Migrant Workers in Singapore
For many construction workers and manual labourers in South Asia, Singapore’s growing economy promises high wages and a steady stream of job opportunities. Lured by the notion of a better life abroad, the migrant workers pay middlemen fees of up to $10,000 SGD ($8,020 USD) to secure 24-month work contracts and work permits.
According to the Singaporean charity Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), however, these workers can sometimes find that their pay is not what they were promised once they arrive. Some men aren’t paid for months — some for years. Others find that the middlemen and construction company cut a deal to swallow the “agency” fees — and that there is no job for them at all in the city-state of 5 million, 40% of whom are foreigners.
If they’re hurt on the job, says TWC2′s Debbie Fordyce, they sometimes find that their company refuses to foot the bill. As a result, some men are taken from the hospital by the police and deported back to Tamil Nadu or Bangladesh, from where most of them hail.
This is Shafiqul Islam Masud’s story.
“I got dream to come to Sing,” says Shafiqul, 36, over a breakfast of curried daal at Isthana, a Bengali restaurant that provides free meals to injured migrant workers.
“Singapore companies promise pay thrice, four times what I earn in Bangladesh, so I tell my family, and I come.”
Shafiqul had been working for a few years in a cable wire factory near Dhaka when he was approached by a Bengali agent touting for a Singaporean construction firm. For a one-off fee of $6,000 SGD ($4,880USD), Shafiqul was promised a work permit valid for 24 months. His pay would be $650 SGD ($528 USD) per month, some of which he’d send back home to his parents, brother and sister in Bangladesh. He sold some ancestral land to pay the middleman and packed his bags.
Shafiqul worked from 7am until 5pm tearing down apartment and office buildings around the city to build new ones. Six years passed. He returned to Bangladesh, got married, and came back only to discover that his company was “dry” — no more work. So he paid another middleman another agency fee and found a similar job at another construction site.
Two months in, he was using a large 24-kg mallet to destroy a wall one morning when the bricks toppled over and knocked him onto the ground, dislocating his left shoulder, tearing his elbow and twisting his spinal cord. A colleague rushed over to remove some of the rubble from his body. His boss arrived. “Just wait,” he said, then left. Two hours passed. The security guard called for help. Shafiqul’s panicked thoughts over whether or not he was paralysed were soon interrupted by the sounds of an ambulance.
When he came to, his left arm had been operated on. When he called work to tell them where he was, he was told that the boss was angry. Shafiqul went back to his fifth-floor dormitory to sleep off his injury. At midnight, Shafiqul’s boss came running up the dormitory stairs, followed by three Tamil gangsters, hired to get Shafiqul to the airport back to Bangladesh, where he would no longer be a medical liability for the company. Shafiqul escaped them by exiting out of another staircase. The next day, when the boss came back with the three gangsters, Shafiqul took to the streets.
Sleeping in subway (MRT) stations, in parks and in beds when his friends would loan him the money, Shafiqul finally found the TWC2-run soup kitchen at Isthana Restaurant and, from there, learned that he could have an operation on his back, which had been giving him pain for the past two months. The spinal surgery was four hours and cost $20,000. Afterward, he couldn’t feel anything in his right leg or groin. He applied for medical compensation from the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower; nearly one year later, he still hasn’t received it.
Shafiqul lives in a dark, dingy room which he shares with five other migrant workers in Little India, a Bengali and Tamil Nadu enclave deep in the heart of Singapore. The room’s rent is $1,200 SGD; there are four such rooms with six inhabitants each on their floor, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. Three of the six in Shafiqul’s room are out of work from being hurt on the job, and all of them are seeking compensation. Some of them, like Shafiqul, have been waiting a year.
When asked about his future, Shafiqul smiles bleakly. “My job is carry, not study,” he explains while looking away, embarrassed. “What work I find now? I cannot carry more than 5kg, doctor say, for the rest of my life.”
His mornings and evenings are spent at Istana, where daal is shared by workers with similar stories; during the day Shafiqul watches television or visits his lawyer, waiting for news on his compensation. He is entirely dependent on TWC2 for legal and medical counselling.
Fordyce says that “Singapore is one of the worst places to work as a migrant worker” and has called on the government to take a stronger stance against companies that refuse to pay their employees.
“Every country has migrant workers,” she says. “But what’s unique about Singapore is how little the government is doing to take care of theirs.”