Story by Andrew Loh / Pictures by Mervin Lee & Kenneth Tham
On 22 January, the Straits Times carried a report headlined, “Workers move out of Tagore dormitory”. It reported that the dormitory at 468 Tagore Industrial Avenue, which housed several hundred Bangladeshi workers, had been “cleared out” after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had found it to be “non-compliant”. The men were moved to a dormitory at Seletar Farmway, the report said.
On 24 January, a group of Singaporeans, who called themselves “Friends In Charity”, was giving out foodstuff to migrant workers at Desker Road in Little India. The members told The Online Citizen (TOC) that they are professionals, executives and ordinary Singaporeans who just wanted to provide help to those in need. Migrant workers were just one of the groups they were helping. As the afternoon wore on, more foreign workers came to collect the handouts.
Shajul, one of the volunteers, then introduced me to a group of 12 Bangladeshi workers who was also there for the foodstuff. I recognized some of the faces in that group, I thought. Then I realized that I had met them at the dormitory at 468 Tagore Industrial Estate – the very same dormitory which the Straits Times reported on. Why were these workers there at Little India, I wondered. They should be at Seletar Farmway.
As I spoke to them, I learned that although most of the workers at 468 had been moved to Seletar, some of them (30, I am told), were not. I asked why. The workers told me that those who went to Seletar were from a different company, Gates Offshore and Goldrich Venture, while they were from PA Services. I was bewildered to learn of this. I asked where they were staying. They told me that they were living in hostels in Little India. As I probed further, I learned that they were given $210 each and were asked to look for their own lodging for the next 21 days. “Why 21 days?” I asked. They explained that MOM had given them 21 days to look for a new employer. Failing that, they would be sent home.
The special pass issued to them expires on 12 February and they are desperate to find a new employer.
The $210 went to paying for the hostel, which cost them $8 to $10 each per day. They would have no money for anything else, including food. That was why they were at Desker Road for the handouts from Friends In Charity. “Only sleeping money,” Israfil, 25, told me. “Makan money no give,” he added. (“Makan” is Malay for “eat” or “food”.)
I wondered how they were going to find an employer on their own, given that they do not know Singapore very well, cannot speak English and do not even have money for transport.
As I was speaking with the workers from 468, I was informed that another group of Bangladeshi workers were there as well for the handouts – this group was from a dormitory in Geylang, Lorong 31. They told me of their situation and urged me to visit their dorm. (Their story, which included an encounter I had with their supervisor late in the night, will be in a separate report.)
Thus began a night of visiting their quarters – and seeing the squalid conditions they were subjected to.
Israfil, 25, from 468, explained to me that there were 30 of them staying in various hostels in Little India. He offered to show me where they lived. They have been in Singapore for seven months and were supposed to work in the shipyards – but they have not been given any work. The men had asked MOM to allow them to do other kinds of work, other than in the shipyards but MOM rejected this appeal, they told me. Their work permit only allows them to work in the shipyards. “We can do other jobs like cleaning, catering, sundry shops,” Shoel Mahmud, 19, said. “I asked MOM any work also can,” added Israfil, “but MOM no give.” He did not understand why MOM would reject this.
MOM, however, has put them on the TJS – Temporary Job Scheme – where the workers could work for other employers. The problem with this, the men explained, is that there are many unemployed workers on the scheme. MOM has also told them to go to the ministry building every Friday so that prospective employers could employ them. “Nobody take,” Israfil said. “They come take 4 people, 5 people. Other no take. No job.” Even if they were “taken” by the employers, they would be hired on a day to day basis and be paid a daily-rated salary. For these 468 workers, they would have only two or three Fridays to find an employer through the TJS.
They have also gone for interviews with various shipyards, arranged by MOM, but they have not been successful. “The interview is just a show,” Israfil said. “They don’t give work.”
As we arrived at the first dormitory, I was led up a very narrow stairway. At the top of the stairs, a single door. Open that and all you see is an even narrower hallway, parting four rooms – two on each side. The floor is dirty, the walls stained, and there is a rather metallic smell in the air. I asked Israfil what that was. “Kill bugs,” he said. He explained that anti-bacteria, anti-bug sprays are used each day to get rid of the pests. Hence, the odour. I wondered about toxicity and how they could sleep at night with such odour.
As I entered one of the rooms, the first thing you notice is how cramped it was. The room measured, as far as I could estimate, about 4m by 5m. In that small space, three double-decker beds were in place, allowing six men to sleep in them. Out of curiosity, I asked how many men slept in there. “Eight,” Israfil smiled and told me. Two men would sleep on the floor.
There were no cupboards or drawers for their belongings, something which I have observed in all the dormitories – even those which held hundreds of men. There were no windows for ventilation, resulting in damp and stale air in the rooms.
There was one toilet shared by all, and one shower, also shared by everyone. Both of them were in atrocious conditions.
As we left to visit another dormitory around the area where the rest of the men were staying, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps these men were better off being left at 468, Tagore Industrial Estate, bad as that dormitory was.
But to their credit, the men did not complain about their living conditions.
They just wanted to work – but seemed to have been forgotten and forsaken by their employer, after having paid thousands of dollars to come to Singapore.