‘We almost had to pull him off the plane’

Posted by on August 3, 2011 in Articles, Stories

For months, Hafeez suffered in silence. His employer had deducted S$500 a month from his already pathetic wage of $22 a day working as a forklift driver and general labourer at a glass supply firm. Do a simple calculation: If he worked 30 days a month at $22 a day, he would have made only $660 a month. Deduct $500 from that and what’s left?

Yes, he had some overtime, for which he was paid $4 an hour, but it did not add up to much.

Knowing few others except some other labourers from Bangladesh and with only a rudimentary grasp of English, Hafeez did not know who or where to turn to for help. He didn’t even know what the law said about deductions.

And then his contract ended and his Work Permit was cancelled. The employer arranged for an airticket home and told him to make his way to the airport on the assigned evening.

With 24 hours left in Singapore, he had one last chance to ask a question: Was it within his employer’s right to deduct that?

Did he have to go back to Bangladesh with nothing to show for his time in Singapore, nothing to feed his family with, nothing to help him pay off the debts he incurred to get the job in the first place? Like virtually all migrant workers in Singapore, he had to pay his recruiter upfront to get the job, about S$3,000 in his case.

How was he going to face his mother, wife, four daughters and a baby son who depended on him to survive? Wouldn’t unscrupulous debt collectors come after him once they hear he was back in the village?

* * * * *

And so on his penultimate evening in Singapore, with increasing desperation, he walked around Little India asking, of total strangers even, where he might get a little help. By sheer luck, someone pointed him to a restaurant that the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) was using as a soup kitchen to feed migrants who were out of work, out of money, abandoned or abused by their employers. Hafeez was one of about 250 men streaming in that evening. All of them with similar stories. Hafeez’s was not the most unusual.

But his was unusually urgent and so TWC2 Executive Committee member Debbie Fordyce and other volunteers swung into action, tired though they were from the endless flow of cases.

“We almost had to pull him off the plane,” Debbie said. “He was that close to being sent home without getting what was due to him.”

The phrasing might have been a tad dramatic, but indeed, part of the action took place at the airport the next evening. But let’s not run ahead of the story.

Immediately the following day (after Hafeez walked up to the soup kitchen), a volunteer accompanied him to the Ministry of Manpower where they consulted an officer. Hafeez informed them that the employer had been deducting from his salary to make up these amounts, totalling $4,200:

  • $3,500 for medical expenses,
  • $340 for the airfare back to Bangladesh
  • $360 being $30 deducted per month x 12 months.

(It wasn’t clear from Hafeez’s very basic English exactly what the last item — $30 a month — was for.)

The ministry official agreed that these would be illegal deductions. So, at the airport that evening, when the company representative attempted to pay him only $158.55 in wages, being the purported final amount net of these deductions, Hafeez refused to take the money. He even tore up the receipt that he was asked to sign. If he had signed it, it would have been acknowledgment that the $158.55 was all he was owed and nothing more.

The next day, he went back to the Ministry of Manpower to inform them that because he had not been paid what he was due, he had refused to board the plane. The ministry gave him an appointment date (4 May 2011) to discuss the matter.

In the meantime, Debbie spoke with the company representative, suggesting that they should pay him in full rather than let the matter become a subject of official investigation.

Falling ill three months into his contract

Apparently, Hafeez had fallen ill — it wasn’t a workplace injury, just a medical illness — about three months into his contract and had to be hospitalised for seven days. However, as stated clearly on the Ministry of Manpower’s website, employers are supposed to cover Work Permit holders’ medical costs via medical insurance, and not to deduct these costs from the employee:

When you employ a Foreign Worker in Singapore, it is your responsibility to:

Pay the medical care and hospitalisation expenses;

– Employers of Foreign Workers are required to purchase and maintain medical insurance for their workers.

– For medical insurance policies taken up or renewed on/or after 1 January 2010, the insurance coverage must be at least $15,000 per year for each worker’s inpatient care and day surgery during his/her stay in Singapore.

Source link.

Similarly, employers have to provide and pay for the eventual repatriation of the worker. Thus, airfare too cannot be deducted.

The sad thing is that Hafeez’s case is not unusual. Volunteers who have worked with migrant workers know only too well that such attempts by employers to rip off their workers are commonplace. They largely depend on workers’ ignorance about the law, lack of support network (so they don’t know where to get help) and perhaps the ministry’s rather relaxed attitude towards pro-active law enforcement to get away with it.

Happily resolved

Fortunately, in this case, the company came to its senses. They knew they were in the wrong. The possibility that the ministry would soon be asking them to explain themselves must have weighed heavily. Within a few days, they agreed to make full payment.

On Saturday, 23 April, Hafeez, once again accompanied by Debbie, went to the employer’s office. There he received from the company representative the full amount and a fresh airticket home. He then surprised her by giving in return a small gift of cookies in appreciation of the effort in sorting out the problem. She was caught off guard, but it was good that the gesture gave the matter a sweet ending.

That evening, Hafeez was at the airport again, this time furiously unlocking and rearranging his bags to satisfy weight limit regulations — another typical scene you’d see prior to flights to India and Bangladesh. He was very pleased to have that huge sum of money that he probably wouldn’t have been able to negotiate on his own.

But the question remains: How many others did not know where to get help?

(This is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared on Yawning Bread blog, here with permission from the author)

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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