We were watching Waltz With Bashir when the message arrived. It was Mohsin, the journalist who had worked with us on The Human Trade and Migrant Dreams. He had been beaten up by four manpower agents (one of them, Rahim, appears about 7 minutes into The Human Trade). Could we please come now?
We ran out of the cinema. It was news we’d half-expected, dreaded, for some time. Mohsin is a tireless journalist, and a fearless one – no one has spent more time exposing the darker side of the Bangladeshi manpower trade then he has. Over the years, he’s made plenty of enemies. Many have threatened to harm him. Now it seemed, some had succeeded.
We found him inside Lamea Restaurant on Desker Road, in Little India. A bruised jaw, an ugly gash on his head. He appeared calm but the restaurant manager was agitated.
“Look,” he pointed to a broken vase on the table. “They hit! If I didn’t stop them, Mohsin would be dead and my restaurant, finished!”
Other eyewitnesses said the four also pushed and kicked Mohsin. How could this have happened in broad daylight, in the middle of a restaurant… in Singapore?
“Did anyone call the police?”
Mohsin said they’d come, and left.
“They said since both sides alleged the other had started the fight, they preferred not to get involved. They also said since we were all from Bangladesh, we should settle our problems in Bangladesh.”
That familiar old argument again. Take your problems back to Bangladesh. We’d heard it so many times, in so many forms, from so many government officials, it was becoming a bit of a joke.
Cheated? Go look for your agent in Bangladesh. He was the one who took your money, no? No, it doesn’t matter if your Singaporean employer received some of that cash too. We’re not obliged to help you get it back.
Salary problems? MOM will mediate a settlement. But if your boss can’t pay up, there’s nothing more you can do but go home.
Worksite injury? If you have insurance, you’re lucky. If not, see if your boss can help. Otherwise, go back to your own country. Go be a burden to your family.
Go take your problems back to Bangladesh.
Five people went to the nearest police station with Mohsin – Debbie, a volunteer from TWC2, two witnesses and the two of us. We hovered over disinterested officers, took up space, stood around for a good 45 minutes before someone decided to pay attention to us. It all felt a bit surreal.
The young officer asked what Mohsin wanted.
“To make a police report.”
“Only a police report?”
We tried to explain what had just happened. Wondered if we were all wasting our time. And then, Mohsin said three words that changed everything.
“I’m a journalist.”
A flurry of phone calls. A volley of questions. An older policeman came out, issued a bunch of instructions to the young man attending to us. Their actions spoke volumes. Perhaps in the eyes of the law, journalists are more equal than lowly migrant workers. Before we left, the officer reminded us, “This is only a statement. We can’t guarantee an investigation.”
It was better than nothing. It was a start. Some people we knew – exploited workers who had even more serious complaints – never got this far.