Worker stabbed himself to avoid leaving S'pore
When a business fails or a factory shuts down, the last thing bosses want to deal with is labour troubles.
Especially when it comes to foreign workers who are desperate to continue living and working in Singapore.
That is where Mr J. Ravinthiran from UTR Services comes in.
His company specialises in repatriating foreign workers when their contracts, for whatever reasons, have ended.
Says Mr Ravinthiran: "Employers outsource their repatriation to us out of convenience.
"Repatriation can involve a lot of hassle, especially when the worker refuses to return or if the police get involved."
One such scenario occurred years ago when a factory here closed down and its owners hired Mr Ravinthiran's agents to send more than 200 workers home. Many were unwilling to leave.
Since he started the company in 1997, Mr Ravithiran has managed to repatriate more than 100,000 foreign workers.
The law states that foreign workers have to be sent home when their work permits expire and cannot be renewed.
For $300 per worker, UTR Services will escort, transport and settle the logistical issues of putting the worker on a flight home.
If his company fails to repatriate the worker, Mr Ravinthiran says he can charge his clients only $100 per worker instead of the full fee.
One of Mr Ravinthiran's agents with the worker. TNP PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Last year, only five out of 600 workers were not repatriated on the first attempt.
Each worker is escorted by one of his agents, all of whom have years of experience.
"It is not an easy job at all. The workers try all sorts of methods to stay off the plane," he says.
The most common method is to overpack their luggage so as to get turned away at the check-in counters because they refuse to pay excess baggage fees.
Some are desperate, perhaps because of debts from loans taken to pay off employment agents in their home countries to get the job here.
Once, a worker stabbed himself at the airport to extend his stay here, recalls Mr Ravinthiran.
Another time, a worker leapt out of a moving car while his agent was driving to the airport.
Both required medical attention but were eventually repatriated.
While he believes that such a service is essential here, he is aware of the bad reputation of the "repatriation market", with some migrant worker advocacy groups here accusing agents of thuggery and violence.
Says Mr Ravinthiran: "I blame some companies that mislead workers who refuse to be repatriated. They tell the workers that they will hire 'gangsters' to change their minds."
When asked about the accusations by some groups here that his crew sometimes gets physical with foreign workers, Mr Ravinthiran claims that they do not use any violence or force.
If a worker attempts to flee, repatriation agents will not fight him or force him into submission, he says.
Mr Ravinthiran insists: "We simply hand the case over to the authorities."
According to him, his agents need to build a rapport with the worker and explain the situation and the consequences of overstaying in Singapore without a valid permit, which is a crime.
"Even if we take them to the airport, they might still choose not to board the plane (since the agents don't follow them past immigration). One worker actually stayed in the transit area for days after missing his flight."
He is aware of the many issues, such as non-payment of salaries or work injury claims, between foreign workers and their former employers.
In such cases, he has the right to reject jobs from such employers, or refer individual cases to the Manpower Ministry or the police.
"If there are any disputes, we go to the authorities and listen to them before we repatriate the workers. We do so only if the workers do not have any valid grounds to remain in Singapore," he says.
And he adds: "I cannot be the one to decide who is right and who is wrong. That is not our job to decide."
SECRETS OF THE TRADE
1 Keep the workers in the loop. It is important to explain to them why they are being sent home, as they may not fully understand the reasons for their repatriation.
2 Some workers will scold you or start fights with you. Be patient and know that the police are on hand to help out.
3 Be well-connected with the foreign worker communities here. It is easier to gain rapport with a worker if you know his friend.
A long walk of shame for these foreign workers
Losing your job is probably one of the most stressful situations you could face in your life.
It can also be humiliating.
Remember the walk of shame often portrayed in movies when someone gets fired and security guards escort the person out as he holds his cardboard box of personal things?
When foreign workers get repatriated, they, too, get their walk of shame.
The difference is that foreign workers can't simply walk out of a building.
Their walk of shame lasts for six to eight hours as they pack their things and leave the country under the close watch of repatriation agents.
While I cannot say much about the hospitality of Mr Ravinthiran and his agents, it cannot be an easy feeling to be watched over.
Not to mention the looming doom of financial ruin, as many foreign workers who come to Singapore have paid dearly in advance to employment agencies in their home countries, with fees ranging from $8,000 to $20,000.
When we walked into Mr Ravinthiran's office two weeks ago, we saw a Bangladeshi worker sobbing silently to himself.
He was to be repatriated that day due to a salary dispute with his former employer that led to his work permit being cancelled.
Few things are as heartrending as seeing desperation drive a grown man to tears.
In this worker's case, he claimed he had paid $9,000 to the agent, after borrowing the sum from his family.
Optimistic that he had a future in Singapore, he thought he would be able to earn it all back.
But he claimed that in the six months he was here, he earned only around $5,000 - not enough to cover his losses.
"I don't know what to do when I go home," he tells me.
If workers don't earn enough while they are here, they face immense financial pressures when they get home.
Add to that the humiliation of being "escorted" out of the country by Mr Ravinthiran's agents, and it is no wonder that workers who are being repatriated do their utmost to make his job difficult.