jobs scam and it is happening now.
As a Singaporean group working for the wellbeing of migrant workers, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) has encountered some bad deals for migrant workers since it started work five years ago, but there’s one we've been seeing more recently that takes a lot of beating. We've chiefly seen it in the shipyard sector in Singapore, but we know of some examples in the construction industry. It is happening in other places too. A well informed source from the Gulf region said he has heard of similar operations. "It's mainly Bangladeshis", he adds.
The process works like this.
Large contractors apply for permission to take on a certain number of foreign workers to carry out a project. They often apply for more workers than they eventually need, so they sell the surplus to sub-contractors. This is not a problem when the sub-contractors are committed to work on genuine projects, but it becomes one when they aren’t aiming to hire workers to do real jobs.
They work in collaboration with recruiters in relatively poor home countries. The main targets are Bangladeshis and Indians. Migrant domestic workers and many male construction workers typically go into debt with their agents or employers and then their debt is repaid by deductions from their earnings over a period of eight months or so. The bogus jobs scam depends on workers paying in advance for their placement. They are told that they will soon earn back that money and more.
Eager to seize what looks like a good chance to give their families a better living, men pay S$8,000/US$5,350 or more in fees and expenses. The money is raised by selling valuables, land or even their homes. Some men borrow money from relatives. It can amount to most of a family's wealth, including inherited property.
In the Singapore case, when 'In Principle Approval' is given for the men to come to work, it should mean that there are jobs for them to do, and that they will be paid for their work, according to the law. Those who are the victims of the bogus jobs scam soon find out that they have been misled. There is no daily work for them, much less a chance to top up earnings with overtime.
Workers have complained about contractors having employees use violence on them if they start to raise demands for better treatment and for the work they were promised.
Some sub-contractors are reported to have gone to some lengths to prevent the workers from making a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM, the ministry that deals with labour affairs in Singapore). They take their passports away from the workers and confine them during the hours when the MOM offices are open. They try to send the workers out of the country without giving them any chance to communicate with the MOM.
Some men are paid for a few months, though they may do little or no work, and are then sent home: parting with a few hundred dollars in salary payment is a small cost to bear when the company stands to gain more as its share of the advance payment made by the workers.
In the worst cases, the employer tries to avoid paying them, or recoups payments through charges and fines, before sending the workers back.
The money made out of the workers ends up being split between the recruiters in the home country and the recipient firm. Their costs are estimated to amount to well under half of what the workers pay to obtain work in the first place.
This is not the exploitation of the workers' current labour, but a scheme for the fruits of their past labour and that of their families. In the process, some workers are deprived of their future too. Ashamed to return home empty handed, some avoid going back to their families after they are sent back to their countries. Some are driven to feel like taking their own lives. There are also workers who have run away from the subcontractors to try to obtain paid work, but without their passports or appropriate work permits, they run the risk of being arrested, caned, imprisoned and deported.
This abuse was reported on Al-Jazeera International on 20th September 2008, and later in articles in ‘The New Paper’ and ‘Straits Times’. On 11th October, the Ministry of Manpower issued a press statement saying that workers at three named companies - San’s Marine, Han’s Marine and K-7 Engineering - have to be paid their outstanding salaries. TWC2 later heard that 35 out of 50 workers from these companies have been enabled by MOM to find employment elsewhere, as have 27 men from Dong San Engineering and a few from Twin Engineering, firms that have also been the subject of complaint.
The issue of workers who are exploited this way was raised in Parliament by MPs Halima Yacob, Irene Ng and Baey Yam Keng on 21st October. TWC2 has also written on the subject to the Ministry of Manpower. It pointed out:
The workers came to Singapore expecting to be well paid compared to what they could earn in Bangladesh or India. It is very distressing for them to see their chances of making money slipping away when they have paid $8,000-$10,000 to come here. Therefore, MOM's statement that the workers must be paid whether or not the company has work for them or can deploy them is most welcome. They have done their part by being available to work and companies should pay them in full for all the time they should have been working.
In response, an MOM spokesperson wrote that it would help unpaid foreign workers to recover their salaries and that it will 'assist, on a case-by-case basis, foreign workers who are not given work to seek alternative employment'.
Even if this happens, it is not likely to make up for all the money workers paid out to begin with. Determined government action in Bangladesh and Singapore could help to end this form of abuse in the long term, but in the near future, a public alerted to the risk of losing their money in return for empty promises may be the best answer.
(The author is former president of Transient Workers Count Too. This article was first published in Banglar Kantha Jan-Feb 2009 Issue). )
Few articles on migrant workers
Source: Yahoo Singapore
"I felt like I was there to die"
Debts and dreams: Singapore's Migrant Workers
Us woman in S'pore lets foreign workers stay in her condo unit for free
Source: The New Paper Article via AsiaOne http://www.asiaone
Source: New Paper Article via AsiaOne http://www.asiaone
"Stolen permits sold to desperate illegals"
Source: Channel NewsAsia
"Bangladeshi journalist says govt should conduct checks for workers"
The plight of South Asian migrant workers - 20 Sep 08
Source: Prothom Alo
মালয়েশিয়ায় বাংলাদেশি শ্রমবাজার: দুর্দশার গহ্বর
Singaporeans & the Migrant Workers:-
"Too many foreign workers in Singapore"
"How Singaporeans see the foreign migrant workers"
Documentary films made with assistance of Banglar Kantha
People and Power – Human Trade
Witness: Migrant Dreams, part 1 and 2
Witness: The Maestro's Daughters
101 East - Bangladesh's dowry related violence
Documentary on the shrimp industry in Bangladesh.
Media Corp Radio Interview link
Get Rea! ‘Foreign Workers: Lost in Transit’
January 2009, NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp) Television made a documentary focused on Singapore and Bangladeshi Migrant Workers (‘A Surging City: Singapore’). NHK thanked BANGLAR KANTHA for assisting them in the making of the Documentary. BANGLAR KANTHA was also acknowledged in the end credits.