“You have no case” – Alex proclaims conclusively, having listened to my summary of Shohid’s year-long plight on this island.
Having understood a translation of Alex’s proclamation, Shohid leans back against his chair and sighs heavily, covering his wet eyes with his hand. Patiently, we explain to him how he was conned and why he has no fighting chance against his boss. Whether or not he stays for a month more, fighting for his case with MOM, and whether or not he gets compensation, he will still eventually be repatriated back to his village of Bhouria Chala in Bangladesh – hungry and debt-ridden. Best to cut his losses.
I try to put myself in his shoes – it is like a grainy dial-up broadband connection – I can only catch a fleeting glimpse of empathy. Everything else is just a blanket of deflating defeat.
Debbie takes over, guiding him through with the MOM proceedings and what he should do next. Alex had been reprimanding Shohid and he then shoots me a knowing look, “There’s nothing else we can do here. We cannot show too much sympathy or else they will never learn. When they don’t learn, they will keep getting scammed at the next job and the next.”
He smiles sympathetically. I can only look on forlornly.
It is depressing to volunteer here, to see the same misery on so many faces every session. It is depressing to admit to them the truth that they will each face interminable dead-ends in fighting their cases, for compensation, for medical treatment, for wages that are owed to them. It is depressing to realise they will now go back to their homelands not with a happy ending but with disabilities, with debts and with mouths to feed.
This is the disconcerting reality that in a place as wealthy and well-fed as Singapore, there is no such thing as a Singaporean Dream or a land of opportunity within the grasp of these hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis, Indians, Chinese and Burmese.
There is only exploitation and loss.
The system is stacked against them in every possible way. Structural barriers of language and communication, government bureaucracy, asymmetry of information and leverage. They have the shit end of the bargaining stick.
It is more unsettling that I haven’t done much to help. What have I done as a writer here? Pry into the private miseries of injured and victimised workers (as if I even have a right to). Churn out unread stories. Unsuccessfully relieve my own sense of guilt and privilege. And what have I done as a researcher so far? Churn out briefs and suggestions on migrant labour policies that the government won’t even pretend to read.
And like how it ends every session when I’ve got my story, I close my notebooks, keep my pens and slink away, disappearing into the rain, Tamil music and florescent evening lights of Little India, like a damn coward.
I don’t even have the courage or decent courtesy to say good-bye to Shohid.