I Have Never Even Seen A Ship in Singapore!

“My work papers say that I have been employed by Pentagon Express Marine Services Pte Ltd, to work in the shipyard as shipbuilder or as an offshore worker. I have never even seen a ship in Singapore! Instead, I was used as a daily-rated worker to clean offices and hotel rooms. I have also been deployed as a daily-rated store-hand,” says Mr. Somasuntharam Mudali (also known as Somasuntharam Muthiah and also as Sekar Ravi.)

Somasuntharam, who is 55 years old, and is from Pondicherry, India, first came to Singapore to work from the years 1996 through 2000. He paid one Mr. Bala of Pentagon Express Marine Services Pte Ltd the amount of Indian Rupees 140,000 (about 4200 Singapore Dollars), as agent fees to come to Singapore as a foreign worker. When he arrived in Singapore, instead of working on shipbuilding and offshore general work, he was used as a daily-rated worker and was paid $14 per day. “They paid me regularly then. After settling my debts, I was able to send money back home. Then towards the end of 2000, Mr. Bala asked me to go back to India, saying that my work permit could not be renewed; and that he would bring me back to Singapore to work again. Trusting him, I went back to India”, says Somasuntharam.

A new identity

Then in the year 2001, when Somasuntharam contacted Mr. Bala to come back to work in Singapore again, Mr. Bala demanded that Somasuntharam pay him a further agent fees of Indian Rupees 150,000 (about 4500 Singapore Dollars). Mr. Somasuntharam borrowed the required money from friends, relatives and money-lenders. Mr. Bala however, delayed getting him the work permit to come to Singapore for work; not just by days, weeks or months, but by years. Finally in the year 2004, with those that lent him the money demanding payment with exorbitant interests, Somasuntharam ran out of patience and demanded that Mr. Bala pay him back.

Then, Mr. Bala says to Somasuntharam that he is over 50 years old and that the Singapore government would not grant him a work permit because of this. Mr. Bala suggested that Somasuntharam obtain another passport in another name, which would declare that he was much younger than he actually was. As Somasuntharam was afraid that he would not get his money back if he did not do as instructed by Mr. Bala, he agreed to do so. Mr. Bala applied for a passport for him under the name of ‘Sekar Ravi’ (for which Somasuntharam had to pay another 4000 Indian Rupees) and even coached him how to respond to his new name and on his new signature.

Somasuntharam came back to Singapore a second time on 9 May 2004. “For the first five months, everything went well”, says Somasuntharam. “I was paid the same $14 per day. Then on the sixth month, the payment stopped. Mr. Bala verbally assaulted me with vulgar words, said that I was ungrateful and told me that the main contractors had not paid him and that he would pay me as soon as he had payment from them. When I did not receive my pay the following month as well and was made to go through the same grueling experience when I enquired about my unpaid salaries, I decided to approach the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Although I was initially afraid, I mustered enough courage and approached MOM with 3 other friends (2 other Indian nationals and 1 Bangladeshi) in early February 2005.”

Ordeal with MOM

The ordeal that Somasuntharam and his friends had to go through after they approached MOM is unbelievable. MOM revealed to them that Pentagon Express Marine Services had not paid the levies for any one of the complainants for the past few months. Investigations further revealed that the foreign workers were not used in the category of work that they were initially granted work permit for and also that Somasuntharam had worked in Singapore prior, and that he was here using a different name, in another passport. Somasuntharam’s work permit was revoked. He was issued a special pass and was asked to stay on in Singapore to assist MOM with the ongoing investigation with Pentagon Express Marine Services and Mr. Bala. Two of his friends (an Indian national by the name of Vijayakumar and the Bangladeshi) who brought the initial complaint to MOM were sent home as MOM deemed that they were not necessary for the ongoing investigations.

“Vijayakumar committed suicide by drinking poison a few days after reaching his village in India”, say Somasuntharam. “All the creditors were demanding their loan back with interests and he could not repay them. He also became the center of ridicule in his village. He just snapped! Poor guy! Vijayakumar has unmarried sisters and an aged mother. How are they going to survive now? That will be a sadder story than Vijayakumar’s end.”

The investigations by MOM dragged on not for months, but years. “There were countless postponements to the case brought on by the lawyers of Pentagon Marine Express Service”, says Somasuntharam. In the meantime, Somasuntharam was not able to find another job. He resorted to sleeping in the streets for a long time in Serangoon Road and got by because of the free meals provided by the nearby Hindu temples. He said his former employers made use of this vulnerability and tried to seduce him with a bribe to go back to India, so that they could not be prosecuted due to lack of evidence. “Mr. Bala did not come to see me directly. He sent a representative whom I have never seen before. The representative offered me $15,000, if I would go back to India. I refused the offer. From then on, they began intimidating me through coercions, like lodging false police reports and even threats of ‘fixing me’”, says Somasuntharam.

His case was finally brought to the attention of Ms Debbie Fordyce a volunteer with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). By this time he had had fungal infection on both feet and had also broken his hip in an accident. Ms Fordyce managed to help him get off the streets and to a doctor. She then brought him to a shelter run by Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME). Ms Fordyce and the other volunteers in TWC2 and HOME began advocating for Somasuntharam and finally after many interventions, the case came to a close in early 2009. Somasuntharam admitted and was found guilty of using a different passport with another name to illegally enter Singapore to work.

“Now, only one witness remains for our case against Pentagon Marine Express Services. Dharmindra, who was brought in to Singapore for working in shipbuilding and offshore general work, but was used as a daily-rated driver”, says Somasuntharam. “I don’t know what action the courts and MOM would take against Mr. Bala and Pentagon Marine Express Services. I hope he goes to prison for cheating people like me and for driving people like Vijayakumar to suicide.”

At this juncture, I asked him, “Somasuntharam, how much did you actually earn by your coming to work in Singapore on two different occasions?” He said, “About $5000 the first time I came and the second time I lost a lot of money.” I asked again, “Would not it have been better if you had used the monies you had given Mr. Bala to do some small business back home in India?” Somasuntharam replied, “I was stupid. If I had started a small business like a grocery store, I would have made much more with an investment of about 300,000 Indian Rupees (about 8500 Singapore Dollars). This is what I would tell anybody else who wants to come to work in Singapore by paying agents.”

The courts ordered that he was not owed any salaries as he was not working in the designated company indicated in his work permits and because he was sub out as a daily-rated worker.

Somasuntharam finally left Singapore to India on 14 January 2009.

Somasuntharam is a classic case why the government of Singapore should tighten the foreign worker laws. It is for the benefit of the foreign workers themselves; as they would in all probability be better off if they used the monies they pay an agent to come to work in Singapore, to start a small business and be self-reliant. It will also benefit a segment of the population of Singapore, who are reliant on job vacancies like store-hand, cleaners and drivers.

The government keeps saying that Singaporeans do not want to work in jobs currently being done by foreign workers. I personally do not think that the resident population who is in the lower segment, actually mind working as drivers, store-assistants or hotel/office cleaners. The ‘spillover effect’ of the cheap foreign labour has kept the salaries paid for such kind of jobs done by the resident population at artificially low levels. How could a Singaporean compete with a foreign worker to earn less than $400 per month ($14 per day X 26 working days)? Stricter restrictions and enforcements on the hiring of foreign workers will bring much needed relief and benefit to the marginalised population in Singapore.