It didn’t look like a difficult assignment. We were supposed to find a migrant worker in Singapore – preferably someone who was about to head home because of the economic crisis – and tell his or her story. We thought it would be a tale about dreams, and journeys, and the sacrifices so many people from the developing world have to make in order to build better lives for themselves and their families. But it has turned out to be much, much more.
We met Mohamed Ismail and Azmat Ali at a restaurant in Little India. A local NGO runs a free meal service there, so it seemed like a logical place to start our research. The two Bangladeshi workers and 12 other colleagues had left their dormitories in Jurong to seek help. Their company hadn’t paid them in more than 5 months. The men said they were afraid of their bosses and didn’t want to go back.
We chatted briefly, took their numbers and visited them the next day. They had found shelter in a musty, airless room in an old shophouse. It must have been hard sharing such a small space. There were several mattresses on the floor, but not much else. They said they paid the landlord $5 each a night, but the situation was getting desperate. These men were living on money they did not have. If their employer failed to pay them soon, they would end up on the streets.
Over the next few weeks, we got to know Ismail, Azmat Ali and the rest of the group a little better. They insisted on buying us Pepsi, even though they could hardly feed themselves. They taught us a kind of Singlish only Bangladeshi workers and their employers seem to understand (we never knew Ali Baba was anything more than a fictional character from a famous book). They showed us the container dormitories that were their homes for nearly a year. And they introduced us to a Little India that wasn’t all about temples and restaurants and exotic spices.
One day, Ismail called with an urgent message. A colleague had been in touch. The man was still working for their company and had recently complained that his supervisor hit him. Three times. On the ear. He was having trouble with his hearing. And he was scared. We offered to take him to see a doctor, waited all day with Ismail, but his friend never showed up. He was too scared to leave. We finally managed to meet him the following afternoon – a small, shy guy with sad eyes and a mop of overgrown hair. He looked about 12. He looked so easy to pick on.
We learnt the true meaning of discrimination. How could these men be so powerless in the face of so much injustice? Not only were they owed money, they had PAID money in order to secure jobs here. An average of $9,000 each. Money raised through the sale of homes and farmland, money borrowed from friends, relatives, loansharks. They came with big dreams. But when we met them, they were on the verge of leaving with virtually nothing.
Ministry officials from Singapore claim to take allegations of mistreatment seriously. “We make no distinction between a foreign worker and a Singaporean,” one PR person said over the phone. But they do. We know from afternoons spent waiting with these men at the offices of the Ministry of Manpower. They once sat for hours – probably the result of a miscommunication between them and their case officer. But no one seemed to notice. No one cared.
To be sure, plenty of people kept watch over us during that, and subsequent visits – but they were mainly busy making sure we didn’t try to shoot anything with our video camera. Busy talking to each other in low voices, fretting over our presence (we offered to leave the camera with a security guard – we were not interested in filming – but no one wanted to take it). Too busy doing their jobs, they were not able to do what really counted.
When the men’s bosses finally did show up, the compromise solution was presented almost as a done deal. There were unfair salary deductions for sick days. The penalty for being absent was unilaterally raised from $20 to $50. They were charged rent despite being made to live in illegal dormitories. There was no translator present at the meeting.
Everyone signed the agreement. And complained bitterly afterwards. “Why?” We asked. “Why sign when you were not happy?”
Their answers were all the same – Madam wasn’t willing to listen to us. They thought they had no recourse since the officer in charge of their case wasn’t taking down their complaints. It was hard for them to communicate, harder still for her to understand. SO WHY WAS THERE NO TRANSLATOR?
These are problems volunteer aid workers face on a daily basis. We know because we’ve seen how hard they work. New cases seem to pop up every day. We’ve heard horror stories far worse than the ones our Bangladeshi friends told us. And everyday, these volunteers try their darndest to make things just a little bit better for a never-ending stream of bewildered, frightened, angry, desperate workers.
Two days ago, Ismail, Azmat Ali and their colleagues met their bosses for a second mediation session at the Ministry. Their first agreement covered just half the disputed pay. This follow-up meeting was meant to finalize a second payout. The men were worried. They thought their bosses would make unreasonable deductions again. But things were a little different this time round. A translator was present. Ismail was summoned to the meeting room first, and then the other men were called in one by one. They all emerged, significantly happier. Their bosses were not going to cut any of their pay. In fact, they even agreed to give back what was unreasonably deducted the first time around.
Maybe the camera made a difference – no one wants to look like a jerk on TV. Maybe stories here and here gave the Ministry fruit for thought. But mainly, we think, it was because of the work put in by the volunteer aid workers. They researched the law, made phone calls, advised the men on their rights and conducted their own investigations. They did what Ministry officials failed to do – protect workers who needed to be protected. Because the Employment Act makes no distinction between a Singaporean and a foreigner.
It was dinner time by the time we left the Ministry. Azmat Ali was over the moon. He was going to get back all the money owed him. The men had spent some 18 months in Singapore and had made an average of $5,000 each. That’s still $4,000 short of what they paid to come here. $4,000 – the equivalent of three years’ salary in Bangladesh. We asked the workers why they didn’t press for a refund of the rent they paid for the container dormitories. They shook their heads, told us the translator said it would take too much time.
We didn’t state the obvious. You are still being cheated. Didn’t want to spoil the mood. They were so very happy. They’d heard stories of men who’d had to return home with virtually nothing. At least they hadn’t lost all their money. Azmat Ali couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. We didn’t know what to say.