AKM Mohsin arrived in Singapore in 1991 as a student. During weekends, he began helping migrant workers from his country of origin, Bangladesh. Slowly but surely his network expanded and Bangladeshi workers flocked for his advice. At the time, migrant workers were typically uneducated and as there was yet no digital communication, Mohsin helped them by drafting replies to letters from their families and addressing envelopes in English.
Migrants who came to Singapore back in the early 80s generally worked in construction or at the shipyards. In Mohsin’s view, there wasn’t any recognizable exploitation at that point in time. He feels that exploitation of migrant workers really initiated when the financial crisis began. Starting in 2006, he noticed non-professionals opening new companies in the construction and shipyard sectors, often without any discernable expertise in the fields. The employers tend to hire foreign workers as means to increase their profits given that they sometimes receive a fee from the recruitment agency or even from the hired worker themselves. Workers are offered annual contracts but projects often end sooner. The workers are then informed that there is no more work and are asked to leave Singapore immediately for their home country.
Workers also suffer from deplorable working conditions. Not all new companies have proper safety equipment and accidents happen. Workers are forced to sleep in bunk-beds in cramped, one room dormitories with often more than 40 people in them. Many workers also experience salary disputes with their employers. Typically, workers’ salaries are deducted for a variety of reasons, including payment for housing and food and thus they are left with a small amount of money to live from and send home.
When workers encounter these problems, they find their way to Mohsin’s Dibashram- a space for migrant workers-, HOME and other NGOs in Singapore. They are usually advised to file a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). MOM processes the case and sets up a meeting between the worker and the employer to solve the dispute. While the case is ongoing at MOM, migrants are not permitted to continue working on a regular basis anymore. The only option they are left with is to work on a temporary job scheme. However, this is only possible in certain cases where MOM permits the workers to transfer to another company if their existing employers sign the release papers.
If workers secure a temporary job scheme, they are able to work during the investigation of their cases. Employers are not always fond of hiring migrants on this scheme because they will not receive the usual fee for hiring a migrant who has not yet worked in Singapore. Workers who are not able to secure work may fall prey to employers offering illegal jobs which makes them vulnerable to becoming victims of further exploitation. If employers and workers are caught , employers are more often slappedwith a fine, while workers face fines as well as being banned from working in Singapore forever.
To help the workers, Mohsin started Dibasram, a drop-in center that serves as a recreational and an educational space for them. Activities that promote cultural development for the workers are also held there frequently. For example, there are musical instruments for their use and a library to enhance their literacy.
Banglar Kantha (the voice of Bengal), a Bengali newspaper, is another of Mohsin’s initiatives to give the workers a platform to express their views on community issues. As Mohsin explains, it is a medium that gives voice to the voiceless. #stoptraffickingsg
Mohsin is the Co – Founder of Dibasram and Editor of Banglar Kantha
For more information on Dibrasham, pl see http://dibashram.com/