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Monday, March 10, 2014
Forced out of Singapore
Migrant workers say firms hire thugs to compel them to leave the city-state

Bapari Jakir's employers wanted to see him off the job, but the welder was heavily in debt and didn't want to go back to Bangladesh. So, he says, they encouraged him to leave — by hiring a company whose thugs held him captive in a room, holding a knife to his throat. Singapore needs foreign workers, but it doesn't want them to overstay their welcome, and firms get fined when they do. That has created a market for "repatriation companies," which deny allegations from activists and the U.S. that they use illegal tactics to expel foreign workers.

The country's continued growth relies in large part on foreign workers like Jakir. Yet as the numbers of migrant workers soar, tales of abuse are threatening to take some of the shine off the city-state's international reputation. In December, migrant workers rioted in the country's first social unrest for more than 40 years. Some activists claim that anger over working conditions was a factor in the riots.

Repatriation companies are a major source of concern for activists on the tightly controlled island. Firms hiring foreign labor must lodge a SG$5,000 (approximately NT$120,000) bond with the government for each worker that is returnable only when they leave. Some firms employ 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, Jakir said he was taken to a repatriation company's office in August 2012 because his employer wanted him out of the country. Once there, he was asked to sign a document stating that his employers didn't owe him any salary arrears. He refused because he figured doing so would make it easier for them to repatriate him. He then alleges that he had "a knife put to his neck." Jakir was able to call a friend, who in turn contacted migrant rights activist Jolovan Wham.

Jakir was allowed to leave the offices of the repatriation company after Wham signed a form stating that he would be responsible for paying the bond should Jakir run away or disappear. Jakir is now living at a friend's house while his case is appealed. He wants to keep on working in the city-state to pay back the SG$9,000 (approximately NT$216,000) debt he took out to pay agents who got him the job in Singapore. "My father is sick now. My two younger brothers have stopped school because I can't send money home anymore," he said.

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