The legalised gangsters of Singapore

7 am on Saturday, 7 July 2012. Two heavily-tattooed Chinese men walked into a company dormitory and demanded that Md Mustakim Khan pack his belongings right away.

“They say to me, ‘Today your flight go home’,” recalled the worker from Bangladesh.

Mustakim was bundled into a car and taken to a place he called the ‘gangster house’. Till today, he has no clue where he was.  Although he had his mobile phone with him and could have called for help, the Chinese men anticipated that and told him: “You call police, I don’t care.” Mustakim took that to mean that such a move would not frighten them and quite possibly he would have to suffer for it.

Through the rest of the day, “I scared, all time,” said Mustakim. “My heart also pain, and I thinking, how [what] do I do?”

The above is an excerpt from this article on the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) website. TWC2 is an NGO which provides aid to migrant workers.

Sadly, the story of Mustakin above is not new.

Jolovan Wham, the executive director of another NGO which aids migrant workers, HOME, wrote a seminal piece in 2009 exposing how repatriation companies work. (See below.)

Jolovan himself was assaulted by the employees of these companies when he first joined HOME in 2005, as reported here:

Home’s founder-cum-president Bridget Tan, 63, told The New Paper that in Mr Wham’s first year with the organisation, he was shaken after a bad experience.

He had been punched in the back and stomach by employees of a repatriation company while he was helping a Bangladeshi migrant worker in 2005.

The worker was being forcefully repatriated by his construction company after he had asked the company for salary that was due to him.

The police were called in the punching incident.

Said Ms Tan: “(Mr Wham) never expected that to happen. He was really traumatised by that experience.”

She added that she thought he was going to throw in the towel, but the man soldiered on.

And he hasn’t looked back since.

Said Mr Wham: “That incident had a pivotal effect on me. I felt like I was placed directly in the position of a migrant worker…

“If I can feel scared that something like that has happened to me, what more a migrant worker who has to suffer not just the intimidation and assault, but also has to go back to his home country and face his family with a huge debt?

“That experience…strengthened my resolve to do something about the problems these workers face.”

And this resolve proved critical in the years to come.

The Government has always claimed to take a serious and strong stance against the illegal confinement (which is an euphemism for what it really is, kidnapping, which carries the death penalty in Singapore, by the way) and the forceful and illegal repatriation of migrant workers.

As posted on the TWC2 website:

In a Facebook posting by then-Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin, dated 13 July 2011, he wrote:

We will not put up with the wrongful confinement of workers or their forceful repatriation without settling of salaries and other legitimate claims. When such claims are surfaced, we investigate both the repatriation companies and the employers who engage them. Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, employers must give their foreign employees reasonable notice of their repatriation.

In parliament on 21 November 2011, the then-Minister for Manpower Tharman said the same thing:

Any act to wrongfully restrain or confine foreign workers is criminalised in the Penal Code.  . . . The government takes seriously all cases where members of the public, workers or NGOs claim that repatriation agents may have breached the law. If the worker is confined, MOM and the Police will ensure that the worker is not confined against his will and that his issues are addressed in a timely fashion. Possible labour or Penal Code offences are thoroughly investigated by MOM and Police respectively, against both the repatriation companies and the employers.

Yet, these gangsters – for that is what the repatriation companies are, continue to operate in Singapore, a city supposedly run on the rule of law. As Mustakin’s – and many others’ – example show, these gangsters operate on and sometimes beyond the edges of the law.

The Government, and the Ministry for Manpower in particular, need to be serious about wiping out such abuse, threats and exploitation by employers who – legally – employ these gangster outfits.

And that is what they truly are – legalised gangsters.


Jolovan Wham’s article in 2009 on what repatriation companies do:

Story by Jolovan Wham

Is your foreign worker giving you problems? Are you afraid that he might be a bad influence on other workers? What if he runs away and you lose your $5000 security deposit*?

For approximately $300 per worker, you can engage the services of a ‘repatriation’ company who will help you deal with the cumbersome task of sending back these trouble makers and allay your fears.

Never mind that you don’t intend to pay this worker his outstanding salary, or that he had suffered an industrial accident at your work place and has not received his work injury compensation. Never mind that he has only worked for a few months for your company and is still trying to pay off the debt he incurred for the chance to work in Singapore.

‘Repatriation companies’ are businesses that are set up specifically to help employers manage ‘troublesome’ foreign workers by roughing them up and sending them back to their home countries forcefully. Many employers are more than happy to pay someone to do this since they find it difficult to handle work place disputes and get rid of foreign workers who do not toe the line.

Paid kidnappers or “service to society”?

‘We are providing a service to society’, claimed Mr Ravi when I met him for the first time.

Mr Ravi is the boss of UTR Services Pte Ltd, one of the more well known repatriation companies. ‘If we don’t provide this service, all these foreign workers will run away and there will be havoc.’

Indians, Bangladeshis, Burmese, Chinese, and Thai,—companies like UTR services have confined and repatriated them all. These guys work round the clock, nabbing workers from dormitories, work sites and even in public places such as coffee shops and outside shopping centers. Typical targets are workers with ‘bad attitudes’, who don’t meet up to employers’ expectations, or whose work permits are going to expire.

The South Asian workers call them ‘Tamil gangsters’: in reality, the people from repatriation companies are burly, rough looking men of all races who are paid to intimidate, assault and coerce workers into returning home.

Employers of course, will not tell workers that they will be sent home in this way. The shock of being repatriated suddenly is a fear many foreign workers have to live with. Once these workers are caught, they are sent to the premises of the repatriation company, locked up in a room and not allowed to leave the premises until the day of their departure. While in the premises, those who protest or refuse to return are routinely assaulted and verbally abused until they agree to go back.

Mind you, the repatriation companies take care to conceal their methods—their assaults do not leave any signs of a visible injury, making any allegation against them for physical abuse hard to prove. On the day of the departure, these workers are escorted to the airport and seen through Immigration. Threats of being blacklisted by the MOM so that they will never be allowed to work in Singapore again are other bullying tactics that are used to intimidate the workers into agreeing to leave.

Mr Xia is a construction worker whose employer called UTR Services because Mr Xia refused to leave until the settlement of these claims. His employer wanted to send him back to China quickly following a dispute He also injured himself while he was at work and he was waiting for his Work Injury Compensation Claim to be processed by the Ministry of Manpower.

What followed was the start of an ordeal that lasted a total of 36 days.

‘They beat me and they took my money’, Mr Xia told me in Mandarin. ‘They said they would only return my money if I agree to return to China. I am very angry—how could my employer do this to me? I am not a criminal. What right do those people have to lock me up, take my money and force me to go home? Why are they so afraid that I would run away? I’m just waiting for my work injury claim to be processed.’

While he was confined in the premises of the repatriation company, Mr Xia told me that he was also slapped and punched. However, he was resolute and refused to be intimidated into going home before he received his money and his work injury compensation.

Running way—a term often used by employers for workers who go missing – is one of the main reasons repatriation companies are in business. Employers stand to lose their deposit of $5000 to the Immigration Authorities if they fail to repatriate their workers. Rather than lose the money, they willingly shell out a couple of hundred dollars to companies like UTR just to make sure that these workers really go home.

Can the police help?

‘You can call the Police for all I care,’ said Francis, the Director of UTR Services, when I was trying to negotiate the release of another foreign worker who was confined. According to Mr Xia, he called the Police 3 times for help during the entire period but his pleas to them went unheeded.

On all three occasions when the Police responded, Mr Xia said that he was told since he was going to be sent home anyway, there was nothing the Police could do to help him. Finally, Mr Xia was given the number of HOME by another worker who was also going to be repatriated.

My colleague, Charanpal, went down to negotiate the release of Mr Xia. UTR only agreed to release the worker after we signed a letter of indemnity stating that we would reimburse the employer of the $5000 security bond should it be forfeited and Mr Xia goes missing.

After his release, Mr Xia made a Police report. The Officer in charge did not seem interested in investigating his complaint. Mr Xia then proceeded to lodge his complaint at the Magistrate’s Court and the Police was ordered to re-investigate.

This time, I accompanied Mr Xia down to the Police station for his statement to be taken. Once again, the police officer seemed uninterested, and even went on to justify the important role that these repatriation companies play in managing foreign workers. He said to me, ‘You have to understand sir, that the employer might lose his $5000 security deposit if this worker goes missing.’ The officer then went on to explain that UTR Services was not doing anything wrong.


An interpretation of the Penal Code might yield a different answer. It states very clearly that, “Whoever wrongfully restrains any person in such a manner as to prevent that person from proceeding beyond certain circumscribing limits, is said “wrongfully to confine” that person.” UTR’s activities are clearly a violation of our laws.

I called the employer and brought up the issue of Mr Xia being confined and assaulted by the repatriation company. The employer retorted defensively that UTR is a licensed company and there was nothing wrong with him engaging their services. A search through ACRA reveals that UTR Services Pte Ltd is a company that provides ‘manpower repatriation and related services.’

What this entails is not described at all. UTR is obviously not just an escort service that ferries workers to the airport. Its methods, which include the wrongful restraint of people are clearly illegal.

There are many things wrong with how foreign workers are treated in this country: the presence and operations of repatriation companies is one of them.

By offering such services, these companies are taking advantage of employers’ fears of losing their $5000 security deposit. By utilising their services, employers are taking shortcuts in handling work place conflicts and industrial disputes. By turning a blind eye to them, the authorities seem to be openly endorsing activities which flout the law. All are complicit in the systemic abuse of the rights of migrant workers. As the recession deepens and more hapless foreign workers get laid off, repatriation companies may soon be doing a roaring business.

* The $5000 security bond is a law under the Immigration Act which states that employers who fail to repatriate a foreign worker under work permit will have to pay $5000 as a penalty


17 thoughts on “The legalised gangsters of Singapore

  1. Andrew, I understand that what these repatriation companies do is certainly illegal if they are wrongfully confining or assaulting the workers, but how do you propose to solve the problem of workers potentially running away and ending up as illegal immigrants?

    1. We need to examine the reasons for migrant workers running away in the first place. In my experience, workers usually run away because of exploitative relationships with their employers. Poor HR management is also another cause of workers going missing. Workers don’t usually run away if they are paid properly, and are not cheated by their recruitment agents, and if employers do not resort to assault and punitive measures to discipline them. Workers who abscond are usually a symptom of poor industrial relations. if we had more progressive laws and effective redress mechanism which protect workers’ rights, cases of run away workers would be minimised.

      1. this doesn’t answer the problem of illegal immigration, a problem that all successful first world countries face.

  2. I think it takes 2 hands to clap.Of course there are good and bad foreign workers and good and bad bosses around in every industries be it in constructions or service sectors.The laws are there to protect,But to prove such wrong doings/abuses or infringment are difficult in its interpretation of the laws.Before such things happened,the problems should be hold at the bud by negotiations or seek help from industrial relation agencies such as MOM,HOME or TWC.It’s a win win situation if bosses look into the welfares of their workers seriously;no matter how small the problems arise,because at the end of the days ,they still need these foreign workers to complete the projects or jobs done.Such industrial disputes or interruptions or stoppages of work/projects may cause bad impression or bankruptcy of the companies .

    So bosses,who employ foreign workers ,think deeply or twice before contemplating or engaging repatriation companies or using high handed tactics.

    Good them

    1. Hi, Every companies should have a union and the singapore govt should allow. But as far as i know in singapore the union is control by the govt. It should be like european countries.

  3. It’s really meaningful for us to read this article. Thank you author. May God bless your work. Continue to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves please.

  4. I personally intervened in the case of a maid who was caned by her employer until she had to flee to my floor. I brought her to the Police Post atnear Limbang Shopping centre to makle a report.

    In the end she was handed back to the employment agency but nothing was done to the employer who shortly thereafter blithely employed another maid.Why is the police so lenient to these errant employers?

    Patrick Low

  5. I personally came across a local building contractor who didn’t pay his workers. Not only that, he had four Mainland Chinese tilers who were very good in their job, but he said bad things about them all the time.

    His South Asian workers were not only unpaid, they were not fed. He would leave the the South Asians to do work without supervision and then everything would cock up. And he would have no money to buy materials for his work and had to abandon his work.

    1. I am very frustrated that the Singapore government has failed to ensure that employers comply with the laws.

      Let me take the side of the employer/ right wing economic conservative first:

      I don’t believe that a foreigner needs to be paid the same, or even 50%, the salary of a Singaporean. It is all a contractual issue decided in the free market – eg if Filipinos are desperate enough to work for $800/month as long as there is no coercion this contract should be upheld.

      I also don’t believe foreign workers are entitled to uncramped dorms or good quality food, since Singaporeans (at least, when my brother served NS are also cramped into 60-man dorms and fed poor food and I have never heard any human rights activists say that is against human rights.

      And now let me take the centrist stance, without favouring the worker:

      The MOM must maintain objectivity in labour relations. It’s none of MOM’s business if workers don’t like the food, as long as it’s fit for human consumption (eg no expired rice or spoiled meat). But MOM must ensure that employers uphold their side of the contract. Pay is a must. Pay on time is a must. Pay in the appropriate method is a must (ie if cash terms in SGD, then pay cash in SGD; don’t give worker a cheque because worker may not have a bank account since most banks charge service fees for small bank accounts).

      There is no negotiating around pay. In most jobs especially the menial jobs, there is no docking of pay for damage and costs inflicted by inexperienced workers/ genuine mistake. IE if the employee breaks something, the employer cannot dock pay. Employer must take that risk. This is unambiguous, so if employer cannot produce solid evidence that employees were paid the exact amount agreed on, it’s time for the usual Singapore penalty – big, big fines!

      I don’t find HOME (and other activists’ work) on living conditions and food very helpful. Being from a poor background I did not exactly grow up in fancy living conditions myself – and most foreign workers’ dorms and food are no worse than what they would get back home. (Remember, the Indian workers here would be living in slums in India if Singaporeans didn’t hire them – they’re not exactly the IT talents of Bangalore or steel magnates of Mumbai)

      Most foreign workers may grumble about living conditions, but by far the most important issues to them are pay and compensation for injuries suffered/ healthcare. HOME should concentrate on these. I keep hearing of employees being cheated of pay, so probably it’s the tip of a very, very big iceberg. It’s also a lot easier to make a strong case for MOM intervention in clearly objective issues like pay and injury compensation.

      1. You make some very good points.
        Modern technology could solve a lot of these problems. One idea is that we have ankle bracelets with GPS that are water proof etc. If the workers agree to wear these when they come then the illegal immigration could be taken care of, or at least reduced. These anklets give an alarm if taken off.

        Normally I would never agree to wear one myself, but if I needed the job and understood the reason and that it was temperary, I would. This would stop repatriation companies from being hired to kidnap workers to prevent the $5000 dollar fine. I think that most workers would be fine with wearing them just while they are in the country.

        The main point is that the market can and will find answers to the problem, but only if you make the price of doing it the other way too high. One verified kidnapping should be punishable by losing your license. End of story. One or two proven cases of illegally withholding payment or agreed upon benefits from the workers should result in a loss of business license. After a couple of incidents everyone else would fall in line.

        You can not allow illegal activity justifying it by, “What else are they supposed to do?” If the laws are unfair to the employer then they need to be changed. If the laws are not enforced on both the employer and the employee then you do not have a country under rule of law. No law should ever be passed without plans on how that law will be enforced. Otherwise the only people who follow the law are those you don’t have to worry about anyway, because they will follow their conscience no matter what. The criminals will continue to operate uninterrupted.

        The financial incentive to find a solution is there. Now let’s block illegal solutions and support legal ones.

      2. If all Singaporeans have the same mindset of Victoria, I would wish Singapore to be nuked. What a twisted mindset you have!

  6. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. ” – Edmund Burke

    Dear Author, I admire the efforts that you put into defending the rights of the disadvantaged. May God reward you in kind.

  7. Wow, i am so enlightened by your articles. I thought this kind of errand employers/gangsters treatment only happened in movies in a far away land. This is happening in broad daylight here in modern Sigapore. Thank you writer. We need more people like you to speak up for the poor and the helpless abused. I m a freelance videographer and aspiring to producing documentary films to speak up for the underprivileged. I am very interested in your story.

  8. I am away from Singapore since 2005, and have to say that Singapore today has become ugly and dirty. I was in Singapore recently, and Orchard Road has become Geylang. Now legal gangsters. Where is the moral of the Singapore society?

  9. It’s appropriate time to make a few plans for the long run and it is time to be happy. I’ve learn this submit and if I may
    I desire to recommend you some interesting things or tips.

    Maybe you could write subsequent articles regarding this article.

    I wish to read even more things about it!

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