Six months on the streets

Andrew Loh

For the past six months, Ali has been braving the Singapore weather and sleeping on the streets in Little India. It is not something which he has chosen to do. Circumstances have dictated that he has no choice in this.

Ali is one of the many Bangladeshi workers who have run into trouble since coming to work in Singapore.  Employed by Dong Sing Marine Engineering Pte Ltd, he worked as a pipe fitter from April 2008 to February 2009. When his employer failed to pay him his salaries for the months from November to February, Ali decided to confront his employer – but to no avail.

His employer, in addition to refusing to pay him, told Ali that he had to pay $85 for accommodation if he wanted to continue to stay in the dormitory. With no money on him, Ali decided to pack his bags and ended up on the streets. He then took his case to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

“I go many times,” Ali told me when I asked how many times he has approached MOM. Last month, he visited the MOM offices four times. At the last visit, Ali says that he was advised by an MOM officer to go to Labour Court, and if that failed, he should hire a lawyer and bring his case to the High Court. “How I hire lawyer! I no money!” Ali told me. Indeed, during our conversation, he kept asking me if I could find him a lawyer who would act pro bono.

The MOM has extended his Special Pass (S-Pass) till 11 September so that he could continue to stay in Singapore while he seeks resolution to his salary dispute with his employer. He is owed a total of about S$2,500. His employer has offered to pay him $1,500 instead. Ali has refused the offer as he feels that he should be paid his full amount for the work he has done. Besides, he feels that he needs to at least recoup some of the $8,000 he paid his agent in order o come to Singapore. When he last spoke to his boss, he was told that the company had no money and that the company “was finished”, meaning closed down.  A check with ACRA (the directory of registered entities), however, shows that the company is still “live”.

Since he left his dormitory in February, Ali has been sleeping at MRT stations and in the streets, waiting and hoping to find some resolution to his case. I first met him one night, at 3 am, sleeping at a car park some months ago. “Very hard,” he tells me. Visibly upset, his eyes begin to tear up. “I money no have, food no have,” he says. “My wife and children now waiting waiting everyday I send them money,” he tells me. Ali, 26, is married and has a 5 year old son back in Bangladesh. “I sell my land come to Singapore,” he explains.

He has only one meal a day given out by aid workers but this is only for Mondays to Fridays. On the weekends, he depends on his friends who would either buy him food or give him a dollar or two. At times, his friends too would recommend him odd jobs so that he can survive on the streets.  Sleeping on concrete floors, with the temperate weather, Ali falls sick sometimes. There is not much he can do except to grit his teeth and carry on.

Ali was not the only I saw sleeping in the streets or at car parks. There were at least another 10 workers at the same car park. And when I spoke to them, they told me they were also awaiting resolution to salary disputes with their employers. These men had been on the streets for between four to six months, depending on handouts to survive. They face problems of hygiene, of looking for food, and having to be wary of the police, security guards and car park authorities who would check on them. They would shower at coffeeshops’ toilets or at friends premises.

Before he came to Singapore, Ali’s agent had told him that he could earn S$1,000 per month working here. But he was earning much lesser than that as a pipe fitter. With his S-Pass expiring on 11 September, Ali is desperate that a resolution be found soon. Otherwise, all these months of enduring life on the streets would have been for nothing.

There are many workers such as Ali who are facing salary disputes with their employers. It is quite clear in the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act that “the employer shall pay the foreign worker  his salary and allowances not later than seven (7) days after the last day of the salary period. Any salary period agreed between the employer and the foreign worker shall not exceed one month.”

In March this year, the Ministry of Manpower charged one of the directors of Tipper Corp Pte Ltd with 73 counts of not paying salaries to his workers. (See here for story.)

But for Ali, all he hopes is that MOM will help him retrieve what rightfully belongs to him so that he can send money home to feed his wife and son.


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