Uddin thought he was tapping into a financial lifeline for his future and his family back in Bangladesh when he migrated to Singapore for construction work. He was promised a job as a construction site engineer that would pay a higher salary than what he was making in Bangladesh. But instead, he was deceived into paying exorbitant recruitment fees to unlicensed agents and illegal kickbacks to his employer leaving him in potentially life-long debt bondage. He was also forced to hand over his passport, while he was not paid a regular salary, and ordered to work excessive hours every day for a verbally abusive boss. In short, he was not free to leave on his own will-which sums up the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicators of forced labour conditions.
Employers are required to provide proper housing for migrant workers, but Uddin slept on the ground with four other migrant workers surrounded by fire extinguishers in a warehouse in unsanitary conditions. "Everyday, I was bleeding from the bug bites (from the mattress)," he said. Uddin's employer also broke laws by failing to pay overtime wages and he only had three days off during the more than four months of work.
Uddin continued to work in silence for four months and 18 days because he didn't want to lose his job. "(My) boss knew I had a loan and if I go back, I would have a lot of problems. I need to continue to support my family. He took advantage," he said. "I was always working. I couldn't afford to eat properly."
Jevon Ng, a social worker at The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a non-governmental organization, has helped Uddin and hundreds of migrants in debt bondage like him. Ng said heavy debts accrued by migrants, with little knowledge of the migration experience and their legal rights, lead to debt bondage since employers have "coercive power" over their workers who are "not free to protest employer demands and exploitative practices because of their need to pay off heavy recruitment debts." He added, "Based on the ILO Operational Indicators of Human Trafficking, Uddin should be considered a victim of trafficking for the purposes of forced labour as he fulfills the criteria… He was recruited through deception, suffered from debt bondage, and was exploited by being coerced into a situation of forced labour by the abuse of power and vulnerability with excessively long working hours."
Uddin is far from being the only vulnerable migrant worker suffering from salary issues and forced labour in Singapore. Frontline workers like Ng and academics say there are thousands of low-wage migrant workers from Bangladesh and other countries like India and China 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. Their lack of knowledge of the recruitment process and inability to directly access jobs and work visas makes them more vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, advocates say.
Singapore is a signatory to the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrants signed in 2007 and acceded to the internationally recognised UN Palermo Protocol. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons as using means such as threats, abuse of power, deception and force to gain total control over another person for the purpose of exploitation including forced labour. However, Uddin's case reveals that despite its labour laws and the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act that was passed in 2015, the Singapore's many transient workers are exploited, according to campaigners.
THEY DO DIRTY AND DANGEROUS WORK: Singapore is a small island and imports migrants for its low wage workforce. They undertake the often dirty and dangerous work that native Singaporeans refuse to do. These migrants play an instrumental role in the city state's construction and marine sectors and arguably in its remarkable economic success globally.
To solve its chronic labour shortages, Singapore has received around 1.4 million foreign workers, about one-third of the country's total workforce. About 772,200 of these foreign work pass holders are low-wage migrant workers mostly from Bangladesh, China and India. Nearly 150,000 Bangladeshi men like Uddin have migrated for work in Singapore, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.
Migrant workers send an important source of foreign exchange via remittances to their families in desperate circumstances. In 2013, for instance, Bangladesh received $426.91 million in remittances from Singapore. The country received a total of $14,930 million in remittances from the 2015 to 2016 fiscal year.
These migrant workers are vulnerable to the withholding of wages, cancellation of work permits and repatriation. However, organised strikes by migrants are rare. Labour unions are a party organ and the government also heavily censors its media. The last strike of 171 migrant workers was in 2012 and dozens were deported.
WEAK LABOUR PROTECTIONS: Nicholas Harrigan, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Singapore Management University and co-author of the report Labour Protection for the Vulnerable, a joint research project with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), points out that Singapore offers relatively weak labour protections to "one of its most vulnerable populations". "Regulatory loopholes include things like laws not covering agent fees in sending countries, a lack of basic regulations like a living or minimum wage, and the relative ease with which a worker can be deported without the employer needing to show cause," he said.
Low-wage workers must be repatriated within a week and cannot look for alternative employment whereas highly skilled foreign professionals such as doctors and lawyers are allowed to remain for up to six months in Singapore between jobs to look for new work.
According to a report 'Wage Theft & Exploitation among Singapore's Migrant Workers' by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), an NGO, that analysed the cases of 676 Bangladeshi workers, employers across sectors like construction, marine and service industries demanded extortion payment as a condition to hire migrant workers or renew their work visas out of sheer greed or to defray the costs of hiring a foreign migrant worker and foreign worker levies.
Jolovan Wham, a migrant rights activist, said, "Unions are weak and controlled by the government which panders to businesses. For migrant workers, it is even worse because they don't have any political power or social influence. They cannot even form their own unions and run the risk of being deported and blacklisted if they are too critical or organise themselves to assert their rights."
Singapore laws under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act limit recruitment fees to one month per year and kickbacks are illegal, but the fees these migrant workers pay are some of the highest in the country and continue to escalate, say Wham and other campaigners.
SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT AND BANGLADESH EMBASSY: Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MoM) said that receiving and offering kickback are criminal offences 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 ever again. Over the last two years, 50 people were convicted in Singapore for receiving extortionate fees. Employment agencies can also be fined or face imprisonment for up to six months and have their licenses revoked and their security deposit of up to $43,360 (S$60,000) forfeited.
Harrigan said, "There are also problems with enforcement. Reports of kickbacks are widespread, especially amongst Bangladeshi migrant workers. While kickbacks are illegal, NGOs report it is very difficult for workers to get remedy unless they have very strong evidence - a smoking gun - like video footage of their employer. More support from authorities with enforcing laws against kickbacks could improve these workers lives considerably."
The Ministry of Manpower (MoM) spokesperson said it does not classify Uddin's case as a trafficking in person case since Uddin was not in direct debt bondage to his employer and his recruitment fees were paid to an unlicensed agent. The MoM spokesperson said a labour court ordered Uddin's employer to pay back his outstanding salaries and ordered him to pay a financial penalty for failure to notify the Ministry of Manpower of changes in Uddin's contract. The employer is also blacklisted and is not allowed to hire new foreign workers. "Such transgressions are appropriately handled under other legislation such as Employment Act and Employment of Foreign Manpower Act," said the spokesperson.
The US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report criticised Singapore's authorities for being ineffective in identifying victims of human trafficking, particularly labour trafficking where individuals migrated for work willingly and were forced into labour exploitation through psychological coercion or debt bondage, rather than physical confinement. The TIP report said that employers can prey on foreign workers' fears of being deported because they can repatriate workers legally at any time during their contracts with minimal notice. Some employers have even used repatriation companies to forcibly seize foreign workers through assault and threats to put them on a plane to leave Singapore to prevent them from reporting abuse.
Wham said the Singapore government must do more to ensure workers are protected from forced labour and trafficking. "It is not enough to just have an anti-trafficking law if Singapore wants to tackle this problem effectively. The lack of employment protection and the failure to crack down effectively on recruiters and bosses who extort, exploit and intimidate workers with repatriation will only fuel trafficking and forced labor," said Wham.
Embassies could play a bigger role in investigating human rights abuses but more can be done to educate the workers before they leave the country. Alex Au of Singapore-based NGO, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said that his organisation helps 1,300 migrant workers from Bangladesh each year and none had received help from the Bangladesh embassy. "Their experiences relayed to us has been the embassy is not interested in collecting information and following up," Au said. "The embassy could do more on a government-to-government basis to put pressure on Singapore government to give quick resolution for Bangladeshi workers."
A spokesperson for the Bangladesh High Commission said, "Approximately 200 workers were assisted with legal advice on issues like salary dispute, family matters, victim of fraud, injury claims, change of employers."
The Bangladesh High Commission declined to confirm how much financial assistance was given to the workers in need nor provide a breakdown of how many workers were in serious debt bondage. But the high commission did say the number of salary claims and the genuine injury claims are not that high and mostly settled amicably by the Ministry of Manpower and the labour court. The spokesperson said they are working with the government of Singapore to stop recruiters that charge excessive recruitment fees and have approved 14 recruiters who can send workers to Singapore.
"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," Au said.
To curb mistreatment of migrant workers, advocates and academics suggest the Singapore government consider "delinking work permit holders' visas and employment contracts" to take away the employer's involvement in workers' visas and the repatriation process and to strictly regulate offshore migration agents. "In other countries, the legal reforms that have helped vulnerable workers involve attempts to set and enforce minimum standards around wages, working hours, and unfair dismissal (dismissal without cause) and deportation. I would think similar reforms would significantly help in Singapore," Harrigan said.
"Cut out the middlemen in Bangladesh. Use digital platforms to recruit from abroad. Let the man directly interface with the employers through the Internet…so that no employer can hire a worker except through a national platform, like a non-profit recruitment. When the worker does not have the debt burden it significantly improves his bargaining power," said Au.
The writer is a Canadian journalist based in Hong Kong. She specialises in writing about human trafficking issues. In 2013, she won the Human Rights Press Award for her three TV news documentaries on human trafficking in China, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
Twitter address: @Sylvia_YF
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