Joshua Chiang gives a personal account of what he witnessed in a visit to a foreign workers’ dormitory at Tagore Industrial Estate.
The familiar musky smell of damp clothes and stale air greeted us as we stepped into the makeshift workers’ quarters at Tagore Avenue. I looked around and saw the black skeletal frames of countless double-deck steel beds, many of them draped over with shirts, towels and sarongs. Above us the rusty ceiling fan whirled and the fan cage threatened to unleash clumps of dust upon us, but we didn’t feel any wind. My nostrils started to itch, as it always did when there were too much fine-dust particles in the air. Machinery from the factory right outside continued to hum and screech.
On Andrew’s prompting (he's an editor with TOC), Delowar, the unofficial ‘spokesperson’ of the group of 400 Bangladeshi unemployed workers took us to Mohd Kamaluddin’s bed. Kamaluddin was found dead in his bed on the 28th of December, four days after he had first shown signs of chicken pox. Now all that was left was a thin plywood bed board. Almost everyone here slept on such bed-boards, some covered with sarong, possibly to make them just that little bit more comfortable. I asked Delowar what he used to sleep on before coming to Singapore. He smiled and replied, “Mattress.”
My education about the situation of the foreign workers here, and the people and organizations which are trying to better their lives, began a few weeks ago when I chanced upon the news of the 179 stranded workers in Tagore Lane. I did what I could to help (which wasn’t much, besides collecting money and buying some groceries for them), but it gradually dawned on me that what happened at Tagore Lane wasn’t an isolated case. Before I knew it, I was standing in yet another foreign workers quarters with the rest of Andrew’s reporting crew. This time round, the workers had not worked a single day since arriving in Singapore four months ago. No work meant no pay. But it took the death of one of them, and the hospitalization of ten others similarly infected, for their story to come to light.
Third world in first world
Delowar continued showing us around. We passed by a group of workers watching some Bollywood movie on a small television set. Another worker laid on his bed, reading a magazine, his suitcase doubling up as a pillow. There were no cupboards and cabinets in sight. Andrew muttered something along the lines of the Third World living standards in a First World country like ours. He was wrong. Back in Third World Bangladesh, they at least had mattresses to sleep on, and cabinets to keep their belongings.
By then, a small crowd had gathered around us. They looked at us quietly, perhaps hoping to hear some good news, some answers to months of uncertainty. But we had no answers. Just questions.
“No money,” Delowar answered when I asked why he couldn’t simply just buy a mattress. The phrase became a common refrain as we spoke to more workers. They washed their clothes with only water because they had no money to buy washing powder. Many had not called home for quite some time because they had no money to buy new phone cards. They didn’t even know what Serangoon Road looked like because they had no money to pay for transport. (So for relaxation, they simply walked around the industrial estate and go to the nearby mosque on Fridays). They had to put up with the same two meals of rice and curry a day, because they had no money to buy their own food. The meals weren’t free either; as a general practice, $120 is deducted from a worker’s pay every month. So technically, each of these workers already owed the employer $960 even before he saw his first pay cheque.
We then interviewed Delowar and two other workers at a nearby canteen. Their stories were quite the same as the 179 workers I spoke to; agents assuring them they would find jobs that pay up to $1000 in Singapore; their families making sacrifices to raise the 8 to 9000 dollars needed to pay the agents; no jobs when they arrived.
The story behind Kamaluddin’s death was also starting to appear to be something that could have been prevented had he received prompt medical attention. I asked Delowar and his companions if they knew chicken pox could be fatal. All three nodded their heads. That was when I realized that the question was directed at the wrong people. I should have asked the employer.
An hour and a half later, we found ourselves inside a shop house at Cuff Road in Little India, where 29 Bangladeshi workers facing similar problems were housed. This place was less cramped, but only because there were no beds; the workers slept on the floor. We found out that unlike their compatriots elsewhere, these workers were given $75 a month to buy their own food and necessities. This translates to roughly $2.50 a day – the price of two roti prata. For those who had not yet earned a single cent, it meant that they had to depend on the charity of their fellow Bangladeshis around the area to stay alive.
We next tried finding out if they knew about their basic rights as employees. My question on who was supposed to pay for their medical bills should they get injured during work drew blank stares. So did questions on work contracts. They had no other documentation besides their work permits and their time-sheets. It was common for them to work from seven in the morning to ten at night. (The Chinese worker we spoke to in the evening told us he worked 24-hour-shifts at the Integrated Resort site.)
I was bewildered. Why would employers hire so many workers without first ensuring there would be jobs? One of the reporting crew responded; if everyone from the Bangladeshi agent, to the local subcontractor, to the employer, took a cut of the S$9000 each worker pay upfront, everyone still profits as it costs very little to feed and house each worker. (Some people whom I spoke to disagreed that the employer had a hand in the cookie jar and that he only gets paid by the contracts he bid and won.)
Who protects the workers?
But what was clear was that the people who stood to benefit the least were the workers. An employer who had no job for the workers might have to bear the costs of keeping them alive at $120 per head per month and eventually send them home; but the workers would have to return home to face the question of how to raise the money to return the banks. (The income for the average worker is around 50,000 takas, or 100 Singapore Dollars per month.) Caveat Emptor indeed.
On the way home later, I imagined what the response would be if people found out about this. No doubt there would be angry words, even abuses, hurled at the employers. No doubt many would wonder what it was that led to people treating others with such callousness. The answer might partly lie in the misconception that people who came from poor countries must’ve had it worse than what they are getting now, so it somehow justifies their treatment. But I guess it had mostly to do with greed. Being an employer, I face the daily temptation of squeezing every single cent I could from my freelance staff, and the struggle to ensure that I don’t. I would like to think most employers still choose to remain fair. But we can’t just depend on the faith in people to treat others right because there will always be those who don’t subscribe to it.
Thus it becomes a question of how to protect the weaker ones among us from those who seek to exploit them, and if the existing legal frameworks and enforcement are enough. Views would surely differ depending on whom you ask, but ultimately who is to judge?
Then I remembered an exchange I had with one of the 179 stranded workers a few weeks back. He gave a thumbs-up sign as he said,” Singapore law, good for boss.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Us?” He thought for a while, then shook his head, “Not so good”
The workers at the dormitory mentioned in the article has since been moved to Seletar Farmway.