In Solidarity With Zakir Hossain

Artwork by Jasmin Orosa

Poet and activist Zakir Hossain Khokan was deported back to Bangladesh on 8 June. His work pass had expired and was deemed ineligible for renewal. Zakir is an important literary voice in the migrant community who has been outspoken about migrant well-being and human rights. He has organised numerous community-building initiatives over the past 19 years, such as the Migrant Writers of Singapore, International Migrant Literature Festival and One Bag, One Book. In today’s Attunement, we would like to express our solidarity with Zakir by highlighting the living and working conditions of migrant workers through their own voices, and NGOs' and journalists' reports. 


“On 2 June 2020, Singapore’s “circuit-breaker” ended, relieving the past two months’ movement controls. On the same day, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations were amended to confine migrant workers in their accommodation:

  • Outside work and essential appointments, migrant workers may only go out on “community visits” with an MOM-granted “exit pass” to pre-specified locations, or to the designated recreation centre. 
  • Punishments for breaching these rules are as harsh as work pass revocation and employment bans.

Separately, they also may not commute by public transport. 

The impact this has wreaked cannot be overstated. The prolonged confinement alone is damaging enough.  Even worse is the stark discrimination. From June 2020, migrant workers saw the rest of Singapore returning to normal―but no light in the tunnel for dormitory residents.  HOME repeatedly heard workers’ questions about the difference in treatment. The increasing lack of rational justification for the unequal rules compounded the sense of having no end in sight. As months turned into years, the workers’ desperation and distress wore down into rueful resignation.”

—HOME, Statement on Workers’ Movement Restrictions 

“While most of us feel like things might finally be going back to "normal", this is still not the case for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. What we're seeing now is the institutionalising of segregation. From 1 April, migrant workers will no longer need to apply for exit passes to go to recreation centres—spaces set up just for migrant workers—and they can also gather in groups of up to 10 within their dormitories. But quotas still remain in place if they want to "visit the community": 15,000 will be allowed on weekdays, 30,000 on weekends and public holidays. For perspective, 30,000 is around 10% of the number of migrant workers who have been largely confined to their dormitories for almost two years now.
98% of the migrant workers in dormitories have been vaccinated. The number of Covid cases in dormitories are lower than the number of cases that we are reporting outside the dormitories. Yet only a limited number of workers are allowed to "visit" the community, clear signalling that they are not seen as being part of the community. Apart from people incarcerated in our prisons, no other segment of the population is segregated from the rest in this way.” 

—We, The Citizens, Edging towards "normalcy"? Covid restrictions loosened 

“When a migrant worker comes to Singapore on a Work Pass, he has to pay around four to four-and-a-half lakh taka (US$5,500) to the agent for training, agent fee. How many years can it take to earn four to four-and-a-half lakh taka if you work for a salary of S$18 (US$13) per day? If you make the calculations, perhaps you can get the answer. Because they have come to the country after paying a lot of money, workers know that they will face financial difficulties if they return to the country. 

Day after day, it burns in the chest of the migrant like a smouldering fire. Neither can he return to his country, nor can he say anything to his company. In such a situation, he endures all the hardships in the face of false dreams on foreign lands, drenched in the sun and rain. We migrants want to be freed from such oppression.”

—Saif Tamal, from Saif’s journal

“Lorries are common modes of transportation in metropolitan Singapore for migrant workers. Often they are herded at the back of these vehicles sans seat belts or other safety precautions to protect them in the event of a collision. 

These ever-present threats of near misses—or actual accidents—have unfortunately become part and parcel of daily life for many migrant workers here in Singapore, building flats, MRT stations, and roads for the convenience of its citizens.

In interviews WIMBY held with migrant workers, many of them said that most lorry drivers are migrant workers who drive on top of their primary job. Coupled with the fact that there is often neither rest time between each driving job nor a restriction on the number of hours driving, drivers are frequently exhausted. 

Drivers also operate under high stress. Not only do they not get additional pay from driving, but they also risk having their pay docked if they are late. They are also made to foot the bill if they choose ERP routes over non-ERP routes.” 

—Rice Media, When Will We Start Ferrying Migrant Workers Like Human Beings?

“So we learned
Acute Pain meaning -
money more important than migrant workers life, migrant workers family.
Acute Pain meaning -
putting migrant workers on unsafe transport then saying shameless that the city is safe for all.
Acute Pain meaning -
company and state feed on each other.” 

—Zakir Hossain  

Me Migrant

Me migrant 
Live overseas 
Thousand thousand miles away 

Me migrant 
Beyond borders 
Mislaying smiles
Dawn to dusk then dawn again

Bearing sighs and a cry 
Inner heart 
Love, compassion, kindness 
Lose their meaning
Be careful: no one here 
And nobody
To see and know such pain

Me migrant 
Live outdoors 
Outside from you

—Md Mukul Hossine, transcreated by Cyril Wong, Me Migrant (2016)

Here is a list of resources and social media accounts to check out to get involved with the migrant community:

  • HOME - provides immediate crisis intervention as well as long-term support such as education and training to migrant workers who experience abuse and exploitation
  • @TWC2 - through ground research and engagement with policy makers and employers, TWC2 advocates a more enlightened policy framework for migrant labour in Singapore
  • One Bag, One Book - spread a reading culture among migrant workers living in Singapore by bringing books for them to read in their dorms
  • @Healthservesg - provision of holistic health and social care to disadvantaged migrant workers
  • @Itsrainingraincoats - integrate the migrant community through interactive activities, learning programs and welfare programmes
  • @Migrantxme - raise awareness about the migrant worker community among youths through experiential programmes and volunteer opportunities
  • @Migrantmutualaid - direct redistribution of resources to migrant workers who require financial assistance
  • @Migrant_workers_Singapore - showcases migrant talents and shared culture, founded by a community of migrant workers
  • @migrantwritersofsingapore - platforms migrant literature through numerous activities

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