A Modern Day Slave
With its postmodern skyline, first world reputation, and a GDP per capita many times that of his homeland, Singapore had seemed to Uddin to be the perfect place for him to pursue his fortune.
Like so many other young men from his village and beyond, Uddin had grown up dreaming of finding a job in the Lion City. He dreamt of escaping poverty and of emulating the tens of thousands of his fellow Bangladeshis who had built new lives in the affluent city-state on little other than gumption, a strong work ethic, and the willingness to do the dirty and often dangerous work that few native Singaporeans are willing to do.
Uddin dreamed of returning to his village one day as a successful man, able to support his family of four and proving to the rest of the village that paths to success could be found from even the most unpromising of beginnings.
Little could he have imagined then, after years of effort when the offer of a dream job finally came his way, that accepting it would lead to debt bondage and a life of forced labor. In his wildest dreams he could never have envisioned that he would become what rights campaigners often refer to as a “modern day slave”.
Uddin is not alone. He is one of thousands of Bangladeshi workers helped by frontline NGOs in Singapore. He is identified as “vulnerable” due to a lack of labor protections in a new report by researchers at the Singapore Management University and a Singapore-based non-profit organization, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which calls on Singapore to rethink its approach to safeguarding at-risk migrant workers.
"Singapore is a developed country with the rule of law but, for a substantial number of migrant workers, the law doesn't provide the protection they need." said Nick Harrigan, one of the authors of the report called ‘Labour Protection for the Vulnerable’ and assistant professor of Sociology at the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University.
"Our report tries to ask why by interviewing over 150 workers and undertaking a detailed analysis of the law. We show that four main factors - worker vulnerability, loopholes in the law, employer violations, and lack of enforcement - all contribute to the system failing to provide the labor protections one would expect in a country like Singapore." said Harrigan.
The city-state relies on 1.4 million foreign workers who make up about a third of its workforce but its laws are failing to protect some of the most vulnerable among them. Workers like Uddin, who is one of an estimated 160,000 migrants to have relocated to Singapore from Bangladesh. The migrants came to escape the endemic unemployment of their homeland - where more than 30 percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line. They boost the Singapore economy by providing a pool of cheap and temporary labor and their remittances are a lifeline to Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh Central Bank, in 2015-2016, workers like Uddin sent back $387 million USD from the Lion City. While there are winners in the arrangement, there are also obvious losers - like Uddin. His story, and those of others like him, is troublesome for the city-state who likes to believe that such stories belong to its past.
SINGAPORE’S EFFORTS TO COMBAT TRAFFICKING
Singapore has won plaudits for its recent actions to combat forced labor when it passed the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA) in November 2014. The Act criminalizes all forms of human trafficking and carries penalties up to 10 years of imprisonment and fines of up to 100,000 Singapore dollars. Even rival city Hong Kong does not have comprehensive anti-human trafficking laws. In 2016, only five suspects were prosecuted for labor and sex trafficking and three people were convicted there.
Singapore also adopted the United Nations Trafficking in Persons Protocol in 2015 (an international standard) and ratified the ASEAN Anti-Trafficking Pact, which is legally binding and aims for better cooperation to fight trafficking and protect victims among the 10 member states. In 2010, the city-state launched an Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons. Singapore's Ministry of Manpower website states that the anti-trafficking law and adopting the ASEAN Anti-Trafficking pact are further evidence to “show that Singapore is serious in our fight against TIP.”
The government also provided protective services to victims - including the distribution of funds to an NGO that offered trauma recovery services. In addition, trainings by international experts for prosecutors, law enforcement officers on trafficking issues, and frontline Ministry of Manpower officers were also provided.
However, cases like Uddin's, serve as uncomfortable reminders of the loopholes in the Lion City’s legislation that are ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous employers. At every stage of Uddin's journey, laws were in place to protect him. However, at every stage, he slipped through the net.
PAY TO PLAY
Like many others, Uddin’s fate was sealed before he even set foot in the Lion City. He was invited there by a childhood friend, Forhad, who had worked in construction in Singapore for a decade. Forhad was someone that Uddin trusted greatly so it was easy to say yes when he approached him with a job offer as a construction site engineer.
The promised salary of $1,865 (S$2,600) a month was hard to resist, even if Uddin knew it meant he would have to borrow the equivalent of two years’ pay from the bank and his brothers to save the $8,615 (S$12,000) Forhad was demanding as a recruitment fee. The demand that was technically illegal under Singapore’s new laws but Uddin knew he would have to pay it.
Confident his new salary would cover the loan repayments and still be enough to support his two parents and two older brothers in Bangladesh, Uddin handed over the money to Forhad who then took a cut of $1,435 (S$2,000) before splitting the rest between two others - a Bangladeshi acting as a middleman in Singapore and the owner of a fire extinguisher distribution company who agreed to hire Uddin and apply for a two-year working pass on his behalf.
Upon his arrival in the Lion City, Uddin’s situation went from bad to worse. Already in heavy debt from the illegal recruitment fees, he discovered that he would also be required to hand over his passport to his new employer – another violation of Singapore law. With little option but to comply, Uddin went along with the request. Almost immediately his job demands changed.
Instead of working in construction as he originally agreed to, Uddin was ordered to carry up to 100 fire extinguishers to different companies daily, with few - if any - breaks. If he dared to complain about the 13-hour days or lack of days off, Uddin knew he would be threatened with deportation. If he was deported, he knew he would lose all hope of ever being able to pay back his debts.
Uddin saw little option but to agree to his employer’s next dubious demand: to sign 28 blank payslips. This move was another transgression of Singapore law and enabled his employer to pay him just $375 to $500 (S$525 to S$700) each month in cash, not the $1,865 (S$2,600) promised by his friend and stated on the approval letter (IPA) issued to him in Bangladesh when his work permit application was approved.
Under Singapore law, employers are required to provide proper housing for migrant workers but Uddin was forced to sleep on the ground in a warehouse with four other workers.
“Every day I bled from the bug bites,” Uddin recalled.
His employer also broke laws by failing to pay overtime wages. Uddin had just three days off in more than four months of work. Whatever the injustice, though, he persevered because he remained in bondage to his exorbitant debt.
“Boss knew I had a loan and if I go back, I would have a lot of problems." Uddin said. "He took advantage. I was always working...I couldn’t afford to eat properly. I felt like killing myself.”
IS SINGAPORE IN DENIAL?
Finally Uddin reached out for help. Following the advice of a fellow worker, Uddin contacted The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), a non-governmental organization (NGO). The staff helped Uddin by providing him with temporary housing and some financial assistance. They also gave him legal advice for his case before the labor tribunal court. They offered counseling support at all hours of the day. Uddin was mentally distressed by the prospect of having to fight for his wages in court by himself and by the challenge of having to pay back his large debt. In addition to the physical and financial stress, Uddin was also traumatized by what he describes as an “abusive” boss.
“Based on the International Labor Organization’s Operational Indicators of Human Trafficking, Uddin should be considered a victim of trafficking for the purposes of forced labor.” said Jevon Ng, a social worker at HOME.
“He was recruited through deception, suffered from debt bondage, and was exploited by being coerced into a situation of forced labor 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.”
Frontline workers like Ng and academics say Uddin is not alone. There are thousands of low-wage migrant workers from Bangladesh like him who have paid excessive and illegal recruitment fees to a chain of up to three middlemen - as high as $10,700 (S$15,000), and extortionate payments to their future employers to secure a job and work visa.
Still, it's hard to quantify quite widespread the problem is, largely due to Singapore's refusal to classify such cases as "human trafficking".
AT ODDS WITH THE U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesperson said it does not classify Uddin’s case as a ‘trafficking in person’ case since he was not in direct debt to his employer and because his recruitment fees were paid to an unlicensed agent. They defended the position by saying that Uddin’s employer underpaid him and “appropriate remedies were obtained for Uddin” - including that his employer was barred from hiring new foreign workers and was ordered to pay his outstanding salaries and a financial penalty for failing to notify MOM of a change in employment conditions.
The MOM spokeperson said Uddin is not a victim of human trafficking and to state otherwise is “sensationalizing simple breaches of employment laws into a TIP case.”
In response, the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons report said that Singaporean authorities have routinely failed to correctly identify victims of human trafficking - especially when psychological coercion was at play. The report also states that “large numbers of migrant workers experience conditions indicative of labor trafficking in Singapore.”
The Singaporean government responded by claiming that the State Department's report is a “misrepresentation”.
But a U.S. spokesman claims that low-wage migrant workers worldwide have been identified as a demographic group at particularly high risk of being trafficked. The U.S. is especially concerned “that workers here were hesitant to report issues such as unpaid wages and high debt bondages, which are all indicators of trafficking.”
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.
“The element of debt incurred through the recruitment process is very important.” said Kevin McGahan, a lecturer in political science and global studies at the National University of Singapore. “Such debt, particularly the alleged exorbitant recruitment fees accrued by Uddin, is powerfully used as leverage to exploit workers. Workers must do what their employers demand, even if those jobs are unreasonable and dangerous, because they need to pay off their fees and earn money. Failure to pay off such debt greatly augments the fear of losing their job, as well as the social stigma for failing to provide for their families.”
“For migrant workers, it is even worse because they don’t have any political power or social influence,” said Jolovan Wham, a 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.”
Over the last few years, HOME and TWC2, another Singapore NGO, have provided support to 3,576 Bangladesh migrant workers. A report they submitted to the UN’s Committee on Migrant Workers on March 2017 said that Bangladeshi workers were 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.”
Low-wage workers must be repatriated within a week and cannot look for alternative employment, while highly-skilled foreign professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, are allowed to remain between jobs for up to six months in Singapore as they look for new work.
Other factors give the employer 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 also have the authority to cancel permits at any time and can easily hire other migrant workers as replacements.
The U.S. State Department’s TIP report on Singapore finds that some employers have even hired repatriation companies to forcibly seize foreign workers through assault and threats to put them on a plane to leave Singapore in order to prevent them from reporting abuse.
SINGAPORE DEFENDS ITSELF
Manpower Minister, Lim Swee Say, reported to Parliament that the Ministry of Manpower received around 9,000 salary-related claims from 4,500 employers in 2016. Through mediation and the Labour Court, more than 95% of these claims were resolved. He added that 158 employers have been prosecuted and convicted for salary-related offenses over the last three years and faced fines and imprisonment of up to six months. MOM has said they regularly reach out to foreign workers to inform them of their rights. More than 2,700 foreign workers requested and were granted a change in employer since 2014.
The Ministry of Manpower spokesperson said that receiving and offering kickbacks are criminal offenses 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 in the future. Over the last two years, 50 people were convicted in Singapore for receiving extortionate fees. Employment agencies can also be fined or imprisoned for up to 6 months, have their licenses revoked and their security deposit of up to $43,360 (S$60,000) forfeited.
MP Louis Ng declined to comment for this article and calls and emails were unanswered by a few other government officials.
THE BUCK DOESN’T STOP HERE
In the shadow report on Bangladesh, HOME and TWC2 criticized the 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. The government failed to act despite the $9.23 million allocated in 2014 to Bangladesh Foreign Missions to provide services to migrant workers. Services including to “appoint welfare assistants, translators, and legal assistants in Labor Welfare Wings.”
Alex Au, a volunteer with TWC2, said that his organization helps 1,300 migrant workers from Bangladesh each year and not one of them has received help from the Bangladesh embassy.
“We have a lot of reports from Bangladeshi workers who have approached the embassy with their problems." said Au. "Their experiences relayed to us has been that the embassy is not interested in collecting information and following up. The embassy could do more on a government-to-government basis to put pressure on Singapore 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.”
Au continued, "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."
Embassies could play a bigger role in investigating human rights abuses but more be done to educate the workers before they leave the country.
“In many ways, such mitigation of risks needs to start in the sending or source country before the migration process unfolds." said Lecturer Kevin McGahan. "Knowledge is indeed power, so the more workers know about the risks associated with migration, the less vulnerable they likely will become to labor exploitation.”
A MODEL FOR THE FUTURE?
Advocates for migrants look to South Korea’s practice of recruiting foreign workers as a way forward in Singapore. In South Korea, foreign workers are recruited by a state body through government-to-government agreements; while in Singapore, private parties can choose workers without any regulation of agents’ fees. South Korea also has agreements with 15 countries to protect migrants and the Ministry of Employment and Labor maintains a website in 16 languages so that potential workers can investigate the working regulations for themselves.
Migrant workers in South Korea also receive the same labor protections as Koreans and are required to take 20 hours of skills training and labor rights training. In addition, insurance coverage and official remittance channels are also established.
OVERCOMING THE ODDS
Uddin persevered and 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 labor court process that stretched out over 16 grueling sessions and took its toll. He is currently working in Singapore under the Temporary Job Scheme during his ongoing labor investigation.
Even though he has experienced victory, 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 didn’t know how to settle the problem,” Uddin said with tears in his eyes.
“HOME (the NGO) supported me...if I couldn’t find HOME I would have killed myself.” said Uddin.
Without changes to the law, though, many migrants like Uddin will go home empty-handed and will remain in bondage to their experience in Singapore - financially, mentally and emotionally.