Falling prey in the Lion City

FEATURE For Steven, a 40-something Sino-Kadazan man, leaving Sabah two years ago was a gamble. He had been jobless for a year with no steady income, so when an opportunity came by, seizing it seemed like a calculated risk.

"I was attracted by an advertisement in a local newspaper offering employment in Singapore," he said.

The advertisement offered a good salary. But the clincher, he said, was a promise by the employment agency to provide pocket money as soon as prospective employees signed on for the job.

After attending an interview at a makeshift office in Kota Kinabalu, Steven was introduced to another recruiting agent who stoked up his interest in easy jobs and quick money in the Lion City, even for people over 40 years.

"He showed me a list of job vacancies, salaries offered, overtime rates, working hours and all that. I was hooked.

"He also told me that all those who were accepted and placed would be provided with accommodation, health care, insurance and that some employers even provided food and transport."

Steven signed on immediately and fell into a a labyrinth of deceit. What followed was a bitter lesson in reality.

Living in fear and filth

Steven, along with three other locals, all in their 20s, from the east coast and interior of the state were first taken to a house here, before departing for Johor Baru and then Singapore.

The agency's man in Johor met them on arrival and took them across the causeway into Singapore around midnight and left them in a grim apartment infested with bedbugs.

"We slept in our clothes on the floor. There was no furniture or anything. The toilet was unlit and filthy and we drank water straight from the tap to quench our thirst," Steven said.

Steven recalled scores of bedbugs crawling on the floor and on the plywood wall of the living room.

The next day, the four were then handed over to a Singapore recruitment agency which treated them with contempt.

"The guy from Keningau was scolded by one of the Singapore agents for not standing still and we were later asked to squat down at a corner and wait for the agency’s proprietor.

"He came about an hour later and told us to come into his office. He then took out four bundles of cash and placed them on the table. I think they were S$1,000 notes but I am not sure.

"He then told us that once we signed the contract with him, and if later we choose to flee (without paying him back the S$2,800 contract fee we now owed him) he would use the cash on the table to hire thugs in our hometowns to hunt us down and impose a daily interest on the amount owed to him until it was fully paid.

"We just signed the contracts. We had no choice. We had no money.

"We even had to put our thumbprints on the contract and handed over our passports. I think some of my companions didn't fully understand what the contract stated as it was written in English.

"We were then taken to a clinic for a medical check-up and then brought back to the apartment and told not to go out as the police could arrest us if we were found without any documents.

"I began to feel that we were being treated like slaves and regretted coming to Singapore."

Later the same day, a Sarawakian from Kuching, in his 20s, joined the group.

Steven later realised it was an initiation into the world of drugs.

In a friendly conversation, the Sarawakian told them that it was easy and safe to get syabu (heroin) in Singapore and cost between S$30 and S$50.

"He tried to frighten us by saying he witnessed job-seekers like us being physically abused by employment agents and employers. Our agent, he said, had a very bad temper and could be violent if he received complaints from unsatisfied employers.

"I think he was trying to make a sale (of syabu) to us."

Intimidation and abuse

The next day a new group of six Sabahans arrived at the apartment.

Steven remembers one of the Sabahans looking frightened and continuously rubbing his shoulder. He was later told that the youth had been kicked by his employment agent for conversing with a girl from his kampung.

"People would come and tell me of all sorts of beatings. I knew this was just among the tactics to scare us from fleeing.

"I remember meeting a Dusun boy from Kota Marudu at the apartment. He arrived with two small bags. He was a shy and decent chap. He said his Singapore employer had just sacked him. For this he had been fined S$500 by his employment agency.

“He felt he couldn't complain because he was in a foreign land. He said he had completed Form 6 and had actually been accepted into a teachers' training programme.

“However, a bureaucratic bungle that led him from pillar to post trying to get all his documents certified delayed his registration at the campus and he lost his place.

"He said his parents were rubber tappers and he was too ashamed by his failure to go back and tell them what had happened. That was why he was now in Singapore looking for a job.

"He saw the same job recruitment agency’s advertisement which I did and without thinking twice, went for the interview, was accepted and left for Singapore the following day without informing his family."

Falling prey in the Lion City: Sleepless nights and the escape

Two days after their arrival, Steven's two companions from Keningau were hired by a restaurant and a Sarawakian found work at Singapore's Changi Airport as a cleaner.

Steven also found work as a motor vehicle cleaner/polisher. His pay was set at S$800. There was no over-time pay, and he was told that food and transport costs would be deducted from his salary.

The work entailed washing cars at the company's car storages at three locations. It was a 12-hour shift.

"It was hard, non-stop work," Steven remembers.

The agency continued to house him at the apartment, but now it would deduct S$150 monthly from his salary for lodging. Eleven people shared his room which was equipped with a small fan.

"There were three triple-deck bunk beds. Whenever I put my hand up I hit the ceiling. The pillows and mattresses were very dirty and full of bedbugs.

"There was this guy from Sandakan, Kenny. He had been bitten on his arm so many times it had started to swell."

Washing and drying their clothes was a problem, due to the number of people in the small apartment.

They were told not to bring in visitors to the apartment, but drug addicts, some claiming to be former tenants, seemed to have free reign of the place and came and went as they pleased.

Sleepless nights and the escape

Steven struggled to adapt to his situation. Petty thievery and fights were commonplace.

"It was hard to keep a check on who was who, and misunderstandings, particularly with drug addicts, would happen.

"You would worry the whole time about somebody stealing your things that it was hard to sleep. From the time I arrived, I could only get about three or four hours of sleep a day.

"One night I couldn't sleep at all, so I took a bus to my work place just before dawn to catch a couple of hours of sleep there before starting work at 9am."

The final blow for Steven came when his employer back-tracked on their promise to provide him lodging and offered instead "bed allowance".

Hardly eight days after his arrival, he decided enough was enough. He began saving as much of his daily allowance (S$6) as possible and planned his exit from the city state.

Careful not to arouse suspicion, he returned to the apartment, transferred some of his remaining clean clothes and personal items into his backpack. Leaving behind his suitcase with some clothes, he returned to work.

He made a detour to find the address and telephone number of the Malaysian High Commission in Singapore before returning to his work place, where he hid his backpack in a storeroom in preparation for his flight from Singapore.

After living under such stress and disappointment, paranoia started to set in. The senseless talk of his drug-addicted room mates took on a new meaning.

When he returned to the apartment later that night, more newcomers had arrived. They were sprawled across the already congested living room. The parking lot was more appealing so he stayed downstairs till dawn.

He made quick visits back to the apartment so as not to arouse suspicion. Then one day, he returned to his work place, grabbed his bag and changed his remaining Malaysian currency (RM92) to Singapore dollars. With his earlier savings, he now had S$55.

Unfamiliar with the bus services, he took a taxi to the Malaysian High Commission hoping for assistance.

To his surprise, an assistant administration officer named Khairul Mardin told him that just the day before more than 10 Sabahans and Sarawakians had come to see him. They had a similar story to tell.

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They had sought his help over the mistreatment, abuse and deceit by employment agencies operating both in Singapore and in Malaysia.

"Khairul told me that most of the complaints he received were about the S$500 fine imposed by the agencies each time any of the job-seekers were sacked by their Singaporean employer."

But what shocked Steven was that none of the Malaysian recruitment agencies had complied with the Malaysian Labour Department regulations.

These regulations required agents to register workers going abroad with the Malaysia Oversea Employees Management Centre (MOEMC).

Poor enforcement of the regulation allowed agencies in Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore to co-operate with each other to dupe unsuspecting Sabahans and Sarawakians, especially those from rural areas desperately seeking employment.

Dangling as a bait the prospects of high-salaried jobs abroad, they then use a system of job terminations and fines to basically enslave job-seekers.

The agencies withhold important information concerning living and working conditions, and the consequences of a contract breach.

Where no accommodation is offered by a potential employer, the job-seeker is charged between S$150 and S$200 for bed rent, which is directly deducted from monthly salaries.

Job-seekers who surrendered their passports to agencies have to apply for an "Emergency Passport" at the Malaysian High Commission. The charge is S$22. They also have to obtain a Work Permit Cancellation Letter to enable them to pass through the Singapore-Johor checkpoint.

Source: Falling prey in the Lion City