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Singapore – Repatriation companies under scrutiny

17 February 2014

Singapore needs foreign workers but doesn't want them to overstay their welcome, as 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, reports the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

One worker, Bapari Jakir, who was interviewed by SCMP claims that his employers wanted to terminate his employment, but as he was heavily in debt he did not want to go back to Bangladesh. As a result, he was ‘encouraged’ to leave by being held captive in a room with a knife held to his throat. 

The country's wealth and continued growth rely in large part on foreign workers, who build its skyline and maintain its quality infrastructure. Yet as the numbers of migrant workers increases, tales of abuse and exploitation threaten to sully the city's international reputation.

The activities of so-called ‘repatriation companies’ are a major source of concern for activists on the tightly controlled island.

Firms hiring foreign labour must pay a SGD 5,000 (USD 3,968) bond with the government for each worker, which is returned only when the worker leaves the country.

In order to ensure that the bond is repaid, some firms employ ‘repatriation 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, Mr Jakir said he was taken to a repatriation company's office in because his employer wanted him out of the country before his contract expired. He wasn't given a reason, but suspects that 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.

M Jakir then alleges he was punched and had a knife put to his neck. He was able to call a friend, who in turn contacted migrant-rights activist Jolovan Wham. He was allowed to leave the offices of the repatriation company after Mr Wham signed a document stating that he would be responsible for paying the bond should Mr Jakir run away or disappear.

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

J. Ravi, the head of UTR Services 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. 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 cost of agent fees to move to Singapore to work "makes migrants very vulnerable to forced labour, including debt bondage.”

Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MoM) advised that Mr Jakir's case was "with the police".

It added that companies were obliged to follow the law when sending migrant workers home. MoM 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.

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