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#SharifStays: An urgent update

A police investigation into harassment against a migrant worker and his former employer has concluded. The police were unable to find the harasser, but also found no evidence of wrongdoing on Sharif's part. So why does he have to be kicked out of Singapore?

In early April I sent out this special issue about the serious and unfair predicament Uddin MD Sharif—a 46-year-old migrant worker, poet, writer and activist—had been put in after he and his employer became victims of a harasser claiming that he owed money to loan sharks. Because of this harassment, his employer decided to sack him, supposedly “under police and MOM advice”.

“This is totally unfair”: Uddin MD Sharif’s precarious situation
In a termination notice given to Uddin MD Sharif—a poet and writer who has been a migrant worker in Singapore for 16 years—his employer says that the Ministry of Manpower and police advised them to sack him even though he and his company have been on the receiving end of harassment.

Click to read the special issue sent out on 3 April 2024.

For a migrant worker, termination means losing his work permit and therefore his ability to remain in Singapore. Although Sharif managed to find another company willing to hire him, that opportunity fell through when the harassment mysteriously followed through to that employer.

As the clock ticked down to the day Sharif would have to leave the country, the #SharifStays campaign led by Workers Make Possible gained momentum and generated outcry over the way Singapore was treating a worker who has made significant contributions not just to our physical landscape, but also our literary and civil society scenes. A joint Singapore Police Force and Ministry of Manpower statement, published on Facebook on 6 April, denied that MOM had advised the employer to fire Sharif, but admitted that, when the employer’s daughter sought help from the Geylang Neighbourhood Police Centre, “The [on-duty] officer, out of concern for her family’s and her well-being, also advised her generally that harassment would usually stop after the work pass of a foreign worker being harassed had been cancelled, and the worker no longer worked for the employer.” The police and MOM agreed to let Sharif stay in the country on a Special Pass until investigations into the harassment were concluded.

Sharif was allowed on to the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS)—which lets migrant workers seek employment while assisting in investigations—and says he’d also been told that he could continue to work in Singapore after investigations were concluded. But he says he was never given the official documentation he needed; he told me that he’d managed to find a company, but they ultimately rejected him as his Special Pass did not explicitly state that he was allowed to work on TJS. A joint statement from SPF and MOM, published on Facebook on 28 May, said that “an email was also sent to him to confirm his eligibility to work”, that he’d been linked up with employment agencies and that he “declined job offers for non-construction roles”. (In response, Sharif told me that this non-construction job had been to package food in a cold room; he’d been concerned that he wouldn’t physically be able to work in such chilly conditions, which was why he’d expressed a preference for construction work that he’s already performed for over a decade and is more used to.) He has remained unemployed for the past month-and-a-half, assisting in police investigations that he says involved probing into his personal finances and asking questions about whether he’d ever visited casinos or had a girlfriend while in Singapore.

Police investigations came to end this month. Although the results of said investigation leave much to be desired—the harasser was neither identified nor found—SPF and MOM’s joint statement said that the police “have not found any evidence to suggest that Mr Sharif had borrowed from [unlicensed moneylenders]”. This should clear Sharif of any wrongdoing, affirming that he has indeed been a victim of harassment—yet he’s been informed that he’ll be sent back to Bangladesh anyway.

From SPF and MOM’s joint statement:

As the Police’s investigations have concluded, Mr Sharif was told on 23 May 2024 that he was no longer required to remain in Singapore to assist in investigations. Mr Sharif’s Special Pass, which had been due to expire on 24 May 2024, was extended to 27 May 2024 to give him time to make departure arrangements. This is aligned with the usual approach taken in such cases. Mr Sharif then requested additional time beyond 27 May to make the arrangements. The authorities acceded to his request for a further extension of his Special Pass to 31 May 2024, given the circumstances of his case.

The question is: Why is this “the usual approach taken in such cases”? If a migrant worker like Sharif gets embroiled in a police investigation through no fault of his own—indeed, he was the victim in this case—why should he be repatriated once investigations are ended? In a case where the perpetrator wasn’t even found, why should the victim be the one to lose his job and be kicked out of the country? Does this sort of thing happen to anyone else in Singapore, or does it happen only to migrant workers because they’re so systemically disempowered and deportable?

Once sent back to Bangladesh, returning to Singapore would require Sharif to fork out a hefty sum in agent’s fees again. (Click here to read a 2020 report by Transient Workers Count Too about recruitment fees.) Many migrant workers and their families go into debt to cover this cost. Why should Sharif and his family have to go through this ordeal when he didn’t do anything wrong and could simply remain in Singapore, where he’s already lived for many years?

This episode further emphasises how vulnerable migrant workers are in Singapore: someone decided to harass Sharif’s employer, making false claims about him borrowing money illegally, and now he’s lost his job and is about to be repatriated. Meanwhile, the police were unable to find the harasser, and therefore this person suffers no consequences. This is a loophole that could be weaponised by anyone who has beef with a migrant worker. Sharif worked as a safety coordinator on construction sites in our city, but when push came to shove, Singapore has failed to safeguard him and his livelihood.

By the time you read this, Sharif has less than 12 hours left in Singapore—he’s been booked on to a 5am flight tomorrow (31 May). But there's one last glimmer of hope: last night, he visited Lawrence Wong’s Meet-the-People Session with two Singaporean friends. As a migrant worker with no political rights in Singapore, he wasn’t allowed to speak to our new prime minister face-to-face; the two Singaporeans went in to speak for him and deliver the letter he’d written.

Sharif writes on Facebook:

After hearing my friends out, the PM immediately said he will write a letter to ICA the same night, asking them to extend my stay in Singapore so I am able to find a job. He told my friends he had read about my case in the news. He also received my letter and books from them.

In his first speech after being sworn-in as prime minister, Lawrence Wong reiterated his commitment to “values that forged our nation”: “incorruptibility, meritocracy, multiracialism, justice and equality”. He spoke of how Singapore has “ensured that every community, every religion and every linguistic group, big or small, feels: Included, respected and valued”. He talked about a “refreshed Singapore Dream” that will “share the benefits of progress with all, not just some; to uplift all Singaporeans, not just a few”.

He was mainly addressing citizens in this speech, but in this changing Singapore we’re also seeing greater awareness, care and solidarity extended to non-citizens who have made huge contributions to this country. Singaporeans are increasingly seeing the connections between our lives and that of migrant workers. Our city would grind to a halt without them: they clean our streets, maintain our HDB estates, build our homes, schools, hospitals, malls and offices. Landmarks like Changi Jewel, Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay—spectacles that foreigners admire and Singaporeans brag about—stand tall today because of their back-breaking labour. No Singapore Dream can exist without workers like Sharif. What Wong does here with regard to Sharif’s case will be one indicator of the sort of Singapore we will be under his leadership.

Time is running out for Sharif to find out if he has to get on that plane just before dawn tomorrow. As of the time of writing, there's been no update about Wong’s appeal.

I sent in the following questions to the Ministry of Manpower yesterday:

Apart from some automated 'out of office' responses from some MOM comms officers, I have not received a response to any of these questions.

At about 4:30pm today I sent another email to the head and deputy head of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s Corporate Communications & Service Division (Strategic Communications & Media Relations Branch) as well as everyone listed in the Ministry of Manpower’s Communications and Engagement Department (Media Communications) on the Singapore Government Directory (SGDI). Highlighting the urgency of my enquiry, I asked for ICA and MOM’s response to PM Wong’s appeal, and whether Sharif will be allowed to remain in Singapore. I also tried dialling all the phone numbers listed on SGDI for these officers: neither of the two ICA officers answered their phones, and majority of the numbers listed for the MOM comms officers led to error messages where an automated voice informed me that “the number is incorrect, please check and dial again”. One MOM officer’s automated email response said, “I am away. For urgent matters, please text/ call me.” However, this 'out of office' reply did not list a working phone number.

Given the urgency of Sharif’s situation, I’m sending out this special issue anyway, and will update again if I receive any response from ICA or MOM.

Special issues are usually only emailed to Milo Peng Funders and might also be paywalled. Given that this is an urgent case, I'm not putting up a paywall, and am emailing this to everyone on the list—feel free to forward or share this email!

Sharif also spoke in an Instagram Live on Workers Make Possible's page on 28 May. You can watch it here:

Workers Make Possible on Instagram: ”#SharifStays : Live interview 2 days before deportation date”
129 likes, 2 comments - workersmakepossible on May 28, 2024: ”#SharifStays : Live interview 2 days before deportation date”.