Asian migrant workers face abuse, debt from recession

Melanie Lee

Ship welder Mohammad Ali came to Singapore to earn money to support his family in Bangladesh. Little did he know that an economic storm brewing continents away would kill his humble dream and leave him incarcerated in a cage.

After taking out almost $6,000 in loans to pay employment agency fees to work in Singapore, Ali was soon laid off when the economy soured and shipyard work dried up.

What happened to him next was unimaginable.

His employer locked him and 100 other workers in an outdoor cage to prevent them from complaining to the authorities about their unpaid salaries.

Come rain or shine, Ali was trapped like an animal for the next three months. His ordeal ended in September when a local advocacy group, Transient Workers Count Too, found out and told Singapore’s labour ministry.

Ali, who is now living at a metro station and surviving on one free meal a day, is eager to go home.

“Come to Singapore is no good, I want to go back to Bangladesh. There got mother, father, sister, brother to help me. Here I have no one,” Ali said in broken English.

Singapore’s construction, shipyard and manufacturing industries were once red hot, hiring almost 800,000 migrants in 2007. But as the economy slid into recession, demand for labour dived and major projects were cancelled or delayed.

And it’s not just Singapore.

Human rights groups say many of the world’s estimated 100 million migrant workers are in dire predicaments as economic woes in the Gulf, Singapore and Taiwan lead to mass layoffs of labourers from countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Layoffs of these migrant workers may raise unemployment and poverty in their home countries as they return without jobs and often with hefty debts. It could also slow economic growth in countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka which are deeply reliant on remittances sent home by migrant workers.

“Typically, migrants are the last hired and first fired,” said Patrick Taran, senior migration specialist at the International Labour Organization.

“The countries to be worried about are those that are marginalized poor countries, who have a significant number of their workforce population overseas and for whom even a modest decline in remittance earnings and increased returns in people have a proportionally larger impact on their communities,” he said, citing Bangladesh and Haiti as examples.

Staggering job losses

Although there is no definite figure as to the number of migrant workers expected to lose their jobs from the economic crisis, anecdotal evidence and estimates from aid agencies show a significant number will be affected.

Gary Martinez, head of Migrante, an organisation of Filipino migrant workers, said he expects about 100,000 Filipino workers to be laid off. Already many have lost jobs.

Some one in 10 of the Philippines’ people work abroad in construction, shipping and domestic service. They sent home an estimated $16 billion in 2008.

Sri Lanka’s Minister for Foreign Employment Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters recently that he expects at least 10,000 Sri Lankans to lose their jobs in the Middle East, a shadow on the horizon for a country where worker remittances are the second largest foreign exchange earner after garment exports.

As a result of the economic slowdown, the World Bank said it expects remittances, the lifeblood for millions in the developing world, to moderate significantly over the next two years and that remittances in 2009 will fall almost 1 percent. Global remittance flows stood at $283 billion last year.

But as their economic health declines, the social well-being of migrant workers is also under threat.

“It’s all gone now and I am drowning in neck-deep debt,” said Filipino Vangie Paticeria, who lost her job in Taiwan in December and chose to return home to the Philippines.

Ali, who paid for his Singapore trip by borrowing money from his siblings, finds himself in a similar situation. Unable to pay back his brother and sister, and they in turn, not able to pay back the money lenders.

Others, who choose to remain in the host country, find themselves having to become illegal, accepting lower pay and taking on riskier jobs.

“The economic downturn and its impact on migrants exposes how vulnerable they are,” said Nisha Varia, acting deputy director of Women’s Rights division at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“It increases everybody’s desperation and desperation is the recipe for exploitation,” Varia said.

Jolovan Wham, executive director of Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, a charity that helps migrant workers in Singapore, said he has seen the number of jobless migrant workers coming for aid more than triple last year.

Complaints range from lack of medical treatment, to unpaid salaries and poor work conditions.

Monerul Monto sold his shop in Bangladesh to work as a labourer in the city-state where his monthly salary would have been equivalent to about a year’s salary back home.

Now that he has lost his job, Monto can’t go home because the few dollars a day he might earn doing casual work in Singapore is far more than the wages he could earn in Bangladesh to repay his debts.

“I go back Bangladesh, I dead. Why? No money there. I have to stay Singapore and work, but here no work. How?” he said, leaning forward and whispering desperately: “Sister, if you know of any job, please tell. I will do anything.”

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