Missing migrant workers hunted down in Singapore

The man with his right arm draped casually over Mohammad's shoulders as they walk out of a metro station could be mistaken for the Bangladeshi guest worker's best buddy.

But V. Balakrishnan has been hired to track him down and ship him home -- and the smiling Mohammad suddenly bolts, dropping a small bag of possessions and kicking away his flip-flops in his haste to escape.

Watching Mohammad's bright red shirt rapidly disappearing into the distance Balakrishnan says: "See, I told you he surely run."

Balakrishnan works for UTR Services, a company hired by employers to find and repatriate foreign workers who are reported missing or who are no longer needed by the companies that sponsored their visas.

Under Singapore law, employers are responsible for repatriating guest workers whose contracts lapse or are terminated.

Balakrishnan and his partner traced Mohammad's whereabouts and staked out his forest hideout near Singapore's border with Malaysia for five days, only to lose him in the end.

Labour-starved and densely populated Singapore employs around 900,000 guest workers like Mohammad and has strict laws against those staying beyond their allotted time, generating business for repatriation companies like UTR Services.

Such firms, which get paid around Sg$250 ($200) per case, have drawn criticism from human rights groups who accuse them of resorting to unsavoury methods to force workers to board flights home.

"Repatriation companies use force, violence and illegally confine workers against their will," said Jolovan Wham, executive director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

"The workers are usually seized and locked up at the repatriation company's premises against their will... this is kidnapping and wrongful confinement, and can be classified as penal code offences, which are offences against the law."

Wham said some foreign workers had gone to HOME for help.

"The repatriation company men are careful not to leave any visible injuries on the workers to avoid any possible investigation by the police. Men from the repatriation companies also threaten and verbally abuse the workers into agreeing to leave," he added.

The alleged abuses committed by Singapore repatriation firms were mentioned in a US State Department global report on Trafficking In Persons (TIP) issued in June.

The US report said some employers use the firms "to prevent workers from complaining of abuses, including conditions of forced labor, or seeking redress through the Ministry of Manpower".

The Singapore government has slammed the report, saying in a statement that it "does not tolerate the wrongful confinement of workers or their forceful repatriation without settling of salaries and other legitimate claims".

A police spokesman said that "if any reports are lodged against such companies, the police will look into the matter to establish if any offence has been committed and take action accordingly".

UTR Services director J. Ravi also denied any use of force by his staff.

"It's not like what people say," he told AFP. "There's no force, no nothing."

Ravi maintained that 85 percent of the 2,000 workers he sends back annually voluntarily agree to be repatriated.

But he conceded that the practice of "lodging" foreign workers in the offices of repatriation firms and barring them from leaving unescorted was "a little bit controversial" and he was looking into abolishing the practice.

As for unscrupulous employers, Ravi said his staff check for any signs of physical injury on workers brought in for repatriation and will refer suspected abuse cases to the manpower ministry.

"The law states very clearly, the employer has the right to terminate... You terminate the permit, I send back the worker for you."

A senior official of the manpower ministry said it responded to only two complaints of illegal confinement by repatriation companies in 2010.

But HOME's Wham said forced repatriation happens daily.

"Migrant workers are perceived as social problems and potential immigration offenders and the authorities are happy that repatriation companies can perform this function for them," Wham said.

--

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