We paid a visit to a social service center in the west part of Singapore earlier this evening. While we were there, we met a man. His name is K, and he has a diploma in Electrical Engineering. He was a bit shy at first, but slowly opened up.
K really puts in a lot of effort for his work. On most weekdays, he starts work at 8 and leaves only after 7. When he has to do OT, he welcomes the opportunity to stay on and do more work. He has to work on Saturdays too, but he faces it with the same sentiment as whenever he's up for OT.
But K does all this only for $500 a month... because he's from Bangladesh. He lives with 13 other Bangladeshi workers in a cramped apartment somewhere in Jurong West. Every morning, for the past 5 years, K and his bunkmates wake up at 6.30, leave their home at 7.30, and work long hours for one of the many shipbuilding companies that makes millions of dollars for Singaporeans, but close to pittance for them.
We see these people everyday. They are the workers at the construction sites, the welders at the shipyards, the tired-looking men in dusty clothes packed into the back of Daihatsu pickup trucks along the CTE. They have been making Singapore the city that it is today. But we never notice them.
When we visited K today, he showed us to his apartment. The other 13 men inside were all unwinding after a long day of work, sitting around in the 'living' room, but the moment we stepped in, they quickly stood up and offered us the few chairs they had in their room. One of them wanted to get us drinks from their kitchen (which at $0.80 a can, would have been exorbitant for someone earning less than $600 a month), and it took all of our convincing to tell him that he didn't have to.
These men are poor. They paid a tremendous sum of money to go to a faraway land to work long hours for low pay. (I mean, honestly, can you imagine a Singaporean having to work under such conditions?) For all intents and purposes, they are getting exploited by people we call our countrymen. But when we step into their room, the first thing they want to do is to make us feel at home.
And these guys are the lucky ones, especially when you compare them with the ones in the video below.
There are the others in the documentary; the ones who have paid the agent's fee for coming to Singapore, and who after coming in, discover that there is no work for them. Companies who have extra quotas for workers use these quotas to generate money for themselves, without regard for the lives they are jerking around.
The Singapore government is trying it's best to prevent this. They have been taking steps to try and ensure that this does not happen, and I am glad that our government is alert to the problems that these workers face. But there is only so much they can do. And for all their efforts and policies they have implemented, there's nothing they can do about the workers who have already been cheated by Singaporean employers, and have had to return to their countries with nothing but a US$6000 debt.
Two semesters after I chose to retain my American citizenship, I sat for an American History class in NUS. And after that, I wished I hadn't chosen to remain American, as I discovered just how devious and twisted some of their foreign and domestic policies had been. I feel that same feeling now after hearing some of the stories about these workers. It pains me to know that there are Singaporeans who would take advantage of these foreign workers.
And as much as I rail against this injustice in Singapore, I know there's not much I can do for them. I'm a history major. Not a lawyer, or a politician. But what we can do as the Church in Singapore, at least, is to pray for these people. Pray that they will receive the justice they need. Pray that Singaporean employers will have greater regard for the lives of these people than the thickness of their wallets. Pray that the people in Singapore will see the unseen people group living among them.
We need to pray for our land.