Singapore repatriation firms' tactics under workers' rights microscope

Bangladeshi claims he had knife held to his throat by 'repatriation firm' hired by Singapore employer trying to force him out to reclaim bond

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 5:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 5:06pm

Bapari Jakir's employers wanted to see him off the job, but the welder was heavily in debt and didn't want to go back to Bangladesh. So, he claims, they encouraged him to leave by hiring a company whose thugs held him captive in a room, holding a knife to his throat.

Singapore needs foreign workers, but it doesn't want them to overstay their welcome, and firms get fined when they do. That has created a market for "repatriation companies" which deny allegations from activists and the United States that they use illegal tactics to expel foreign workers.

The country's wealth and continued growth rely in large part on foreign workers such as Jakir, who build its skyline and maintain its quality infrastructure. Yet as the numbers of migrant workers soars, tales of abuse and exploitation are threatening to take some of the shine off the city's international reputation.

In December, migrant workers from South Asia rioted in the country's first social unrest for more than 40 years. Some activists claim that anger over working conditions might have been a factor in the riots, which shocked a nation long seen as a beacon of stability.

The activities of "repatriation companies" are a major source of concern for activists on the tightly controlled island.

Firms hiring foreign labour must lodge a S$5,000 (HK$30,772) bond with the government for each worker, and that is returnable only when they leave.

Some firms employ companies to hunt down fired or laid-off workers, or those whose contracts have expired, and put them on a plane.

After more than a year in the job, Jakir said he was taken to a repatriation company's office in August 2012 because his employer wanted him out of the country before his contract expired. He wasn't given a reason, but suspected it was because they thought he was disruptive on account of his assertiveness in pressing for more working hours.

Once inside the office, he was asked by three "big gangsters" to sign a document stating that his employers didn't owe him any salary arrears. He refused because he thought that doing so would make it easier for them to repatriate him.

He then alleged he was punched and had a knife put to his neck. Jakir was able to call a friend, who in turn contacted migrant-rights activist Jolovan Wham.

Jakir was allowed to leave the offices of the repatriation company after Wham signed a form stating that he would be responsible for paying the bond should he run away or disappear.

Jakir is now living at a friend's house while his case is appealed. He wants to keep on working in the country to pay back the S$9,000 debt he took out to pay agents who got him the job in Singapore.

"My father is sick now and he can't work any more. My two younger brothers have stopped school because I can't send money home any more. I also cannot call them often so I worry how they are doing," he said.

Jakir's case was handled by UTR Services, the largest repatriation company in Singapore.

The head of the company denied the allegations, which he said were fabricated.

"We build good relationships with workers we are sending back. In fact, some workers visit us when they return back to Singapore," said J. Ravi. "If a worker refuses to go back, we will first find the reason for his refusal and if there is a valid reason, we may than refer him to the relevant authorities to legalise his stay pending outcome of his case."

In a report last year on human trafficking, the US said some repatriation companies in Singapore had "seized and confined" workers and used "assaults, threats and coercion to get them to the airport".

The report added that the high costs of moving to Singapore to work via agent fees "makes migrants very vulnerable to forced labour, including debt bondage".

Singapore's manpower ministry said Jakir's case was "with the police".

It said companies were obliged to follow the law when sending migrant workers home. It said last year the ministry investigated four allegations of abuse by repatriation companies, but found them unsubstantiated.

One of the wealthiest countries in the world, Singapore has about 1.1 million foreign workers out of a population of 5.3 million. The vast majority are low-wage labourers from India, China and Bangladesh.