By Radha Basu
They allege that some labour agents and small firms here are bringing in far more workers than they need in order to profit from the fees the men are charged to secure jobs here. These amounts range from $8,000 to $10,000 per worker.
The High Commission said it has received more than 1,000 complaints since January, nearly half that number in the past three to four months.
'With unemployment rates high back home, our workers are desperate to get out. They will do anything to come here,' said a High Commission spokesman.
'What puzzles us is how the Government here can give out more work permits than are required. There are obviously loopholes in the system that companies here are exploiting.'
She added that the High Commission knew of about 25 firms involved in the complaints by workers.
These are mostly small outfits supplying workers to shipyards and many of the firms are owned by the same group of people.
Migrant workers' charities such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) said they have also dealt with more than 160 such cases in recent months.
Mr Ranjit Saha, founder of Bangladeshi self-help group Bangla Universal Society, believes that groups of unscrupulous agents and companies have been taking advantage of the workers.
Both the High Commission and the non-governmental organisations said they inform the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) when they get complaints.
Home, for instance, wrote to the ministry last month, saying that 118 workers from 11 companies had approached the group for help with the problem.
MOM is investigating the complaints and a spokesman said that the ministry took a serious view of employers who did not pay their foreign employees the salaries owed to them.
'If they fail to do so, the ministry will take action against the companies, including prosecuting them in court,' the ministry said in an e-mail reply.
TWC2 president John Gee said an increase in agent's fees in the past few years could have led to the recent rise in cases of cheated workers.
Back recently from a meeting on migrant labour in Manila, he said similar 'scams' to cheat Bangladeshi workers have also been reported in some countries in the Gulf region.
Mr A. K. M. Mohsin, 44, who edits a bi-monthly Bengali magazine here, said a new rule introduced last year may have also contributed to the problem.
It allows manpower firms to bring in five shipyard workers for every Singaporean or permanent resident hired.
'It's possible that no one is really checking whether there is work for these extra workers being brought in as long as the employers pay the levies,' said Mr Mohsin.
The levy - ranging from $150 to $295 per month - is paid by employers of foreign shipyard workers to MOM.
Mr Mohsin said that over the past two months alone, he had met more than 500 workers, from around 20 companies, who were left in the lurch despite being employed.
In April, Acting Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament that it was illegal to accept kickbacks to hire foreign workers and those found guilty could be fined up to $5,000 or given six months' jail, or both, and be barred from hiring foreign workers.
But the Bangladesh High Commission spokesman said that such cases were hard to prove.
Bangladeshi Tocher Mallick, 23, said he sold his family's farm and borrowed money to come to Singapore after someone told him that he could earn here in just one month what it took him two years to earn as a farm hand.
The agent's fee was $8,000, but he was told that he would earn that in just a couple of years and could remain in Singapore for 14 years.
'Who could refuse the offer?' he said.
But his dreams died young.
Six months on, this eldest child of an unemployed farm worker says he has not earned a single cent yet. His work permit has been cancelled and he is fighting to remain here so that he can get another job and repay his debts.
He and 27 other co-workers from Ho Ah Lam Ferrocement lodged a complaint with MOM on Sept 15. The ministry is investigating.
Workers from four other companies The Straits Times spoke to share similar grievances.
Shipyard worker Mohd Mohidul Islam, 30, went to MOM last week together with 17 co-workers to complain about a lack of regular work.
'When there was no work in the shipyard, they tried to make us work at a construction site at night, for no pay,' said the former typist.
Mr Abdul Malek, 30, from San's Marine - another firm with complaints from more than 40 workers saying they were not paid - said he was made to sit at the company's Tuas office from 9am to 5pm waiting for work.
'The only work I got was as a bathroom cleaner,' he said.
Representatives from these companies have denied any wrongdoing.
A Mr Nathan of San's Marine claimed that his workers were fully paid and those who 'left the company' did so because they refused to get trained to improve their skills.
Mr Balla Tan, who said he was a 'consultant' for Ho Ah Lam, said his workers too were fully paid and half had been given special training to 'upgrade their skills'.
'It is time for renewal of their contracts and they know I cannot renew their contract or don't want to renew, so they ran away to MOM.'
The workers, on their part, deny this. 'We have papers to show when we came here,' said Mr Mallick.
'But the big issue for us is whether we can get jobs to recover our money.'
Additional reporting by Melissa Sim
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