By Seema Punwani

“I cannot go back! If I go back I die. I die”. Rahman keeps repeating in his broken English. His friend who is kindly acting as a translator tries to calm him down and entreats him to explain his predicament in detail.

And so begins Rahman’s story — sadly not very unlike many of the other foreign workers. They all come to Singapore to escape the poverty from their own country, hoping to earn money to support their families back home. Unlike many professionals who come here for a better life, career prospects, broadening horizons, these poor workers have none of those fancy aspirations. They just simply NEED the money.

So how does an illiterate worker who probably has no special skills come all the way from Bangladesh to Singapore?  Enter the Agent. This agent (and his Singapore-based counterpart) is a middleman between the worker in Bangladesh and the employer in Singapore. For a fee, he arranges for the worker to attend a skills training school. Rahman, for example, attended a one-month course on steel fitting so he could work in the construction industry.  The agent buys the air ticket and may (if the employer isn’t doing it) manage the work permit application, preparing all the necessary documents. Naturally this comes at a cost, after all, the agent is also running a business. However unlike head hunters who help professionals and get their commission from the employer, the agent gets his fee from the worker.

A gentle reminder here: this is the same worker who is living in the depths of poverty and a job abroad is his only means of survival. So the worker sells the rice paddy or the family cows, pawns heirloom jewelry or borrows from relatives the money he needs to pay the agent for the job. 

Workers come to Singapore with dreams in their eyes, but many quickly realise that it’s not what it’s cut out to be.

  • In most cases he shares a dorm with 15 to 20 other workers
  • His ‘training’ is almost irrelevant as the employer puts him on any job that is needed at that time on the site, soemtimes with little regard to the workers’ safety
  • He is expected to work for anything between 10 to 12 hours every day including weekends
  • And the most shocking of all, some men find their salary is not what was promised on their official documents

Rahman is facing all of the above issues and more. He is paid a daily rate of $19 a day. Let me repeat that. $19 a day. Cost of a meal and movie ticket for most of us. His overtime (OT) rate is $3.55 — which is accurate keeping in mind his daily rate, but the employer does not account all the overtime hours that Rahman puts in. He is asked to sign on time slips which show that he has worked only two hours of OT when in reality it was close to five. Rahman has had to work on Sundays but that never gets featured on paper.

Each time Rahman tried to talk to his “gangster boss” about the OT discrepancy, the standard reply was “If you create trouble, I shall send you back”. According to Rahman, two workers were sent back last month because they complained.

So let’s do some math here. He earned approximately $26 day (including the OT that employer is currently paying). If we assume that Rahman can save up to 70 percent as his accommodation  and meals are taken care of by the employer, that saving came to $18 a day.

$18 x 24 days a month= $432 savings per month

Remember the loan I mentioned earlier? The amount Rahman had to raise to pay the agent to get this awesome job? That amount which Rahman now needs to pay back is $10,500!

Which means Rahman needs to work relentlessly for TWO FULL YEARS before he can pay off the loan.  At the end of two years he will not have saved saved a single cent for himself or his family.

Now I understand why Rahman believes he will die if he has to go back merely nine months of arriving in Singapore.

However Rahman decided to bravely fight for his rights. He lodged a complaint with MOM over the under-declaration of overtime pay. Furious, the employer cancelled his work permit. MOM has provided him with a special pass under which he can stay in Singapore till his case comes up for appeal next week. In this time Rahman needs to find evidence of wrong doing, which is always tough, as it ultimately is the employer that controls the documentation. It’s highly unlikely that other workers will act as witnesses to this injustice as they too will be afraid of losing their jobs and being sent back as well.

So now Rahman’s fate hangs in balance. We fervently hope that he can convince the authorities of the wrong-doing and is permitted to get a new job in Singapore without having to go home. Once he goes home, he’d have to find another agent, and another few thousand dollars for another job.

We applaud Rahman’s courage. If more workers spoke out against the injustice meted out to them, there is hope that employers will fall in line. Here’s wishing Rahman and others like him win this battle against injustice.