Migrant worker activist made misleading, false public posts: MOM

A migrant worker who was active in local literary circles and founded two community groups here has left Singapore after his work permit expired and was not renewed.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Mr Zakir Hossain Khokan, 43, said he was told by his former employer that the work permit renewal system had initially reflected an "adverse record with a government agency".

He was later told that this was an administrative error and that his work permit was ineligible for renewal, he said.

Responding to media queries, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said it took into account various factors when assessing an applicant's suitability to work in Singapore and for work passes to be renewed. The ministry said that by Mr Zakir's own account, Singapore had allowed him to work here for 19 years.

"Through his time in Singapore, he has written often about migrant workers here. We renewed his work pass many times despite his activism and writings," MOM said.

"We draw the line, however, when public posts are misleading, false or deliberately provocative."

It cited a Facebook post that Mr Zakir made last October after a confrontation at Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory that drew riot police to the scene.

Police had responded to a call for assistance at the dormitory after a confrontation between workers and management over poor quality food and long delays in transporting workers with Covid-19 to recovery and healthcare facilities.

While Special Operations Command officers were on standby, the Ministry of Home Affairs said then that additional police units were not deployed and no arrests were made during the incident.

MOM said Mr Zakir had called migrant workers in Singapore "work slaves", and dormitories here "work camps", and had also alleged that soldiers and armoured vehicles had surrounded the dormitory.

"This was a false characterisation," MOM said. "There were no soldiers, let alone armoured vehicles, around." Mr Zakir had also signed off his post as from the "workers of Westlite Tukang", though he never lived there, MOM said.

The ministry added that Mr Zakir's statements could have incited migrant workers at the dormitory and elsewhere, inflamed their emotions and possibly caused incidents of public disorder.

The ministry said that while Mr Zakir had appealed the non-renewal of his work pass, his employer did not. The appeal was considered and MOM informed him that it was unsuccessful.

It added: "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. He cannot prolong his stay when he no longer has a job in Singapore. He has overstayed his welcome."

A former freelance journalist and poet, Mr Zakir returned to his home in Bangladesh on June 8 after working in Singapore's construction sector for nearly two decades.

During his time here, he founded literary interest group Migrant Writers of Singapore and started One Bag, One Book, a book-sharing project for foreign workers that later helped to distribute supplies to migrant workers living in dormitories when Covid-19 struck.

Mr Zakir took the first prize in 2014 and 2015 in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition organised by Banglar Kantha, a newspaper here for the Bangladeshi community.

He said in his Facebook post that he received notice from his employer's human resources department on May 24 that his work permit could not be renewed. Mr Zakir, who declined to name the employer, said: "It was so sudden and unexpected."

Appeals made on his behalf by several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals, including MP Louis Ng and former NMP Anthea Ong, were not successful. This is according to a letter seen by The Straits Times that was sent to Manpower Minister Tan See Leng.

Ms Ong, who met Mr Zakir five years ago at a community event by her social enterprise Hush TeaBar, told ST that he had approached her for help. She asked him to appeal directly to MOM and agreed to write to Dr Tan to outline Mr Zakir's contributions to the migrant worker community.

Ms Ong said that MOM has been doing good work in engaging NGOs and migrant workers since it set up a new division called the Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) Group in 2020 to care for migrant workers here.

"I hope this matter will not affect ACE's efforts or discourage our migrant brothers and sisters from coming forward to volunteer or create initiatives to support fellow migrant workers," Ms Ong said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2022, with the headline Migrant worker activist made misleading, false public posts: MOM. Subscribe