By Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE, 12 Feb 2012 (IPS) – When a group of about 100 mostly Bangladeshi migrant workers went on strike at a construction site over unpaid wages this month, it created ripples in this affluent and orderly island republic.
The manpower ministry (MoM) quickly stepped in and ordered the concerned private construction company to pay its striking workers back wages owing since November 2011. The strike was over eight hours after it started on the morning of Feb.6.
“MoM does not condone employers who fail to pay salaries on time, or fail to upkeep and maintain the foreign workers they have brought in,” said an official statement.
The strike brought home the fact that a quarter of Singapore’s four million people are low-paid migrant workers from other Asian countries, doing heavy construction jobs that its own affluent citizens will not do.
But, social activists say there is widespread exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agents who circumvent rules stipulated by MoM and take advantage of impoverished workers from Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, China and Burma.
Last year MoM promised “sufficient deterrence” to ensure that laws are respected by agents. But, Singapore does not have a minimum wage policy and employers may easily terminate contracts when workers demand fair wages.
Government figures suggest that the country already has 240,000 construction workers and will need tens of thousands more to execute planned housing programmes alone.
Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, lays part of the blame on rapacious recruitment agencies that charge hefty fees from the workers back home and then take no responsibility for them once they land in Singapore.
Bangladeshi workers at a Singapore construction site. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne/IPS
“They pay such huge sums of money,” said Wham. “The agents must help the workers when they face problems at the workplace, but they don’t do that.”
Many workers from Bangladesh, India, China and, lately, Burma are known to have paid amounts ranging from 2,400 to 4,800 dollars to agents in their home countries to secure jobs in this city state.
Construction workers earn about 480 dollars a month while skilled workers like electricians and welders get thrice that amount. But, agents and employers deduct money from their monthly pay against ‘compulsory savings’, uniforms, food and accommodation.
Rafiqul (not his real name) came from Bangladesh to work here as a construction worker about two years ago. He paid an agent back home 3,200 dollars to get a job here that paid him 475 dollars a month.
Three months ago when Rafiqul’s work permit was cancelled and he was given a ticket to go back home, he found that his employer would not hand over accumulated compulsory savings worth 1,902 dollars.
“Now he says that I have to pay for the dormitory. This was never said to me before,” he said angrily.
Rafiqul complained to the MoM which extended his work permit to enable him to take his employer to court.
Saravan, an electrician from India, handed 4,756 dollars to an agent in Chennai for a job in a school that pays 1,426 dollars a month.
After working for six months the job stopped in December and he is yet to receive three months worth of pay.
“Agents use shell companies that exist only by name. Agents in Bangladesh coordinate with agents here to set up jobs. They are mostly swindlers and conmen as far as I can see,” says Debbie Fordyce, a volunteer with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-government organisation.
Shafik, a Bangladeshi worker who approached TWC2 for help, has worked here for five years and now wants to go back home. During this period, the agent deducted 79 dollars each month as savings.
When Shafik asked for his money, now amounting to 4,756 dollars, the agent refused to oblige.
“I had already given him 6,341 dollars when I came here to work, I don’t want to give him anymore,” he told IPS. But, Fordyce says that he will find it hard to get this money back because the law says any dues from employers must be claimed within a year.
Another issue that rights groups want the MoM to sort out is that of forcible repatriations of workers injured in the workplace.
After Abdul (not his real name) met with an accident, his boss cancelled his work permit and called in a ‘repatriation company’. He was threatened, and when he complained to the MoM and police, beaten up.
Repatriation companies are engaged by employers to get rid of troublesome or inconvenient migrant workers.
When rights groups asked the MoM to crack down on repatriation companies because many of them employ local thugs, it was pointed out that while some 16,000 workers were repatriated last year there were only seven formal complaints.
“When people are forcibly repatriated there is hardly any room for them to go and make a complaint,” explained Wham. “Though repatriation companies are legal their activities are illegal. You cannot confine someone against his will, it’s an offence here.”
Fordyce said that TWC2 sees about 200 workers a month and all have invariably been cheated by one agent or another. Most of the workers have lost large sums of money to agents, collected on one pretext or another.