Sylvia Yu: Like so many Bangladeshi young men with limited work options in their villages, Uddin felt an urgency to go abroad for work in search of a better, more prosperous life for himself and his family. But instead of tapping into a financial lifeline, he unwittingly found himself mired in debt bondage and deception and exploitation. Uddin became a victim of forced labour.
Before he migrated to Singapore to help support his family, Uddin was already saddled with excessive debt to pay hefty and illegal recruitment fees. A childhood friend he trusted, Forhad, a former construction worker in Singapore for a decade, had caught wind of Uddin’s desire to go abroad. Posing as an agent, he promised Uddin, 26, a job that paid $1,865 (S$2,600) a month as a construction site engineer. He asked Uddin to pay $8,615 (S$12,000) in recruitment fees. Of this amount, he took $1,435 (S$2,000) as a cut for himself.
Forhad then contacted Saiful, another Bangladesh migrant worker in Singapore acting as a middleman, who also took some of Uddin’s fees like distributors taking a cut for every level in a pyramid or multi-level marketing scheme. Saiful gave the remaining “large cut” of extortionate fees or what’s known as “kickbacks” to the owner of a fire extinguisher distribution company so that he would hire Uddin and apply for a two-year working pass on his behalf.
Uddin borrowed from the local bank and from his brothers to pay these fees that were the equivalent of two years of his salary. He felt an urgency to buy his parents a new home. Their makeshift village house was perilously close to the river and was often flooded with contaminated water. He felt confident that with his new overseas job as a site engineer, he could pay back his loan within a year and still send enough money to his parents and two older brothers for basic living expenses.
That confidence vanished last November when he arrived at his new company. Uddin’s new employer immediately took away his passport, a criminal act in Singapore. Instead of working in construction, he was ordered to work as a labourer carrying up to 100 heavy fire extinguishers to different companies every day, with little to no breaks. His new employer began to threaten him with deportation whenever Uddin protested or complained about the 13 hour work days or not having days off. If he was deported, he would be in debt indefinitely with no way to pay it back.
Under the threat of being repatriated, Uddin’s employer demanded that he sign 28 blank payslips with his passport number and signature and was asked to return deposits made to his bank account by his employer. Uddin was then only paid around $375 to $500 (S$525 to S$700) each month in cash, not the $1,865 (S$2,600) salary promised by his friend and as stated on his in-principle approval letter (IPA) issued to him in Bangladesh after his work permit application was approved.
Employers are required to provide proper housing for migrant workers, however, Uddin slept on the ground with 4 other migrant workers surrounded by fire extinguishers in a warehouse in unsanitary conditions. “Everyday, I was bleeding from the bug bites (from the mattress),” he said. Uddin’s employer also broke laws by failing to pay overtime wages and he only had 3 days off during the more than 4 months of work.
He continued to work in silence for 4 months and 18 days because he needed to pay back his exorbitant debt. “Boss knew I had a loan and if I go back, I would have a lot of problems…I need to continue to support my family. He took advantage,” he said. “I was always working…I couldn’t afford to eat properly…I felt like killing myself.”
Uddin reached out to The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), a non-governmental organization (NGO) after another migrant worker told him about the assistance he received before.
Jevon Ng, a social worker at HOME, said that Uddin was forced to lie to authorities by signing these blank slips and return deposits to create a “fake paper trail under the threat of deportation that would leave him in severe debt.” Their heavy debts lead to debt bondage conditions since employers have “coercive power” over their workers who are under severe financial pressure and are not free to protest employer demands and exploitative practices because they need to pay off incurred recruitment debts when coming to Singapore to work.
“Based on the ILO Operational Indicators of Human Trafficking, Uddin should be considered a victim of trafficking for the purposes of forced labour as he fulfils the criteria… He was recruited through deception, suffered from debt bondage, and was exploited by being coerced into a situation of forced labour by the abuse of power and vulnerability with excessively long working hours,” said Ng. “This restriction of movement may not be physical but is psychological.”
The internationally recognized UN Palermo Protocol, to which Singapore acceded recently, defines trafficking in persons as using means such as threats, abuse of power, deception and force to gain total control over another person for the purpose of exploitation including forced labour and slavery.
Frontline workers like Ng and academics say there are thousands of low-wage migrant workers from Bangladesh like Uddin who have paid excessive and illegal recruitment fees to a chain of up to 3 middlemen, as high as $10,700 (S$15,000), and extortionate payments to their future employers to secure a job and work visa. Their lack of knowledge of the recruitment process and inability to directly access jobs and work visas makes them more vulnerable to this kind exploitation that makes them migrant-debtors for a long time, advocates say.
HOME and another Singapore-based non-governmental organization, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) produced a joint shadow report on Bangladeshi migrant workers using survey data, case data, and personal interviews, that was submitted to the U.N.’s Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) that reviewed the state of Bangladesh’s commitments to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. Bangladesh ratified this convention in 2011.
Over the last few years, HOME and TWC2 have provided support to 3,576 Bangladesh migrant workers. According to their report, Bangladeshi workers are susceptible to most of the International Labor Organization’s forced labor indicators including “abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, retention of identity documents, physical and sexual violence, withholding of wages, intimidation and threats, debt bondage, abusive living and working conditions and excessive overtime.”
Nicholas Harrigan, Assist. Professor of Sociology at the Singapore Management University points out that Singapore offers relatively weak labour protections to “one of its most vulnerable populations”. “Regulatory ‘loopholes’ include things like laws not covering agent fees in sending countries, a lack of basic regulations like a living or minimum wage, and the relative ease with which a worker can be deported without the employer needing to show cause,” he said.
Low-wage workers must be repatriated within a week and cannot look for alternative employment whereas highly skilled foreign professionals such as doctors and lawyers are allowed to remain for up to six months in Singapore between jobs to look for new work.
HOME and TWC2’s report documents other factors that give the employer more power to issue threats and make migrant workers more vulnerable to exploitation including short work permits of 1 to 2 years that leave the workers unable to pay back their recruitment fees, employers have the authority to cancel permits at any time and employers can easily hire other migrant workers in replacement.
Uddin’s case reveals serious loopholes in Singapore’s migrant employment regulations despite its labour laws and the recent Prevention of Human Trafficking Act that was passed in 2015, the city’s industries exploit many transient workers that they heavily depend upon. Singapore is also a signatory to the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrants signed in 2007 and it ratified the ASEAN Convention on trafficking in persons.
Uddin said he learned that Forhad and Saiful had also recruited and cheated at least 20 men from Bangladesh with fraudulent job offers over the last several years. He reported his employer to the Ministry of Manpower and eventually his case went to the Labor Tribunal. However, his case was dismissed as a wage dispute as there was a lack of evidence that he was confined or physically controlled.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesperson said it does not classify Uddin’s case as a trafficking in person case since Uddin was not in direct debt bondage to his employer and his recruitment fees were paid to an unlicensed agent.
Experts say according to international definitions, the location and designation of the debt does not matter if a person is held in place by debt, it is a debt bondage situation. Kevin McGahan, a lecturer in political science and global studies at the National University of Singapore, said, “The element of debt incurred through the recruitment process is very important. Such debt, particularly the alleged exorbitant recruitment fees accrued by Uddin… is powerfully used as leverage to exploit workers. Such workers must do what their employers demand, even if those jobs are unreasonable and dangerous because they need to pay off their fees as well as earn money. Failure to pay off such debt greatly augments the fear of losing their job… as well as a social stigma for failing to provide for their families.”
The MOM spokesperson said a labour court ordered Uddin’s employer to pay back his outstanding salaries and ordered him to pay a financial penalty for failure to notify the Ministry of Manpower of changes in Uddin’s contract. The employer is also blacklisted and is not allowed to hire new foreign workers. “Such transgressions are appropriately handled under other legislation such as Employment Act and Employment of Foreign Manpower Act,” said the spokesperson.
The Ministry of Manpower spokesperson said that receiving and offering kickback are criminal offences and anyone who receives kickbacks can face a fine of up to $21,680 (S$30,000) or a jail term of up to two years or both and is barred from employing foreign workers ever again. Over the last two years, 50 people were convicted in Singapore for receiving extortionate fees. Employment agencies can also be fined or face imprisonment for up to 6 months and have their licenses revoked and their security deposit of up to $43,360 (S$60,000) forfeited.
Forced labour and human trafficking
Jevon Ng said, the Ministry is reluctant to identify Uddin as a victim of human trafficking for forced labour as doing so would mean that they acknowledging the problem is much more serious than they are willing to admit. “The high recruitment fees paid by workers in their countries of origin are sent to Singapore and pocketed by employers and agents here. Therefore the Singapore authorities cannot say it is out of their jurisdiction when so much of this money enters the country,” he said.
The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report criticized Singapore for “not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” despite “making significant efforts”. The report pointed out that authorities in Singapore were ineffective in identifying victims of human trafficking, particularly labour trafficking where individuals migrated for work willingly and were forced into labour exploitation through psychological coercion or debt bondage, rather than physical confinement. Six out of 10 foreign work permit holders do not possess their passports and work permits, according to the TIP report, and this increases vulnerability to trafficking since employers can control or manipulate workers.
To solve its chronic labour shortages, Singapore has received around 1.4 million foreign workers, about one-third of the country’s total workforce. About 772,200 of these foreign work pass holders are low-wage migrant workers that do the often dirty and dangerous work that native Singaporeans won’t take on.
Nearly 150,000 Bangladeshi men like Uddin have migrated to work in Singapore, according to the Bangladesh High Commission. More than 30 percent of the people in Bangladesh live below the national poverty line. Migrant workers send an important source of foreign exchange via remittances. In 2013, Bangladesh received $426.91 million in remittances from Singapore. The country received a total of $14,930 million in remittances from 2015 to 2016 fiscal year.
Hossain left Bangladesh last summer to find work a second time in Singapore as a construction worker. He dreamed of making enough money to help pay for his father’s medical treatments and to save up for his future marriage. During his first work stint in Singapore, Hossain, 35, took out a hefty bank loan and borrowed from his family to pay two unlicensed agents $6,480 (S$9,000) to find a job in Singapore. At least $2,880 (S$4,000) was paid to his future boss in illegal kickbacks.
He worked for 3 years in Singapore but he could not pay off his large debt from paying recruiters’ fees and ongoing monthly payments to them that were well above the legal limit of the one-month salary deduction per year.
According to a report ‘Wage Theft & Exploitation among Singapore’s Migrant Workers” by HOME that analyzed the cases of 676 Bangladeshi workers, employers across sectors like construction, marine and service industries demanded extortion payment or kickbacks as a condition to hire migrant workers or renew their work visas out of sheer greed or to defray the costs of hiring a foreign migrant worker and foreign worker levies.
“Unions are weak and controlled by the government which panders to businesses. For migrant workers, it is even worse because they don’t have any political power or social influence,” said Jolovan Wham, a social worker (or migrant rights activist). “They cannot even form their own unions and run the risk of being deported and blacklisted if they are too critical or organize themselves to assert their rights.”
Singapore laws under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act limit recruitment fees to one month per year and kickbacks are illegal, but the fees these migrant workers pay are some of the highest in the country and continue to escalate, say NGOs.
Harrigan said, “There are also problems with enforcement. Reports of kickbacks are widespread, especially amongst Bangladeshi migrant workers. While kickbacks are illegal, NGOs report it is very difficult for workers to get remedy unless they have very strong evidence – a smoking gun – like video footage of their employer. More support from authorities with enforcing laws against kickbacks could improve these workers lives considerably.”
Hossain had returned to Singapore for the second time for a two-year work stint to make up for the financial losses of his first experience. Last August, Hossain paid an agent and his future employer $3,600 (S$5000) to get a job in construction.
During his first week at work, Hossain’s boss asked him to sign blank salary payslips and place this thumbprint on them. “He said, ‘If you don’t, I won’t apply for your work permit. I must send you back.’” Hossain signed this as he was afraid. Hossain was paid in cash.
Alex Au of TWC2 said, “If employers took full advantage of such workers’ vulnerability and began making unreasonable demands on workers such debt-burdened employment would resemble forced labour. And that is why we consider the question of unconscionably high recruitment fees to be pivotal to the experiences suffered by migrant workers.”
Hossain’s employer called him back to his office two more times to sign more blank salary payslips, warning letters. His employer had three to four men present to pressure Hossain to sign the documents. He refused to sign once and did not go to his employer’s office because he knew the “gangsters” would be there. Migrant workers commonly refer to employees of repatriation companies as “Gangsters” due to their ruthlessness and use of force.
On April 9, 2017, Hossain went to his employer’s office and said he did not want to sign the blank payslips. His employer told him that he had made a police report that Hossain was missing and then he called in around eight large men to pressure him to sign blank salary pay slips, warning letters and other documents in English which he could not understand. The men held on to him and physically assaulted him multiple times on his back to get his signature. Eventually, he gave in and signed. “Boss ask gangsters to come into the office inside, 8-9 men (give) so much pressure to sign. They (hit) me 2, 3 times on the back,” Hossain said.
Hossain does not have evidence of being assaulted to give to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower.
Debt and debt bondage
The US State Department’s TIP report on Singapore said that employers can prey on foreign workers’ fears of being deported because employers can repatriate workers legally at any time during their contracts with minimal notice and some employers have even used repatriation companies to forcibly seize foreign workers through assault and threats to put them on a plane to leave Singapore to prevent them from reporting abuse.
Hossain was hired to do hazardous and menial work for numerous companies that were sub-contracted to work on shopping malls, car parks and a new public hospital. While renovating a shopping mall, no training was provided for him to do his daily work of using a hacking machine to break down walls.
Last year, Singapore’s construction contracts totalled $18.7 billion (S$26.1 billion) and more than half is public-sector construction. Singapore’s building boom is set to increase this year, according to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), with total construction projects to total at least $20.1 billion (S$28 billion).
Yet average salaries of Bangladeshi migrant construction workers’ range from $215 (S$300) to $433 (S$600) a month. Their recruitment fees amount to between 26 to 51 months of their wages, leaving them in crippling debt.
After a few months, Hossain’s boss stopped paying him the full salary citing “cash flow problems” as the reason. He gave Hossain $144 (S$200) at first but ordered him to pay $864 (S$1200) to pay a foreign workers’ levy at the end of the month, but also for the following 5 months in order to keep his work permit valid.
In order to pay these levies and eat each day, Hossain had to continuously borrow money from other Bangladeshi migrant workers. It’s a levy that ranges between $180 (S$250) to $684 (S$950) per person that company heads are legally required to pay for hiring foreign workers. “My boss said go work illegally in other construction sites… to look for jobs and pay levy money,” Hossain said sighing. This continued for another 5 months and during this time, he has not been able to eat regular meals or send money back to pay off his loan.
In March, Hossain refused to pay his boss the levy yet again and demanded his salary. His boss called the police and claimed Hossain ran away and is working illegally at another company.
His family calls him daily crying because creditors were demanding repayment of his loan. “Everyday bank people come to my family saying sell your house to pay off the loan. I came to Singapore to support my family and I can’t help them. My whole life is gone,” he said. “I’m 35 years old and not married. This life has no value. I cannot go back to Bangladesh; everyone will ask for money.”
Hossain believes his employer is running an illegal operation, receiving kickbacks from migrant workers when there is no work for them to do. “Boss has no job. He brings workers and takes (their) money. He does business (like this),” he said.
Wham of HOME said the Singapore government must do more to ensure workers are protected from forced labour and trafficking. “It is not enough to just have an anti-trafficking law if Singapore wants to tackle this problem effectively. The lack of employment protection and the failure to crack down effectively on recruiters and bosses who extort, exploit and intimidate workers with repatriation will only fuel trafficking and forced labour.”
Embassies could play a bigger role in investigating human rights abuses but more be done to educate the workers before they leave the country. McGahan said, “In many ways, such mitigation of risks needs to start in the sending or source country before the migration process unfolds. Knowledge is indeed power, so the more workers know about the risks associated with migration, the less vulnerable they likely will become to labour exploitation.”
In the shadow report on Bangladesh, HOME and TWC2 criticized the Bangladesh government for failing to protect and provide assistance in Singapore despite its obligations to do so under the Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and despite $9.23 million allocated in 2014 to Bangladesh Foreign Missions to be used to provide services to migrant workers such as “appoint welfare assistants, translators, and legal assistants in Labor Welfare Wings.”
Alex Au of TWC2 said that his organization helps 1,300 migrant workers from Bangladesh each year and none had received help from the Bangladesh embassy. “We have a lot of reports from Bangladeshi workers who have approached the embassy with their problems. Their experiences relayed to us has been the embassy is not interested in collecting information and following up. They could do a lot more,” he said. “The embassy could do more on a government to government basis to put pressure on Singapore government to give quick resolution for Bangladeshi workers. …The most the embassy will do is write pro forma letter to kindly look into a worker’s case.”
“The root of the problem faced by Bangladesh workers is a hands-off attitude by both governments. More on the side of the Bangladesh government,” Au said.
Ayesha Siddiqua Shelley, a spokesperson for the Bangladesh High Commission, has not confirmed whether they have used funds to help workers in Singapore from the $9.23 million to Foreign Missions but said: “approximately 200 workers were assisted with legal advice on issues like salary dispute, family matters, victim of fraud, injury claims, change of employers.”
Siddiqua Shelley did not confirm how much financial assistance was given to the workers in need nor provide a breakdown of how many workers were in serious debt bondage, how many were injured and how many workers they visited in the dormitories. But the Bangladesh High Commission spokesperson did say the number of salary claims and the genuine injury claims are not that high and mostly settled amicably by the Ministry of Manpower and the labour court. Siddiqua Shelley said they are working with the government of Singapore to stop recruiters that charge excessive recruitment fees and have approved 14 recruiters who can send workers to Singapore.
While men from Bangladesh migrate to Singapore to financially support desperate families back in Bangladesh, many return empty-handed like Hossain.
To curb exploitation of migrant workers, advocates suggest the Singapore government consider “delinking Work Permit holders’ visas and employment contracts” to take away the employer’s involvement in workers’ visas and the repatriation process and to strictly regulate offshore migration agents. “In other countries, the legal reforms that have helped vulnerable workers involve attempts to set and enforce minimum standards around wages, working hours, and unfair dismissal (dismissal without cause) and deportation. I would think similar reforms would significantly help in Singapore,” Harrigan said.
Advocates cite South Korea’s nationalized government regulated recruitment of foreign workers as a way forward in Singapore and a formal proposal has been sent to the government. Migrant workers in Korea receive the same labour protections as Koreans and have to take 20 hours of skills training and receive training on their labour rights, Korean laws and customs, insurance cover and official remittance channels are established.
“Cut out the middlemen in Bangladesh. Use digital platforms to recruit from abroad. Let the man directly interface with the employers through the Internet…so that no employer can hire a worker except through a national platform, like a non-profit recruitment. This would reduce the cost of recruitment. When the worker does not have the debt burden it significantly improves his bargaining power,” said Au. “(We) have long advocated that work visas given to foreign workers should not be linked to the employer.”
Meanwhile, Uddin managed to win back around $14,450 (S$20,000) out of $20,960 (S$29,000) in unpaid salaries owed to him from his employer during a labour court process stretching over 16 gruelling sessions that took a toll on him and left him “very scared”. He is working in Singapore under the Temporary Job Scheme during his ongoing labour investigation. The memories of his work experience continue to haunt him. “I was afraid (my former boss) was going to hit me. Every night I cried inside the toilet. I cried cried cried. I didn’t know how to settle the problem,” he said with tears welling up. “HOME (the NGO) supported me. If I couldn’t find HOME I would have killed myself.”
Writer : Sylvia Yu is an award-winning Canadian journalist and writer specialising in human trafficking issues. She is also the author of the book Silenced No More: Voices of ‘Comfort Women’.