Story by Andrew Loh / Pictures by Damien Chng
“My wife crying, my mother crying, my father crying,” Delowar said to me when I asked him if he had told his family that he was returning to Bangladesh. “Everything I lost,” he added. “I lost my father’s land.” For the second time since I have met him, his eyes turned red as tears threatened to fall. He had sold his father’s land and borrowed from the bank to raise S$9,000 to come to work in Singapore.
In the end, he is paid a measly S$600 to bring home with him.
We were seated in the foodcourt at Changi Airport where 24 Bangladeshi workers were awaiting their flight home. Seven more will go home on Tuesday (13 Jan). Earlier in the morning, the 24 men were ferried to the airport in two lorries, they told me. “No bus? No coaches?” I asked. “No coach, no bus,” Delowar replied.
And apparently also no lunch was catered for them either. In fact, their “boss” had told them the night before that there were to be no meals for them today, the men said. It was 11.30am and the men had been at the airport for an hour – without knowing which flight they were to be on, or the time of their departure. It seemed that they were dumped at the airport without any information or instructions at all.
There was also no sign of their employer, or anyone from the company. “No one,” Delowar told me when I asked about this. “No boss. Only lorry driver. Two lorry, two driver,” he said.
Surely they were given breakfast, I thought. “No breakfast,” came his reply. Their passports were also still being held by their employer.
It was only at about 1.30pm that a certain “Michael Choo” appeared. He had on a polo t-shirt which bore the name “Halcyon Offshore”. He was speaking with the workers when Delowar, Ramananda and I walked up to him, with 20 packets of rice for the workers. Mr Choo asked me who I was, I being only one of two Chinese among the group, the other being my TOC colleague and photographer, Damien Chng. “I am from The Online Citizen,” I answered. He looked bewildered for a moment. Then he asked me again. “I am a Singaporean helping them,” I offered. He didn’t look very happy.
A little later, he said he was not going to speak to me and asked if I could leave him alone to speak with the men. I asked, “Why so secretive?” His answer, “If you’re talking to your wife, would you want others to listen in?” I thought that was the strangest thing to say. I replied, “But they [the workers] are not your wife.” He looked away. He said something and asked if I understood. I said no, I did not understand. He then turned to the workers and asked them to have their lunch first – a lunch which he did not buy them – and that he would speak with them later.
After lunch, which the men ate at the waiting area of the airport, Mr Choo started handing out the rest of the money to them. (They had been paid part of what was owed them a few days earlier.) It was then that I could see the disappointment in the workers as they received the few hundred dollars from Mr Choo. Some told me that they had borrowed thousands but now have only a few hundred dollars.
Soon, the men had to check in their luggage. As I spoke further with them, one of them told me, “Singapore government must make sure company have work then let people come.” He couldn’t understand why the government here would allow recruitment agencies to bring in so many workers and leave them in dormitories for months without so much as a day’s work. The only consolation I could offer them was to tell them that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is going to charge some employers, according to reports from news media yesterday. When they heard this, they just shook their heads and smiled. “Too late [for me],” one of them said.
Abdul Wahab, who had arrived in Singapore on the same day as Delowar, some four months ago, was deeply disappointed. “I sell land, sell family gold, come Singapore,” he said. “Now, nothing. Pay $8,000 come. Now $300 go back,” he said as he showed me the three $100 notes in his hand. Ramananda, too, was given three $100 notes as the final payment for the months spent here in Singapore, clearly disgusted with his employer. (Picture left).
In the foodcourt, during lunch, Delowar told me that his dream was to build a primary school in Bangladesh, in his district of Tangail. I asked how many students the school would have. “400 to 500,” he replied. “That’s a lot of students,” I said. He smiled. Then he hung his head. “I come Singapore, make money, go home build school,” his trembling voice evident. He had been a teacher before he arrived here. “Now, I cannot.”
I told him not to give up and promised that I would visit him in Bangladesh a few months from now. That lit up his face – and that of Ramananda, who was seated with us. “You come, I go airport meet you,” Ramananda said. “You stay my house,” he urged. “His house in jungle!” said Delowar. We laughed. I said I did not mind the jungle. Ramananda explained that his home was in a tea plantation. “Tea everywhere!” he said. “My family, my father, my mother, will happy you come.” It was decided that I would visit Delowar first as his home was nearer the capital, Dhaka, and then visit Ramananda, who lived 5 hours away in the district of Moulovibazar.
When the men had finished checking in, it was time for them to enter the departure gates. Ramananda said to me in his halting English, “I English no good. Cannot say [what I feel]. You understand can [already].” I told him I understood what he is feeling and asked him to continue his automobile work which he was doing before he came to Singapore. He promised that he would.
It is the end of their collective journey here in Singapore – but a new set of problems is facing them when they land in Bangladesh airport a few hours later.
As I bade them goodbye, I realized that it must have been a torture or at least a very difficult decision for them to make to sell their land which, in some cases, had been in their families for generations – in order to pursue a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Land, in a country such as Bangladesh, undoubtedly holds much more meaning than perhaps it does for us here in Singapore.
Two days before, I met Delowar over dinner. I said to him then, “Do not hate my country. There are good people,” I said, “and there are bad people.” He smiled and told me that he did not hate Singapore.
He just hated how he and his friends were treated.
“Thank you,” Delowar (picture right) said to me at the departure gates of Changi Airport. “I didn’t do anything much,” I replied. He smiled and shook my hand and gave me a hug. Then he said, “Employer clever.” I did not understand at first but then I realized he was referring to how he felt his employer had cheated them. I told him to not think of this sad episode and to work hard and fulfill his dream of building a school for his town. But the sadness in his eyes told me that he was resigned but upset with his employer as he heaved a sigh and turned to enter the gates of the departure hall. He looked to me one last time and said:
“I hope Singapore government punish them.”
Note: The 24 who went home are part of an original 36 who had made complaints to MOM about their employer. 5 went home last month, and the remaining 7 are to go back to Bangladesh on Tuesday, Jan 13. All 36 who complained are now back in Bangladesh.
The story of Delowar by Deborah Choo.
Sent home with $600 by Deborah Choo.