Soman Murugappan worked hard for his diploma in electrical and electronics engineering, specialising in instrumentation and control. If he’s lucky, he’ll be getting a job as a cleaner.

The 26-year-old from Tamil Nadu, India, came to Singapore in early April 2012. He had been given a job with an airconditioning piping company. Things went smoothly and by the end of the first week, he had been issued his two-year S Pass and commenced work. Some days, he would be factory-based. Other days, he’d have to be on site for installation.

He had found the job via a friend. “He is working in the same company, and he arranged for me to join,” says Murugappan. “I paid him $5,500.”

At the time, it didn’t seem unreasonable to him since the salary shown on his In-principle Approval for an S Pass was $2,000 — which would be the salary declared by the employer to the Ministry of Manpower. This salary level is the threshold minimum to qualify for an S Pass. He should be able to recover that investment within a few months.

However, unlike Work Permit holders, Murugappan had to find and pay for his own accommodation and transport.

Pay Day end April, and trouble brewed. He was paid only a little over $1,100.

“My boss signed three salary vouchers. Two of them said my salary was $2,000. One of them said $1,350.” And then from $1,350, a portion was deducted because he hadn’t started work at the beginning of the month, thus leaving him with only around $1,100.

But what were the other two salary vouchers stating a salary of $2,000 for?

“I asked my boss why I get so little,” recalls Murugappan. “He said to me, ‘First, you work. I want to see your performance. After two or three months, depending on performance, I give you higher salary.'”

Rather than force the issue, the young man decided to be patient.

Each of the following months, the same thing happened. The office would prepare three salary vouchers with two of them stating a salary of $2,000, and a third one much lower. However, Murugappan, now getting suspicious, avoided countersigning any of the $2,000 vouchers. The salary automatically creditted into his bank account was also around $1,350 per month, though there was some variation from month to month.

By August, he was under severe pressure from the accountant to sign all the previous months’ vouchers. “One day the accountant called me and said, ‘Boss says if you don’t sign, he will cut your job.'” He was also told that failure to sign all vouchers for previous months would mean no salary at all for August. He succumbed.

Still unhappy, he went to see his boss a few days later. The boss was in no mood to negotiate, Murugappan says. “When I asked my boss [about the matter of salary], he said, “Cut work permit. No need to work here.'”

The threat was carried out on 10 September 2012. An administrative officer asked Murugappan to return the S Pass.

“So, I go to complain to MOM,” referring to the Ministry of Manpower.

Murugappan should have a good case because he has bank statements that showed the actual amounts he was paid.

However, investigations can take a long time, and having been underpaid, Murugappan does not have a lot of savings to fall back on. Fortunately, the ministry put him on their Temporary Job Scheme, under which he should be able to get a six-month unskilled job. The scheme helps workers with pending cases to tide things over. But he’s only allowed to take a cleaner’s job.

“They asked me to go back to MOM next Wednesday,” Murugappan tells Transient Workers Count Too. That’s the day when prospective employers will be at MOM looking for temporary workers, and he’ll have to try his best to strike a deal.

Given this experience, what advice does he have for others in India who want to work in Singapore?

“First, don’t give money to agent. Second, don’t trust anybody.”