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MOM says migrant worker Zakir Hossain 'overstayed welcome', cites 'false' public post in decision not to renew work pass

SINGAPORE — A migrant worker who had been working in Singapore for 19 years and had written often about the plight of his fellow foreign workers had “overstayed his welcome”, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Wednesday (June 22).
MOM says migrant worker Zakir Hossain 'overstayed welcome', cites 'false' public post in decision not to renew work pass
Mr Zakir Hossain (pictured) went online to talk about how he was abruptly sent home.
  • Bangladeshi migrant worker Zakir Hossain said he had been sent home abruptly after he was unable to renew his work permit
  • He said no proper explanation was given as to why the system stated that he had an "adverse record"
  • This is a term indicating that a worker had run afoul with the law or manpower regulations
  • Mr Zakir guessed that he was not allowed to continue working here due to his activism work
  • MOM said the worker had "overstayed his welcome", and cited "false" public posts in deciding not to renew his work permit

SINGAPORE — A migrant worker who had been working in Singapore for 19 years and had written often about the plight of his fellow foreign workers had “overstayed his welcome”, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Wednesday (June 22).

Responding to media queries, MOM said that Mr Zakir Hossain's work pass had been renewed many times "despite his activism". It added that "we draw the line, however, when public posts are misleading, false or deliberately provocative".

It referred to an online post made by the worker on Oct 16, 2021, where he called migrant workers here “work slaves” and alleged that soldiers and armoured vehicles had surrounded a dormitory called Westlite Tukang. MOM said that it was a "false characterisation" of what had happened.

The ministry said this after the Bangladeshi had taken to Facebook to talk about how he was abruptly sent home. He said that his work permit had expired and been deemed “ineligible” for renewal, with no clear explanation from the authorities.

On the migrant worker issues that he had raised, Mr Zakir said that these were "not new; the pandemic was a catalyst which sparked many to speak about social issues, migrants or locals alike".

"I only raised these issues because I saw them happening around me and it was unbearable," the 42-year-old said.

Mr Zakir had grown in prominence for speaking about issues faced by the migrant community here through his poetry and writing.

In 2015, his poem about migrant life and how he misses his wife and children won first prize in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. That was his second victory in the competition, having also won the inaugural edition in 2014.

On Wednesday, Mr Zakir wrote that he was informed by his company that his work permit could not be renewed, after it expired on May 24 this year.

"The system stated, 'This worker has an adverse record with a government agency'," Mr Zakir wrote, without specifying which system that was.

He referred to a parliamentary reply in August 2018 by then Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who said that a migrant worker may have an adverse record if he "committed an offence under Singapore laws or was found to have infringed MOM’s regulations".

Mr Zakir said on Wednesday that after follow-ups at the Police Cantonment Complex and with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), he was informed that no such record was found.

The most recent reply from MOM was that the status was due to an “administrative error” and that it should have just been reflected as “ineligible”, he added. This followed a closed door discussion between Manpower Minister Tan See Leng and an unnamed individual helping him with the situation.

No further explanation was given to him, Mr Zakir told TODAY. He left for Bangladesh on June 8.

Singapore is my home away from home and I want her to do better as a country. I spoke up because I believe that conditions for migrant workers can improve in Singapore.
Mr Zakir Hossain

With no clear explanation offered, Mr Zakir said that his lobbying for equal treatment of migrant workers and raising of social issues were the only possibilities he could think of for the "adverse record".

He also wrote about how he was organising distribution of food and essential items to dormitory workers during the pandemic, including while he was hospitalised with Covid-19 symptoms.

"Singapore is my home away from home and I want her to do better as a country," he said.

"I spoke up because I believe that conditions for migrant workers can improve in Singapore. I love the country and I wanted Singapore to be the example for other countries to follow."

In its statement, MOM said that Mr Zakir’s appeal was considered and its unsuccessful outcome was relayed to him.

Referring to the Bangladeshi's post on the Westlite Tukang incident in October last year, MOM said that there were no soldiers or armoured vehicles around the dormitory.

“Because of the situation at that time in the dormitory, police personnel were on standby nearby as a precautionary measure. They never surrounded the dormitory or engaged workers there.”

Media reports at the time carried pictures of police armoured vehicles outside the dorm.

After TODAY sought clarification from MOM on its statement on Wednesday, the ministry responded on Friday by pointing out last November's parliamentary response from Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Manpower.

Mr Zaqy said on Nov 1 that that the police were informed on Oct 13 that a group of workers at the dormitory were "behaving aggressively, with potential for violence".

He said patrol officers from Jurong Police Division were dispatched to the dormitory where they assessed that it was necessary to have other police units on standby, "in the event the situation became violent".

"Additional units were placed on standby. However, these additional units were not needed to be deployed. No arrests were made by the police during the incident," Mr Zaqy said then.

Mr Zakir's Facebook post, which was written in a poetry form and can still be viewed online, listed migrant workers' grievances during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The post was undersigned as “Workers from Westlite Jalan Tukang”, but MOM pointed out that Mr Zakir himself did not reside there.

“Mr Zakir’s false statements could have incited migrant workers at Westlite Tukang and elsewhere, inflamed their emotions and possibly caused incidents of public disorder,” the ministry said.

“Fortunately, the real residents of Westlite Tukang saw that MOM, the employer and the dorm operation were serious about addressing their problems and calmed down.”

The ministry also said that the authorities had “taken considerable pains” to safeguard the well-being of migrant workers during the pandemic.

It added that the ability of a foreigner to work in Singapore is not an entitlement. 

“Mr Zakir has been permitted to work in Singapore for a long time, though he was a long-time activist. His work pass has since expired,” MOM said.

“He cannot prolong his stay when he no longer has a job in Singapore. He has overstayed his welcome.”

RESPONSE TO MOM

Responding to MOM's statement on June 28, Mr Zakir said on his Facebook page that he has "never wished bad things for Singapore", and sought to make society richer with his actions. His October 2021 post was meant to highlight the plight of the workers in Westlite Jalan Tukang, he said.

It saddened him that MOM saw his efforts to speak up about migrant workers’ issues, as well as his participation in community initiatives, literary art festivals and workshops, as "activism" that MOM had to tolerate when they renewed his work permit previously, he added.

"I am worried that MOM’s statement sends a message to migrant workers still in Singapore that speaking out about workers’ issues is 'activism' that will be punished. I am concerned that this will make workers even more afraid to speak up, and to participate in public life in Singapore," said Mr Zakir.

Related topics

migrant worker Covid-19 dormitory MOM activist work permit Westlite Tukang

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