SINGAPORE — 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 says, 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 like Jakir, who build its skyline and maintain its top-notch infrastructure. Yet as the numbers of migrant workers soar, tales of abuse and exploitation are threatening to take some of the shine off the city-state’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 an island of stability in an unruly region.
The activities of “repatriation companies” are a major source of concern for activists on the tightly controlled island.
Firms hiring foreign labor must lodge 5,000 Singapore dollars (US$3,900) bond with the government for each worker 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 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 suspects 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 to sign a document by three “big gangsters” stating that his employers didn’t owe him any salary arrears. He refused because he figured doing so would make it easier for them to repatriate him. He then alleges 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 ($7,100) debt he took out to pay agents who got him the job in Singapore.
“My father is sick now and he can’t work anymore. My two younger brothers have stopped school because I can’t send money home anymore. 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.
In an email, 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 legalize his stay pending outcome of his case.”
In its 2013 report on human trafficking, the United States said the 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 coming to Singapore to work via agent fees “makes migrants very vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage.”
Singapore’s manpower ministry said Jakir’s case was “with the police.” In a statement, it said companies were obliged to follow the law when sending migrant workers home, and were not allowed to confine them. It said last year the ministry investigated four allegations of abuse by repatriation companies, but they were found to be unsubstantiated. The manpower ministry said it was aware of cases where foreign workers paid high fees to employment agents in their home countries before coming to Singapore, but it said the Singapore government was unable to regulate this.
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 of them are low wage workers from developing countries—mainly from India, China and Bangladesh.
Complaints about overcrowding and the difficulties some Singaporeans face in finding well-paid work are leading to discontent and anti-foreigner sentiment, a worry for the government given the key role imported labor plays in the country’s economic life.
Compared to other places that rely on migrant workers like Dubai, conditions in Singapore are seen as relatively good. Most workers leave after a few years with the kind of savings they would have little chance of building if they had stayed at home.
Yet, activists like Wham say many employers use repatriation companies to help them manage workers whom they perceive to be giving them problems or to get rid of those who are injured. Some say employers use the threat of repatriation to keep workers from arguing over pay disputes.
Ravi from UTR Services said he repatriated around 1,200 workers last year. He said companies pay him S$250-S$350 ($199-$278) per worker, depending on the complexity of the job and time. On average, he said it takes his company between six and eight hours to get the job done.