Migrant workers are the bedrock of our country’s progress and growth. However, in the thick of the pandemic, the less-than-ideal treatment of migrant workers was brought into question.
Many urged Singapore to reflect on its conduct towards the group, including Mr Zakir Hossain Khokan, a migrant worker who had worked here for the past 19 years.
Also an advocate and award-winning poet, Mr Zakir wrote an open letter to Manpower Minister Tan See Leng last year, raising concerns over food hygiene issues and a lack of healthcare.
MOM has called him out for putting up a misleading post, saying that this was one of the reasons his work permit was not renewed.
On Wednesday (22 Jun), Mr Zakir shared a lengthy post on Facebook, saying that he was informed in late May that his work permit had expired and could not be renewed despite his 19 years of working here.
Mr Zakir elaborated that the system reflected, “This worker has an adverse record with a government agency”.
He immediately inquired about this issue with the police and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA). However, they informed him there were no such records.
Citing a reply by then-Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo, Mr Zakir said he was told that if an adverse record was the reason for a non-renewal, workers should be aware of their offence.
Leading up to his deportation, several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals helped write an appeal letter on his behalf.
The letter was sent to Minister of Manpower Tan See Leng and Senior Minister of State Zaqy Mohammad.
MOM later replied that it had been an administrative error. His reason for non-renewal should have been “ineligible”.
However, Mr Zakir could not figure out what could have made him ineligible. After exhausting all options of appeal, he decided to pen his experience on Facebook.
MOM’s response to media queries on the non-renewal of Mr Zakir’s work permit was later shared online.
The ministry said it considers various factors to assess an applicant’s work pass renewal.
As Mr Zakir had worked in Singapore for a long time, MOM said they had renewed his work pass many times despite his activism and writings.
However, they would draw the line when public posts are “misleading, false, or deliberately provocative”.
Referencing Mr Zakir’s open letter that highlighted the workers’ plight at Westlite Dormitory, the ministry noted that Mr Zakir had made false characterisations by calling migrant workers in Singapore “work slaves” and dormitories “work camps”.
They took issue with his allegations of soldiers and armoured vehicles surrounding the dormitory.
MOM said this was a false characterisation. “Police personnel were on standby nearby as a precautionary measure. They never surrounded the dormitory or engaged workers there. Rather, MOM officers and dormitory personnel engaged the workers to address their concerns.”
There were no soldiers, let alone armoured vehicles, around.
It was also pointed out that although Mr Zakir signed off his post as “workers of Westlite Tukang”, he had never lived there.
Sharing that working in Singapore is not an entitlement, MOM emphasised that Mr Zakir had “overstayed his welcome”.
In Mr Zakir’s post on 22 Jun, he said his time in Singapore came to an abrupt end under confusing circumstances.
Looking back on his time here, he recalled forging many valuable friendships with locals and migrants alike and learned a lot from Singapore.
Singapore had become his home — this was why he actively used his free time to give back to the community.
According to The Straits Times (ST), he was active in local literary circles and founded two community groups.
Despite his active role in contributing to community welfare, Mr Zakir admits, “I am only a migrant worker”.
He surmised that the possible reason behind his deployment was his lobbying for equal treatment and social issues, which he had been collaborating with local NGOs and organisations to resolve.
Mr Zakir explained that poetry is his oxygen. He wrote pieces, such as “Please do not call us ‘your brothers’,” i.e. the Facebook post MOM cited as misleading, to highlight the plight of workers in dormitories.
“The issues I raised were not new. I only raised these issues because I saw them happening around me, and it was unbearable.”
Singapore is my home away from home, and I want her to do better as a country.
For this to happen, he said Singapore must listen to its people, including migrants.
After spending almost two decades here, he hopes authorities will review his work permit renewal and allow him to continue to work and contribute to Singapore.
Since Mr Zakir shared the news of leaving Singapore, many wished him well, possibly a testament to his impact on the community.
But at the same time, we’re sure that the Manpower Ministry has their reasons for the decision.
Hopefully, they will also continue to take adequate measures in looking after the well-being of migrant workers and promptly address welfare issues.
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Featured image adapted from Left Brain Right Brain on Facebook.
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